25 Mar 2010

Calling Aussie Fairy Lovers

I think I would have liked the artist Ellis Rowan. Born in 1847, she failed to be constrained by the nineteenth century conventions placed upon young gentlewomen of her time.

Like me she had a bad attack of the wanderlust, using the cold winters at the home in Victoria's Mount Macedon, as an (entirely plausible) excuse for gallivanting throughout Australia and New Guinea, and even as far as the United States. Many of the places she visited were remote, and she was often the only, or one of a very few, white women in the area. And wherever she travelled she painted.

Perhaps it is Charlotte Mason's influence upon my current life, but I find myself nodding with approval at stories depicting her scrambling up rocks by clinging to vines as she searched for flowers on Murray Island, North Queensland, leaving her party behind in her wake. She held huge tarantulas in her hand before painting them. Ugh. She had a total fascination with natural objects, and constantly searched for more and more colourful and unusual objects to paint.

In her book A Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand, she recounts the occasion when, while attempting to cross the Bloomfield River, south of Cooktown, she became trapped on a log by a rapidly rising tide. I dare say the crocodile circling her did not bring her much joy. She was finally rescued by Aborigines.

Oh yes, I would have liked Ellis Rowan very much indeed.

The National Library of Australia is home to more than 900 of Ellis Rowan's paintings, and in their new book, Fairy World, they have taken 11 of these and turned them into delightful fairy havens that introduce her floral depictions to a new generation of young Australians.

The YouTube video depicts the book in all its glory. On one side of the page is a description in rhyme about the plant on the other side. These include the Bumpy Satin Ash, the Pitcher Plant, the Red Flowering Gum and Sturt’s Desert Pea. Rowan's original paintings, have been altered to include a flap that can be raised to reveal a pretty fairy or cheeky elf hiding in the foliage. Cute. ‘Did you know’ fact boxes are also included about each of the plants.

I would love to do an artist study about Ellis Rowan for school. I may do just that, in fact, but until that time comes, I think this book is a super way to introduce my 8 year old fairy lover to the delights of this exquisite artist. Not that I think that the fairies add, mind you. Publishers nowadays fail to appreciate that a child could actually be interested in nature, flowers and art for their own sake. They seem to believe that an appreciation for our flora will never be acquired by mere observation, but rather has to be helped along by fairies and other methods designed by adults to awaken the child's otherwise deadened imagination. Yeah.

A child raised on a diet of living books, poetry, art and nature will enjoy this lovely book regardless of whether there are fairies hiding in the pictures or not. For the child that has not, the poetry and nature facts will probably fail to impress even with the distraction of the wee folk.

For me Ellis Rowan's pictures are enough. I will be purchasing this book for Jemimah as soon as the budget allows. I will also look for a copy of A Flower Hunter for me to read. In the mean time, I'll be getting my fix here in the Ellis Rowan pages of the National Library of Australia. Over 400 of her paintings have been digitised, and can be viewed on the Library’s Pictures Catalogue by entering the search term ‘Ellis Rowan’.

I can't believe I've not heard of her before. Have you?


  1. Beautiful Jeanne! I googled her book, A Flower Hunter, and I can buy it in NZ for US$300! Might have to settle for printing some of the images! I have found a NZ lady who lived and painted at about the same time - her book was $2000. I guess not many were published. I must blog about that one. I was curious also to see a fantail in one of Ellis Rowan's paintings of Australian birds. Do you have fantails in Aussie? Beautiful watercolour illustrations though, I love them, thanks for sharing your find!

  2. What a beautiful little book - what a discovery. I just showed the clip to my girls - they loved it, even my big one.
    Thanks Jeanne.


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