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Archive for February, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

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Savour each scent and colour
Painting the landscape so
Radiantly rich
In the full raiment of spring.
Nature’s beauty pays homage to
Gaia, source of this bounty.

Searing heat of summer
Unbearable at daybreak, noon and evening,
Mocks our discomfort
Moment by sweltering moment.
Exhausted and lethargic we
Reproach this sultry season.

Autumn’s languidly lovely months
Unburden us from summer heat with
The familiar gold, crimson and russet hues.
Under our feet, the crunch of leaves
Moves us toward shorter, cooler days then
Nearly upon us, winter quietly beckons.

Wildly blowing gales of wind create
Ice encrusted trees, lakes and roadways.
Nothing else exists in this white landscape
Till at last a tepid sunlight announces
Each longer and brighter day
Returning us again to the cycle of the seasons.

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An aerial walkway stretches high above the rainforest. Its signpost cautions, ‘Only two persons at a time permitted on the third section.’ My partner, a strong climber, takes the lead. What a joy it is to move right among the trees, viewing their branches and leaves at this close range. We watch the first tree tops come into view then fall away. Stopping to rest, we pause for a cold drink before we press on. 

with a flash
of colour
the parrot that startles us
disappears
with the forest floor

Nearing the end of our climb the sky walk sways with each step. My hands ache from clutching the guide rail ropes as I glance far below through gaps in the boards under my feet. We finally reach the last viewing platform to gaze in wonder over the Lamington National Park. The rain forest canopy stretches far and wide like the rise and fall of a rolling sea of green. Overhead floats an open, endlessly blue sky.

high above
an eagle
surfs the thermal waves
gliding gracefully
winging free

 

 

            

 

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like a riverbank
I direct the currents and flow
of my life’s journey

 

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