Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Special Collections Fossickings 6: Women of Flowers 1. Ellis Rowan 1848-1922

Colour plate from 1898 edition of "A Flower-Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand" by Mrs Rowan
Flower-painting has been described as “an intimate art” and perhaps that is one reason why it was considered a suitable occupation for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Or was it a tendency to see women as frail and delicate creatures like the flowers they painted? If this were so, then one remarkable botanical artist – though of diminutive and fragile appearance – flouted the stereotypes. Ellis Rowan’s self-description as a “flower-hunter” is some indication of her fearless nature and adventurous career – though ironically it was marriage, and the promptings of her husband Frederic, that propelled her into it.

The 1898 edition of A flower hunter in Queensland and New Zealand is a treasure of the North Queensland collection, containing many remarkable letters written during her early travels. She plunged into the tropical jungles with fascinated excitement, and described with relish a perilous night-time journey, in a sinking boat, down the Herbert River in flood, a hair-raising scramble down the cliffs of the Barron Gorge to gather a rare sundew and an unnervingly close encounter with a crocodile in the Bloomfield River. The library’s Shaw Collection also contains five works devoted to Ellis Rowan including one published for the 2002-2003 exhibition of her work at the National Library which houses nearly 1000 of her paintings, acquired after her death. Ellis Rowan became nationally and internationally renowned – botanist Von Mueller was a colleague and Queen Victoria purchased her work after a private meeting – and is fittingly described by Margaret Hazzard as “Australia’s brilliant daughter.”

The Shaw Collection which focuses on Australian art and culture, features four books about Ellis Rowan and two by her.  For access please contact the Special Collections Librarian.

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