Ellis the Explorer
Today is the birthday of the Australian artist and botanical illustrator Ellis Rowan.
In a 1994 newspaper article, Sarah Guest described Ellis this way:
"She was an explorer. She set off alone at 68, for Papua New Guinea - and died in 1922.
She dyed her hair red; had a face-lift; left her husband (the suggestion is that she was bored); was a member of one of Victoria's great pastoralist families; was a much-admired, prolific, technically proficient and joyous painter of plants and birds; and a conservationist she campaigned to stop the slaughter of birds for the decoration of ladies' hats... in her day she was known as "Australia's brilliant daughter" which, indeed, she was."
Ellis discovered painting after her botanist husband, Frederick, encouraged her to develop a talent. Ellis developed her passion into her profession, and it led her into unknown parts of Australia. During the First World War, Ellis was living in New Guinea. At one point, she painted 45 of the 62 known species of birds of paradise.
As a woman living during the mid-1800s, Ellis followed the dress code of her era. Wherever she went, whether on an expedition or at home, she was always impeccably dressed, wearing heavy ankle-length dresses, high collars with full sleeves - complete with crinolines, corsets, whalebone stays, and a hat.
Just before Ellis died, the federal parliament in Australia debated whether or not to buy 1,000 of Ellis' paintings. The Australian artist and novelist, Norman Lindsay, called Ellis' work vulgar art. Lindsey didn't think wildflowers were worthy subjects for real art. Ultimately, Ellis' paintings were purchased for $5,000. They are now a treasured part of Australia's national library.