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Biographical Notes

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Ellis Rowan by J.Longstaff 1926, NLA (Marian) Ellis Rowan (1848 - 1922)

Born in Melbourne, Vic., 30 July 1948; died at Macedon, Vic. 4 October 1922.

Ellis Rowan was one of Australia's most adventurous and talented natural history artists, specialising in flowers and birds, and occasionally insects.

The first child of Charles and Marian Ryan, Ellis grew up in Victoria in a family which had an appreciation of natural history, gardens and art. While living in New Zealand, she was encouraged by her husband, Frederic Charles Rowan, to develop skills as a 'wild flower' painter. Untrained, but talented and enthusiastic, she rapidly emerged as a competent artist and won important art prizes in Australia and overseas. This angered the purist art world which regarded her work as flower painting belonging in museums, not art galleries.

The reality is that her work crossed the boundaries between art and natural history illustration. Much of her work is of a very high standard in both these disciplines. Her studies of flowers, insects and birds were often set in context, with the environment being done in an impressionist style.

Ellis became obsessive about her work and her endeavours to find new subjects. Occasionally this took her into environments which were both difficult to get to and dangerous. Her working conditions in Western Australia and North Queensland were difficult; in New Guinea they were worse.

It is often overlooked that she also painted north American flora and illustrated a text-book on the flora of the USA.

In her own words:

" My love for the flora of Australia, at once so unique and so fascinating, together with my desire to complete my collection of floral paintings, has carried me into other colonies, Queensland and some of the remotest parts of the great Continent of Australia. The excitement of seeking and the delight of finding rare or even unknown specimens abundantly compensated me for all difficulties, fatigue and hardships. "

The bulk of her Australian and New Guinea collection is owned by the Australian Government and is housed in the National Library in Canberra. This fulfilled one of her dreams - to have the work available for the Australian people.

Examples of artwork:

Acacia pycnantha
Callistemon phoeniceus

Delarbrea michieana
Dendrobium smillieae
Deplanchea tetraphylla
Flindersia schottiana
Nymphaea gigantea
Olearia rudis
Pimelia physodes

Source: written by Rod Harvey pers com. 1994, interpretation for the 'Ellis Rowan Building', Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Born 30 July 1848; died 4 October 1922.

Born in Melbourne, the first child of a pastoralist, Charles Ryan, and Marian nee Cotton. Ellis was a self-taught wildflower artist. In 1873, she married a British army officer, Frederic Charles Rowan (1844-1892), and they had one son. The Rowans lived in New Zealand, 1873-1877, then returned to Vic. where Frederic Rowan took up a business career. Ellis exhibited her art in international exhibitions and won the highest award at the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, 1888. After her husband's death in 1892, she travelled widely in Australia and overseas and published Flower hunter in Qld and NZ (1898).

Ellis collected MEL specimens in NSW, 1880; in Vic. near Lake Hindmarsh, 1886, 1888; in Qld, 1887; Cape York, Cooktown, Jervis Island and Somerset, 1891; Thursday Island, 1892; and, in WA, at Perth, 1889.

Ellis died at Macedon in Vic. in 1922 in her 74th year.

Four letters survive from Mueller to Ellis, and one from Ellis to Mueller


Australian National Herbarium - updated 27 January, 2015 by webmaster (