Marian Ellis Rowan, artist, naturalist and explorer, (1848 – 1922) was born in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up with her family in Mt Macedon where she enjoyed life in their large, comfortable home set in a spectacular 26 acre garden. A family friend, Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist of Victoria, designed the garden for her father.
Always known as Ellis, a love of nature and artistic talent was inherited from her grandfather, John Cotton, who wrote and illustrated two books on British birds. Yet despite a fine education, Ellis received no formal training in art. It was only through the encouragement of her English relatives that Ellis continued to paint wild flowers―a genre that brought her lasting fame.
To produce her paintings, Ellis frequently used gouache with its quick drying water-based opaque colours. Genuine water-based gouache has been in use since ancient times. Now packaged in tubes like oil paints, gouache can be diluted with water to create translucent effects, such as those used by Ellis to enhance the background of her paintings. It also lends itself to applying fields of vibrant colour. This medium suits the fine, precisely detailed painting so necessary for botanical art. Mixed with just enough water on the palette, gouache can also be re-wetted for use when required, making it practical and affordable.
Her choice of grey-coloured quality drawing paper allowed for fast drying, so she could paint quickly. No initial drawings were implemented as Ellis painted directly onto the paper. Her finished work was balanced, compositionally strong and carefully rendered. She frequently signed her name with a fine brush, at the bottom of the paper.
From 1879 to 1893 Ellis worked continuously; exhibiting in Australia, India, England, Europe and the United States. Her paintings received many awards and in 1888, at Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition, she carried off the gold medal, its highest honour. Her male counterparts, among them Tom Roberts, openly voiced their criticisms in the press by ridiculing her floral paintings as being vulgar and trite. An undercurrent of this theme―that only inferior art is produced by women―continued throughout most of her lifetime.
After her husband’s death from pneumonia in 1892, Ellis became a woman of means and was rarely found in Australia. A two-year stay in England brought swift fame when Queen Victoria accepted several of her paintings. Ellis illustrated three botanical texts for Alice Lounsberry, and wrote her first book, Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand. Many of her floral compositions were copied by the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company onto porcelain and fine china for the Australian market. England had welcomed and embraced her warmly.
Her paintings with their strong composition, vibrant colours and softer landscape backgrounds were also botanically accurate. This was noted by the botanist, Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, who classified and named many previously unidentified Australian native plants from her paintings. Publishing his findings signified the importance of her careful and detailed work.
By age 70, her health was broken from severe exhaustion and malaria, probably contracted during her last two visits to Papua and New Guinea. Returning home in 1920 Ellis curated her final exhibition of paintings in Sydney. 1000 paintings were displayed; to that time it was the largest collection exhibited in Australia. She returned to her original family home and beautiful garden in Mt Macedon where she died on 4th October, 1922.
The Rowan collection is held at the National Library of Australia―together with her portrait painted posthumously in 1926―by Sir John Longstaff. Through her life-long labour of love, Ellis Rowan has enriched our lives by enabling us to appreciate the beauty and inspiration found in the natural world around us.
Illustrations: Giant Water Lily, Flame Azalea and Ulysses Butterflies, courtesy of the State Library of Queensland