10 Nov 2012

The Flower Hunter

My love for the flora of Australia, at once so unique and so fascinating, together with my desire to complete my collection of floral paintings, has carried me into other colonies, Queensland and some of the remotest parts of the great continent of Australia. The excitement of seeking and the delight of finding rare or even unknown specimens abundantly compensated me for all difficulties, fatigue and hardships.  The pursuit has made me acquainted with many strange phases of colonial life; it has carried me into the depths of jungles, to distant lands, to wild mountain districts, and has brought me into contact with the Aboriginal races, often in peculiar circumstances.

Ellis Rowan, A Flower-Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand 1898  Preface
Ambleside Online is remarkably good at unearthing marvellous books about characters that embody the Charlotte Mason lifestyle, who live lives embodied by nature study, faith, literary habits, high moral standards and virtuous character traits.   As I write this I think of Michael Faraday, Lilias Trotter, George Washington Carver and Beatrix Potter, all of whose lives we have studied with AO in the past year.  Inspiring, all of them.

When I look at Australian substitutes for AO books, I strive to find fine men and women in our own country's history who embody these same virtues.  Sadly I often fall short.  Often, but not always.

Ellis Rowan at first glance is the perfect Charlotte Mason heroine.  One of Australia's finest artists, Rowan was also, somewhat amazingly for a woman born in 1848, an extraordinarily intrepid adventurer. Hers was a life of single minded determination to achieve her goal - to document and paint as many unknown plant specimens as she could discover throughout the Colonies, and later the whole world. Petite, elegant, high class, and always perfectly dressed, Ellis travelled right through the unexplored areas of Australia - Western Australia, tropical North Queensland as well as areas closer to home.  She visited India, Europe, America and New Guinea, and everywhere she painted.  Upon her death more than 3000 works attested to her prodigious production.

Her work was highly acclaimed and received many awards, but her reputation was contentious, and she was much maligned, particularly by her male contemporaries, including Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.  Despite being raised Church of England and attending church regularly as a child, the Christian faith has little impact on her life. Ellis was obsessed with her work to the detriment of her husband and son.  She was highly ambitious and ruthless in getting what she wanted.  She promoted herself continually, but divulged only what she wanted others to know.  She embroidered and hyperbolised her adventures to such an extent that it is difficult to know where truth ends and fairytale begins.

Ellis' life has much to excite and inspire young minds.  Her artwork is sublime, and in documenting plants she has created a pictorial record of many species that today are endangered or extinct. With some care, she is a wonderful choice for Charlotte Mason Artist Study, and we looked at her art and life in AO5.  These are some of the resources we found helpful in our study. Maybe you will too. Enjoy.

1. Video biography

This video is a wonderful introduction by the marvellous Betty Churcher to Rowan's life and her changing style throughout the years.  Some teaching notes are here.

2. Lift the flap book

This video contains the whole text of this sweet little book suitable for AO0 or AO1.  In the book the fairies are revealed from under flaps in the paintings.  It's cute, but the video says it all.  Jemimah liked both.

3. Long Picture Book

We used Wildflower: The Life and Art of Ellis Rowan by Cassy Liberman as a sort of spine. A longish book liberally interspersed with full page prints of Ellis' paintings, Jemimah read and narrated a few pages each week in addition to studying the pictures.  Unfortunately, Liberman tells Rowan's tall tales as fact, not fiction, but Jemimah and I had great discussions about that.  I have never, ever, seen an alligator in the wild in Australia.  Have you?

4.  Exhibition catalogue

A year after Ellis Rowan died, 952 of Ellis Rowan's paintings were purchased by the National Library in Canberra, where they were hidden away on dusty shelves and were forgotten. It was fifty years later in 1982 that the first exhibition of her work was mounted.  A few years later in 2002, 100 of these works went on display in Canberra and then toured through the States. The catalogue of this exhibition, The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan by Patricia Fullarton is the catalogue of this exhibition.  It contains an interesting biography, as well as lovely prints of the 100 works of the exhibition.  The book contains photographs of works other than paintings done by Rowan - cups and saucers, plates and screens covered with her beautiful designs.  We used this book to better appreciate the scope and variety of Ellis Rowan's painting. The paintings are chronological, allowing the changes in her style over the years to be easily seen.

5. Adult biography

I adored reading Ellis' biography, The Flower Hunter: The Remarkable Life of Ellis Rowan by Christine and Michael Morton-Evans.  All her warts are shown clearly in the book, making it a selection for only adults or older teens, but hers was truly a remarkable life, and I thoroughly recommend this book for your own knowledge.

 Ellis painted mainly in watercolour and gouache, and one of the few oils that she painted - Chrysanthemums, the work with which she won the gold medal in the 1888 Centennial Exhibition, is included in this book.  It is her best known work, and really needs to be one of the pieces chosen for a full picture study of Ellis' works, but since it is in a private collection, this is really the only place to see it.  It is quite magnificent!

7. Other resources

The majority of the Ellis Rowan works in the National Library's possession are online here.  Have a look at this amazing Australian woman's beautiful work for yourself!

A lovely article by Rosemary Johnson in Australian Heritage magazine is online here.  It contains some marvellous photographs.

A lecture presented by Dr Judith McKay as part of the Sir Robert Philip Lecture Series is here.

8 More books to watch out for

Ellis' own book is wildly expensive.  It's called A Flower-Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand by M E Rowan, if you ever find it.  It was republished in 1991 at a much more affordable price and is available from Abe here.  I haven't read it.

Helen Jo Samuel, the children's author, wrote Wild Flower Hunter: The Story of Ellis Rowan in 1961.  It's available here.  I haven't seen it, but she is a pretty good author!


  1. I recall you talking about Ellis Rowan several months back, I reserved the book then, read it and found it quite fascinating!!

  2. SUPER awesome. i'm totally gonna come back here and look her up when i have some time. thanks for all the links!!


  3. What a marvellously informative post! Thanks for writing up these finds. I'd never heard of Rowan before.

    Rebecca in NW Vic

  4. Cools, thanks so much for this Jeanne! Btw I've had trouble reading blogs on my pic and also commenting so you're getting all my comments now:)( while I have my trusty iPad to use as no one else is atm)

  5. That wa supposed to say "pc" not "pic" !!


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