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Video clip synopsis – Victorian flower painter Ellis Rowan rocked the Australian art establishment when she won the Centennial Art Prize in 1888.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - artists, Australian History, Betty Churcher, biography, botanical, gender, identity, women, see all tags


The Flower Hunter

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About the Video Clip


From the series Hidden Treasures – Inside the National Library of Australia
The National Library of Australia is the country’s largest reference library with over nine million items in its collection, including a surprising number of art works. In a new series of Hidden Treasures, Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of the little known and rarely displayed art treasures held by the National Library. From her unique vantage point, Churcher makes intriguing historical connections between paintings and engravings, photography, manuscripts and artefacts, illustrated journals and diaries. These are fascinating tales about the creative process and the works themselves that offer a tantalising insight into Australia’s culture and heritage.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With special thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Curriculum Focus


Students are required to reflect critically on meanings and values associated with particular visual artworks. They use the language and terminology to analyse the style, technique, subject matter and design of artworks.

This is a guide only. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


Victorian flower painter Ellis Rowan rocked the Australian art establishment when she won the Centennial Art Prize in 1888, defeating established male artists including Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin and prompting a complaint from the Victorian Art Society. A feisty and tenacious adventurer, Rowan travelled Australia searching for rare and exotic species to paint before venturing into the jungles of New Guinea to find inspiration for her exquisite flower paintings. Using watercolours and gouache on coloured paper, she painted many unique varieties, on one occasion claiming to have dangled by a rope over a precipice, hundreds of metres above the rainforest below, to paint a tree orchid. The bitterness of her male rivals lasted until well after her death in 1922. Some 900 of her watercolours are now in the National Library collection.

Classroom Activities

  1. Ellis was a contemporary of Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin—both of whom are considered to be important in the development of Australian nationalism in the late 19th century because of their focus on typical Australian scenes. How might you argue that Ellis Rowan should also be considered part of this nationalistic development?
  2. Ellis Rowan was not typical of women of her day. Suggest or speculate on what obstacles might have existed for women to be independent travellers and artists. Then research more about her life to test these ideas and to see how she overcame these restrictions and limitations.
    A starting point could be the following book:
    Christine Morton-Evans and Michael Morton-Evans, The Flower Hunter: The Remarkable Life of Ellis Rowan, Simon and Schuster, 2008
  3. The presenter, Betty Churcher, suggests that the main objection to Rowan by male artists was based on gender. The debate in Federal Parliament over the acquisition of her work was in part based on a belief by some that her painting was botanical rather than artistic. Discuss the idea that her work would not have been considered ‘art’.
  4. Summarise in just one or two sentences why these paintings are ‘treasures’ in our knowledge and understanding of aspects of Australian history.

Further Resources


Go to Screen Australia Digital Learning’s Arts Portal
To see more go to The National Library of Australia