Marian Ellis Rowan

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What's in a Name? by Bernard Fenessy, Volunteer Guide

In the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the office of the Friends of the Gardens is housed in the Ellis Rowan Building, named in honour of a famous Australian wildlife artist. In the Friends' Lounge there is a set of prints from some of her original paintings, including the Kangaroo Paw.

Marian Ellis Rowan (1848-1922) was born in Melbourne. She was always known as Ellis. Her lifelong interest in wildlife painting was probably influenced by family tradition, as her maternal grandfather, John Cotton, was an artist and a naturalist and had written two books on English birds.

Her father Charles Ryan and his family lived at Mt Macedon, Victoria, in a home set in a spectacular 26-acre (10.5 ha) garden which was designed with advice from family friend Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist of Victoria. Ellis returned here regularly after her marriage in 1873 to Frederic Charles Rowan, and was living here at the time of her death.

Her husband was a British army officer who had fought in the Maori wars in New Zealand and later became a businessman in Melbourne. He encouraged Ellis to continue her wildlife paintings and to exhibit them.

An important botanical mentor and role model was the English flower painter and world traveller, Marianne North, whom the Ryans had met at Albany, W.A. She inspired in Ellis an ambition "to travel the world in search of flowers rare and wonderful". Ellis proposed to do this by painting from life to show flowers in their natural habitat. She embarked on a succession of major field trips. In 1887, for example, at the age of 39, she set out on an ambitious scheme to illustrate the flora of Queensland!

After the death of her husband in 1892, Ellis Rowan did much travelling overseas, including to New Zealand, London and the USA During her London stay of two years, three of her paintings were accepted by Queen Victoria, and Ellis wrote A Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand. In the early 1900's she returned to Australia to continue her project to find and record every species of wildflower on the continent. Her subjects included, in addition to wildflowers, birds and insects of many countries. She exhibited her work in Australia, India, England, Europe and the USA and she was awarded many prizes.

In 1916-18 she twice visited Papua and New Guinea, finding and illustrating many higher to unclassified flowers, and on her second trip, searching for endangered birds of paradise. She painted 47 of the 52 known species. Throughout her painting career she sent Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist in Victoria, drawings of the wildflowers she found, usually with samples of the flowers themselves. His annotations are to be found on the backs of many of her paintings.

Aged 70 and broken in health from malaria and fatigue, she returned to Australia and in 1920 held an exhibition of 1000 paintings in Sydney. The next year, in response to pressures from women's organisations, the Australian Government, under W.M. Hughes, agreed to purchase the collection. Argument in the Parliament about the price to be paid was still in progress when Ellis Rowan died in 1922. In 1923 the Bruce-Page Government bought 947 paintings for 5000 pounds. These paintings were possibly about one-third of her prodigious output.

The paintings are now in the National Library of Australia, Canberra. A selection of these has been published in Flower Paintings of Ellis Rowan by Helen Hewson (1982).

This is one of four What's in a Name? articles written by the late Bernard Fennessy about people after whom ANBG buildings and facilities have been named. The others are:

Originally published in the March 2002 Newsletter of the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens.