Ellis Rowan

Colonialism and Nature Painting

9 Sep 2023 –
18 Feb 2024

Ellis Rowan: Colonialism and Nature Painting is a major exhibition of Ellis Rowan’s Queensland paintings, including an impressive selection of her splendid Bird of Paradise series from Papua New Guinea.

Born in Longwood, near Melbourne in 1848 on her parents’ property ‘Killeen’, Marian Ellis Rowan, the eldest of seven children, was educated at Miss Murphy’s Private School among the daughters of Victoria’s pastoral ascendancy, academic and business elite. The family later moved to ‘Derriweit Heights’ at Mount Macedon where her father, Charles Ryan, planted an extensive European flower garden with the assistance of (Baron) Sir Ferdinand Von Mueller and William Guilfoyle, both directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. Ellis’s maternal grandfather, John Cotton who published two books on English birds and was a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, painted and documented the birds of the Port Philip area, which remained incomplete at his death. Flowers and birds were clearly in her blood. Ellis, set out from early in her adulthood to represent native plants, birds, insects and reptiles, often captured in situ, thus playing a significant role in raising public awareness of Australia’s native flora and fauna and contributing to the growth in international understanding of the botany, ornithology, and entomology of the planet. 

In 1912, the Queensland Government purchased 112 paintings from Rowan’s five painting excursions to Queensland taken between 1883 and 1912. Twenty-eight of these are in the upcoming show, which also includes work from Far North Queensland. During three legendary expeditions to New Guinea, Rowan was able to document most of the forty-three species of Bird of Paradise. An impressive number, now in the Collection of the National Library of Australia, are in the forthcoming exhibition.

Part of the late nineteenth-century international generation of trailblazing women –– Ellis joined the ranks of female travellers such as Gertrude Bell, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, Alice Lounsberry, Margaret Fountaine and Marianne North –– who journeyed on their own to what were for them, foreign and remote places to undertake adventures related in one way or another to European colonial projects. 

While her life’s work was the documentation and preservation of the natural landscape, brilliantly recorded in her watercolours of plants and flowers, insects and small animals, she was in fact an emissary for British colonialism, documenting its progress while relying on Indigenous guides to source the plant and animal materials which she put to paper. These were then often passed on to Botanists in charge of the various ‘royal botanical gardens’ which were already being established on the lands of First Nations’ communities. She frequently painted through the night in order to capture as much as possible in the relatively short time available during her visits to the pastoral homesteads whose hospitality enabled her projects. Her access to natural materials was made possible by the fact that her family were prominent members of the network of pastoralists that operated in Australia, in the UK and indeed through many of Britain’s colonies. 

This exhibition critically examines the circumstances of the production of Rowan’s extensive oeuvre while paying tribute to an exceptional woman who pushed the boundaries of what women could achieve in the traditionally male areas of art, exploration, travel, and science.

by Professor Jeanette Hoorn
Honorary Professorial Fellow
School of Culture and Communication
University of Melbourne

Colonialism and Nature Painting is an Exhibition Partnership with Queensland Museum Network and National Library Of Australia.


Selected Works


Installation Images



Ellis ROWAN 1848-1922
Wheel of Fire (Stenocarpus sinuatus) 1891-1892
watercolour and gouache on toned wove paper
54.8 x 38.1 cm
Ellis Rowan Collection, Queensland Museum

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