Works included in this catalogue
Rowan Flower painting: Pandorea jasminoides… {1890} NGV [WT]
* Rowan Flower painting {1890} Loc? [WT] 

Rowan, the daughter of Victorian pastoralists, was a prolific and successful botanical illustrator. At the international exhibitions held in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, her meticulous flower paintings won the judges’ favour over the consciously more radical landscapes of various male artists. At the 1880 exhibition, Rowan was awarded a gold medal for her various works, while Buvelot Between Tallarook and Yea 1880 {1902} NGV [PA], a popular favourite, was overlooked. After an appeal, however, Buvelot and others were also given gold medals.

At the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888, Rowan was the only local artist to be awarded a first-class certificate (for her oil painting Chrysanthemums, now in an Australian private collection), leaving Tom Roberts and his colleagues fuming.

In a detailed study (2008), Caroline Jordan discusses the various issues involved, including the then still-developing notion of “Australian art,” and the question of whether the objections of Roberts and others (expressed in an 1888 letter to the Argus by George Rossi Ashton and John Mather) were simply misogynistic; she concludes that their main concern was actually their perception of the “consecrated” status of Rowan’s traditional pictures. This seems to be borne out by the NGV’s decision to purchase two of her works in 1890 (as listed above), some years before examples by the younger “Australian Impressionists.” Paintings by Davies and Withers were acquired in 1894, McCubbin in 1895, and Streeton in 1896 (refer separate entries). Nothing by Roberts entered the NGV collection until 1920, and his Shearing the Rams (1890) was not bought until a year after his death in 1931 (Felton Bequest 1932). There do seem some grounds, then, for the complaints of the younger, more self-consciously radical Roberts and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, the idea of Rowan as a mere “flower-painter” clearly needs to be shelved, given not only the quality of her botanical works (prized by modern collectors), but also other examples like her inventive metre-wide gouache Melbourne skyline (c.1904), bought by the SLV in 2005; this may have been painted while Rowan was studying landscape painting, ironically enough, with Mather (one of those who complained back in 1888).

After Rowan’s death, the large collection of her works still in her estate was purchased by the Australian government, and is now held in the Australian National Library.


For the artist, see (biography by Margaret Hazzard; published in ADB vol.11, 1988; with earlier references);; Patricia Fullerton, The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2002; and Caroline Jordan, “Tom Roberts, Ellis Rowan and the struggle for Australian art at the great exhibitions of 1880 and 1888,” in Kate Darian-Smith & others (ed.), Seize the Day, Melbourne: Monash University, 2008, pp.15.1-15.16 (e-book): See also Christine & Michael Morton-Evans, The Flower Hunter: the remarkable life of Ellis Rowan, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2008, p.287, noting that Chrystanthemums was bought at auction in Sydney in 1989 for the substantial sum of $88,000, by a private collector who also owns some 50 of her watercolours. There are also entries on Rowan in both Bénézit 12, p.51 and AKL 100 (2018), pp.4-5

For Rowan’s Melbourne skyline, see the SLV catalogue and Madeleine Say’s entry in The Art of the Collection, SLV, 2007, pp.82-83 (with a good reproduction and further details and references)