Ellis Rowan (1842 - 1922)

Rowan was an artist, naturalist and explorer, was born on 30 July 1848 in Melbourne, first child of Charles Ryan of Kilfera station, Port Phillip District, and his wife Marian, née Cotton. Her grandfather John Cotton had written and illustrated two books on English birds. Ellis attended a girls’ school at Brighton, Victoria, but had no formal training in art. In 1869, however, she visited English relatives who advised her to continue painting wildflowers in her own style. On 23 October 1873 at St Stephen’s Church, Richmond, Melbourne, Ellis married Frederic Charles Rowan (1844-1892), a British army officer who had fought in the Taranaki wars, joining the New Zealand forces in 1866. She returned with him to Taranaki, where Rowan was a sub-inspector in the armed constabulary. There her son Eric (1875-1897) was born. Encouraged by her husband, Ellis Rowan continued to paint and exhibit her work. In 1877 they returned to Victoria where Frederic Rowan took up a business career, promoting a system of light railways based on one initiated by his father, engineer-in-chief to the Danish Railway Operating Co. in 1862-67. In 1882 Rowan became Australasian general manager of the Australasian Electric Light Power and Storage Co. Ltd of London, and also, later, managing director of the Australian Electric Co. of Victoria. In 1886 he was appointed consul-general for Denmark.

Ellis Rowan was a small, strong-willed yet fascinating woman, an enigmatic character who forged her way through life, captivating others while pursuing her ultimate goal—the finding and painting of wildflowers, birds, insects and butterflies of many countries, often for the first time. Many were classified and named by the government botanist Sir Ferdinand Mueller. In 1879-93 Ellis Rowan exhibited her work in international exhibitions in Australia, India, England, Europe and the United States of America and in that time was awarded 10 gold medals, 15 silver and 4 bronze. In 1888 at Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition she was awarded the highest honours. After the death of Frederic Rowan from pneumonia in 1892, Ellis was rarely in Australia; she travelled to New Zealand, London and the U.S.A., exhibiting her work as she went. Her London stay of two years brought swift fame—Queen Victoria accepted three of her paintings—and she wrote Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand (1898), an account of adventures based on letters to her husband and friends. While in America she illustrated three botanical texts for Alice Lounsberry.

Ellis returned to Australia in 1905-06 where she pursued her search to find and record every species of wildflower on the continent. The South Australian government purchased 100 of her paintings and Queensland 125. In 1916-18 she twice visited Papua and New Guinea, finding and illustrating many hitherto unclassified flowers and, on her second trip, searching for endangered birds of paradise. Travelling only with local guides and living in primitive conditions in unmapped territory, she succeeded in painting forty-seven of the fifty-two known species, setting the birds free afterwards. Aged 70, broken in health from malaria and fatigue she returned to Australia, and in 1920 held an exhibition of 1000 paintings in Sydney, the largest collection exhibited to that time in Australia. Next year, in response to pressure from women’s organizations, the Hughes government agreed to purchase the collection for the nation, but debate in Federal parliament over the price brought conflicting opinions. Ellis’s health deteriorated; and no decision had been reached by the time of her death at Macedon on 4 October 1922. She was buried with Anglican rites in Macedon cemetery.

In 1923 the Bruce-Page government, offered £5000 for 947 paintings. The Rowan collection is held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra,

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