Ellis Rowan: Plant Hunter

Plant hunters are the eccentric adventurers of our history. They’re the madcap ones, the self-styled Hemmingways who set out on plant collecting missions to exotic locales wearing khaki jodhpurs and safari hats, hell bent on fulfilling their own adventurous destinies and amassing hundreds of exotic plant species for prosperous (also often eccentric) sponsors, collectors, herbariums and botanic gardens along the way. Plant hunters almost always belong in stories played out well before our time, or at least well north of Australia. But the indomitable Ellis Rowan sidesteps all that.

Ellis Rowan (c. 1916–1917) 'Barringtonia sp. with Larva', Papua New Guinea. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Ellis Rowan was an Australian plant hunter from the late 1800s who careered across the world in search of exotic flowers to paint. Her chief mentor was Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, but her most ardent supporter was her husband, Captain Frederic Rowan, who championed her work and travels at a time when women were trained up to marry, serve and stay at home. In her lifetime Rowan made over 3,000 paintings of the natural world while travelling through Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, India, Europe, America, Cuba and deeply within Australia – for the most part solo.

Ellis Rowan was a household name in Australia in her heyday, prolific and celebrated as an artist and explorer. She exhibited widely and won gold medals for her work. From the start this caused upset amongst the ranks of male artists of the era, notably Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Norman Lindsay, who she repeatedly beat for formal accolades with her pictures of flowers. While their names remain vivid Rowan is now more a ghost, despite her remarkable style and exceptional life.

Marian Ellis Ryan was born to a successful pastoralist family in Melbourne in 1848. She was the eldest of seven children and within the family was called ‘Ellis’, perhaps because her mother was Marian too. Her father, Charles Ryan, was an Irishman who had come to Australia to try his luck as a farmer. Ellis spent her early years on a vast sheep and cattle station called Killeen, in Longwood, 150 kilometres north of Melbourne. When Ellis was six the family moved to Brighton, where she attended Miss Murphy’s School, and in the holidays returned to their property in the bush – which would become one of her compass points later in life.

Ellis’s first experience of overseas travel was to England in 1869, just before she turned twenty-one. She stayed with her mother’s side of the family there, visiting art galleries and most likely taking painting classes – although this was a topic she skirted around, claiming always to have been self-taught. Ellis returned to Australia in 1870, and two years later her father Charles bought a property high up on Mount Macedon, which he called Derriweit Heights. His vision was to create a home and garden full of European flowers in the middle of the cool, eucalypt-covered mountains. For this he recruited the help of Baron von Mueller and, controversially, von Mueller’s replacement in the role of director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the ‘master of landscaping’ William Guilfoyle. Over the years, Ryan would spend the equivalent of $2 million on the garden alone!

Ellis Rowan painting Mary Moule, with Ellis's son Puck (1887). Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Ellis Rowan (1916) 'Callicarpa longifolia', Papua New Guinea. Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Ellis Rowan (1911) 'Nymphaea gigantea and cyperus sp'. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Ellis was included in her father’s garden design team, and it was here she met her mentor, von Mueller. He was in the midst of writing a book on Australian flowering plants and Ellis had begun painting flowers, which was then considered an acceptable pastime for women. Von Mueller saw her talent and interest in botany, and invited Ellis to be part of his so-called army of collectors and artists, assisting him in compiling plant specimens and illustrations for his book. With this connection, she was to take the “genteel female pastime of flower painting into an adventurous and profitable career that took her all over the world” as curator Dr Judith McKay has said.

Ellis’s recruitment into the Baron’s army of flower collectors as to be a turning point in her life, for it set her path into the future. Without the relationship with von Mueller, Ellis may have remained little more than an enthusiastic amateur. In a world where women could achieve very little without the patronage of a man, he would become her first mentor, and through him she was to gain the credibility and connections that would open many doors for her.” (Morton-Evans, 2009)

It was around this time that two other celestial-type events happened in Ellis’s life: first, she won recognition as an artist, with a bronze medal for four panels of Australian wildflowers at the Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne; and second, she met her future husband, British Army Officer Captain Frederic Rowan, a scarred but valiant man who carried facial injuries from a musket ball wound suffered while he was fighting in the New Zealand conflicts of 1868. Frederic was introduced to Charles Ryan at the Melbourne Club in 1873, while on leave from the New Zealand Armed Constabulary and, impressed, Charles in turn introduced Frederic to his daughters. Ellis and Frederic hit it off, were engaged in June of the same year and married in October. Their speed was an indicator of enthusiasm but also compulsion: Frederic was due back to his post in the North Island of New Zealand and that’s where they went in December 1873.

New Zealand is where Ellis began painting native flora in earnest. She told the New York Times in 1898: “My husband, who was very fond of botany, proposed that I take up painting. So I did, and every day I painted for two hours, but I hated it. My husband was a hard taskmaster, for he was very critical. The tears would roll down my cheeks as I worked. But he would say, ‘Never mind, little woman, you will conquer it.’” Today her recollections read like a convenient script for a woman with her own ambitions at the turn of the twentieth century, and it’s now very clear that painting and adventure, rather than duty, would propel most of her future decisions.

Ellis returned to Australia in 1875, pregnant with her only child, Puck, and shortly afterwards returned to New Zealand. Two years later the Rowan family moved back to Melbourne for good, settling into a home on Punt Road, South Yarra. Frederic pursued business interests in the field of new technologies (electricity and telegraphs) and Ellis accompanied him on travels across Australia: watercolours, gouache, paper and paintbrushes taking up room next to the full-length skirts and high-necked blouses in her suitcase.

To look at, Ellis was a remarkable person. Her contemporary, Marianne North, an English biologist and botanical artist, described her as “a very pretty fairy-like woman, always over-dressed, and afraid to go out of the house because people stared at her. I admired her for her genius and prettiness: she was like a charming spoiled child.” In the handful of grainy Victorian photographs that exist Ellis looks like a wisp with a cinched waist and striking eyes. The National Gallery of Australia has said: “Through all her adventures, she wore the fashion of the day, full floor-length skirts, high necked long-sleeved blouses cinched into an eighteen-inch waistband, gloves, hat and umbrella crooked over her arm.” She would have cut an ethereal figure as she pushed her way through the far north of Queensland and across the remote mining towns of New South Wales.

Ellis Rowan (1916) 'Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)', Papua New Guinea. Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Ellis Rowan (1916) 'Atractocarpus benthamianus', Papua New Guinea. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Ellis won her first gold medal for painting at Melbourne’s International Exhibition in 1880. It was a time of prosperity in the fledging state of Victoria and its ‘richness’ was channelled into and celebrated with the first official World’s Fair held in the southern hemisphere. The Royal Exhibition Building on Nicholson Street was custom-built for the event, and Ellis submitted eighteen works in the watercolour section. Nearly 1.5 million people visited the exhibition over the course of six months and Ellis’s works were immediate crowd-pleasers. The judges awarded her a gold medal for a screen of lilies on satin, and a special merit for ten framed paintings of New Zealand wildflowers. This recognition caused the first of many public controversies in Ellis’s life: the Victorian Academy of Arts, led by Louis Buvelot, challenged the decision. Who was this lady exhibitor with her whimsical flower paintings, winning fine arts awards? On review, the judges maintained Ellis’s prizes and appeased Buvelot by awarding him a gold medal for his oil painting of an Australian landscape.

It has been the ambition of my life to make a perfect collection of Australian flower pictures, and I’m ready to go right to the ends of the country into the byways and mountains and deserts so that I may achieve my purpose,” Rowan told a correspondent for Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner newspaper in 1906.

Ellis travelled extensively after her successes at Melbourne’s International Fair. Between 1880 and 1890, she painted wild flowers in Western Australia with Marianne North; visited India, Ceylon and Europe with her sister Blanche, exhibiting works and picking up two gold medals (in Calcutta and St Petersburg) and one silver (in Amsterdam) on the way; made her first flower painting trip to Queensland for the winter (citing weak lungs); had over 100 flower pictures published in the book Australasia Illustrated; visited Western Australia on a painting tour for the second time; and won gold for her collective exhibits and a first prize for Chrysanthemums at Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition in 1888.

Ellis’s celebrated painting Chrysanthemums (1888) is oil on canvas, measuring 119.5 by 91.5 centimetres, a significant size compared with many of her other works. It depicts a generous basketful of chrysanthemums – white, pink, red and yellow – set against a golden blue sky, although the focus is completely on the flowers. Her brushstrokes create superb movement and texture between the petals, which are vivid in reproduction and doubtlessly remarkable in real life. The piece came up for auction at Christie’s in Melbourne in 1989 – one hundred years after it was painted – and sold for $88,000. It is now held in a private collection in Sydney.

Ellis Rowan (1880s) 'Boronia serrulata', New South Wales. Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Ellis Rowan (1880s) 'Diplanchea tetraphylla, Golden bouquet tree', Queensland. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

The flower hunter shared stories of her exploits with the Australian public in newspaper and magazine columns. She was a regular correspondent for The Town and Country Journal over the years and in 1890 some anecdotes from her flower tour of Western Australia were featured: “The flowers around Perth satisfied me for a time,” she wrote. “But each day brought fresh rumours of glorious northern ones; and we finally started at 8 o’clock one wet Sunday night for Carnarvon, with goggles, veils, mosquito nets, and innumerable other preservatives.” Ellis and her friend Lady Margaret Forrest (an accomplished flower painter and horsewoman herself) voyaged north to Carnarvon on a steamer, passing pearling and oyster boats: “Some of the gentlemen we knew on board formed a “oyster syndicate” and bought a bag … we made a good honest meal of them.”

During 1892 Ellis spent months travelling north of Rockhampton, through Mackay and Cooktown to Thursday Island, Murray Island in the Torres Strait and up to the coast of Papua New Guinea. “There are still stories told of her hazardous journeys in North Queensland, including adventures on crocodile-infested rivers, to obtain rare specimens for her tireless brush,” wrote the Daily Mercury, reflecting upon these travels in 1945. On Murray Island, Ellis herself wrote of being captivated by the strong force of nature:

All nature seemed in revel in the exquisite beauty that she unfolded in never-ending blooms of bright colours and vivid contrasts… Every bird was singing, the air was full of scent and sound, bees hummed overhead and butterflies danced in the sunlight… There are days in our lives that we never forget, and I think this is one of them.”

She returned to Melbourne in early December 1892 jubilant, but the forces of nature struck again, this time horrendously. Only two days after her arrival, Frederic died from acute pneumonia at the age of 47. He had fallen on financially hard times, which Ellis may not have known about, and there was nothing left for Ellis or Puck. She moved back to the family home at Derriweit, and wore mourning black for the rest of her life.

But she eventually took back up her “tireless brush”. In 1893, she made a pilgrimage to New Zealand, revisiting the early days of her marriage, and her stories and sketches of her travels were published in The Town and Country Journal. In 1895 she went to London and received an audience with Queen Victoria, who kept three of Ellis’s works. On the back of this Ellis held a successful exhibition of 100 Australian wildflower paintings in Mayfair the next year. Afterwards she took a trans-Atlantic liner to New York. She would spend the next seven years in America, working alongside botanist Alice Lounsberry. They travelled through the country, plant hunting and painting, and produced three books together: Guide to the Wild Flowers (1899), A Guide to the Trees (1900) and Southern Wild Flowers and Trees (1901).

Ellis Rowan (1887) 'Barringtonia racemosa', Queensland. Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Ellis Rowan (1887) 'Bauhinia monandra', Queensland. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

It was on expedition in North Carolina in the spring of 1898 that Ellis learned Puck had passed away some months earlier in Zimbabwe, aged 22. What he was doing in Africa is unclear, but it is known he died in jail. The same year Ellis’s father Charles died. These significant personal losses must have taken a deep toll, but Ellis pushed on with her work. She had a facelift, a new and radical procedure, dyed her hair bright red and exhibited a collection of 500 paintings of wildflowers in New York during 1902. She returned to Melbourne, and established her permanent base there, sometime between 1904 and 1906.

Looking now, Ellis’s work has striking Victorian beauty but seems vastly different to contemporary botanical art. “Though Ellis Rowan placed artistic effect over scientific record, the subjects of her paintings are accurate enough to be readily identified,” explains curator Dr McKay. “Throughout her career she called on botanists to identify her subjects, sometimes sending specimens as proof.” Her adventures did not stop, and in 1906 she travelled to Broken Hill to see and paint the Sturt Desert Pea growing in its natural habitat. She charmed a reporter from the Barrier Miner there, who wrote profusely after meeting her:

Here was a woman, a woman, mind you, so saturated with enthusiasm that she had elected to travel the Australian continent, study the flora of the Commonwealth as an artiste, and, having learned the flower language of this strange land, record the colour words and leave them as a dictionary to those who would come after her.”

Ellis’s ambition was for her Australian wildflower paintings to be placed together in an Australian gallery. The federal government did purchase a collection of 970 paintings after Ellis’ death, and the National Library of Australia holds them now. The National Gallery of Victoria has only five of her works (four of them bird studies), but the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Powerhouse Museum and Queensland Museum all have significant collections. “I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the continent, and the world over besides,” Ellis said of her life, “and all to paint some flowers.”

Further reading:

HJ Samuel, ‘Wild Flower Hunter’ (1961), Constable & Co.

Patricia Fullerton, ‘The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan’ (2002), National Library of Australia.

Christine and Michael Morton-Evans, ‘The Flower Hunter: The remarkable life of Ellis Rowan’ (2009), National Library of Australia.

Main picture:

Ellis Rowan (c 1880s) ‘Fringe water lilies, Lemnanthemum indicum, Lemnanthemum crinatum’. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Ellis Rowan (1880) 'Podolepis jaceoides, showy copper-wire daisy, Argentipallium obtusifolium, Leucochrysum albicans, Craspedia glauca, family Asteraceae', New South Wales. Courtesy National Library of Australia.