Some Australian women: Part III. Four Australian Artists. [9 May 1891]

[Editor: This is part 3 of “Some Australian women”, a series of articles on the achievements of women in Australia. Published in The Illustrated Sydney News, 9 May 1891.]

Some Australian women:

(By M. Hirst Browne.)

Part III.

Four Australian Artists.

Mrs. Ellis Rowan, whose exquisite paintings of Australian and New Zealand wild flowers are so widely known and admired in the Colonies, in England, and on the Continent, originally took up flower-painting as a pastime, while living far away in the hush, at White Cliffs, thirty miles from Taranaki, New Zealand. Fresh from a Victorian home full of life and interest, she felt the monotony of country life irksome, and so wisely turned nature into her friend, and the sweet flowers of the land into her daily companions ; studying them with true, careful eyes, and with pencil and brush transferring their fleeting loveliness into lasting portrayals, which have delighted the eyes and hearts of thousands who have gazed on these presentments of the rare and divine floral beauties of Australasia. Captain Rowan is an excellent botanist, and took great interest in his wife’s work, giving her many valuable suggestions, although, at the same time, being her severest critic. To the latter fact, the conscientious artist attributes, in a great measure, the success which she has attained, the very difficulties she had to contend with in the hard task of pleasing her husband, spurring her on to greater and more determined effort. Mrs. Rowan now rejoices that she had so stern a critic, for, in order to gain his chary praise, she was always reaching after something better, higher, more finished, and in thus striving, that which had been begun, merely pour passer le temps, and was so little at first to her taste, that she had often to force herself to the colour box ; became at last a labour of love, and finally a passion, which has rewarded its patient and ardent devotée by making her, without rival, the flower painter of Australasia. Her charming productions show real heart-love for the subjects she portrays, so tender, faithful, and true are they to the beautiful originals, plucked from all parts of the country as models for her work. More marvellous still are these pictures when received in the light of the fact that the artist has scarcely had a painting lesson in her life, and is therefore, in this respect, almost self-taught, showing what great things innate talent, combined with love’s patient industry, can achieve.

When ordered away by her medical advisers for the winter, Mrs. Rowan has always chosen her quarters in a flowery district, in order to extend her studies. She has visited the Mallee country, and painted its lovely blooms, and has climbed the Grampian Mountains, to gather the heaths which there grow luxuriantly to the height of six feet, a mass of efflorescence throughout their length. ‘Australians have no idea,’ says this enthusiastic artist, ‘of the beauty of their own flowers.’ Wandering far into the virgin bush, travelling up the Pioneer, Herbert, and Johnson Rivers, she has searched the colonies far and wide for new treasures, thus bringing to light and transferring to lasting view blossoms whose fair beauty is unrivalled in the world, and which were hardly known before to exist in the country. Mrs. Rowan visited West Australia, in company with Mrs. John Forrest, the explorer’s wife, and in quest of the flora of that Colony, faced life at Shark’s Bay, with no fresh water to drink, and only tinned meats for food.

Yet, much as this artist has done, and indefatigably as she has worked, she considers that the wealth of Australia’s flora has only just began to dawn upon her, her own terse summing up of its richness being : ‘It would take a dozen people each a lifetime to paint its wonderful variety.’ Mrs. Rowan’s pictures have found a large circle of admiring purchasers ; but she is never happier than when presenting and exhibiting them for charitable purposes, thereby realising substantial profits to many churches and worthy institutions.

A group of wild flowers from this painter’s brush, published in the Town and Country Journal (and obtaining an enormous sale) fell into the hands of a poor miner’s wife, herself an ardent lover of flowers, and afforded her so much delight that she penned a letter of thanks to the artist. ‘But,’ said the grateful woman, ‘you can never have any idea of the pleasure the picture has given to me.’ This epistle Mrs. Rowan characterises as ‘One of the nicest letters I ever received in my life.’

This lady took gold medals for her flower paintings at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1881, and at the Centennial Exhibition of 1888-9 (where she was the only artist in the Victorian Court awarded that distinction) ; also at the exhibitions of Calcutta, St. Petersburg, and Amsterdam. At the Crystal Palace (London) she received a silver medal, the highest award bestowed. The same distinction she also obtained in New Zealand, besides others too numerous to mention. As the exponent of the tender grace and exquisite colouring of the flora of Australia, Mrs. Rowan, herself an Australian, stands at the head of Antipodean flower painters.

Mrs. Mary Stoddard was born in Edinburgh, and brought up in an atmosphere of art, as her father, well-known as a portrait painter in Scotland, gathered round him a recognised circle of art-workers. As a child, Mrs. Stoddard studied drawing and painting under her father for many years, and at the early age of fifteen commenced to exhibit pictures — chiefly landscape and figure studies — at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. During her residence in Sydney she has devoted most of her time to portrait painting, one of her best known works being a portrait of Sir Henry Parkes ; but she has also executed many commissions in subject pictures and similar work. In 1881 Mrs. Stoddard’s design for a Christmas card, ‘A Fairy Boat and Fairies,’ carried away the prize from 661 competitors. In the Sydney Industrial Exhibition of 1884-5 this artist’s work was awarded three medals, and a similar distinction was accorded to her pictures at the Women’s Industrial Exhibition of 1888. The following year Mrs. Stoddard gained the 100 guinea prize offered for the best design for the Melbourne Exhibition award, and many smaller prizes have fallen to her for special designs, studies of flowers, and similar work. It is rather interesting to know that the New South Wales twenty shilling postage stamp is from her design. Among this lady’s more ambitious efforts is a flower and shell painting, entitled ‘From Earth to Ocean,’ which hangs in the Sydney Art Gallery, having been purchased by the trustees as a representative work. Another picture, an idealised child portrait, won an award at the recent Melbourne Exhibition. An excellent piece of portrait painting by this artist is a likeness of Mr. Edward C. Merewether, the President of the Australian Club. It has been specially painted for Mr. Merewether, whose many friends will readily recognise its value as a likeness, and it will be hung in the Club very shortly. The features are clearly defined, and the flesh tints, with the general colouring, are worthy of all praise. In Mrs. Stoddard’s studio in Pitt-street, there is also to be seen ‘skied’ in a corner, the commencement of a large portrait of Sir Henry Parkes, unhappily uncompleted in consequence of the accident to his leg, which has prevented the Premier from continuing his sittings.

Mrs. Birge Harrison, whose pictures have been much admired in Paris as well as in this country, was born in the western district of Victoria, being the eldest daughter of Mr. John Ritchie, of Blythvale Station, Streatham. It was not till the age of twenty, when her parents removed to Europe for the education of the younger members of the family, that Miss Eleanor Ritchie took up the study of art in earnest. She commenced her studies at South Kensington, and worked so hard, that in nine months she accomplished work that usually takes three years to achieve. After a short time in Heatherley’s quaint old London studio, she went to Paris, and laboured for two years under Feyen-Perrin.

After her marriage with Mr. Birge Harrison, an American artist of Parisian, as well as American repute, the two travelled through the United States and New Mexico ; in the latter country making studies of Mexican life ; camping out for weeks together in the Rocky Mountains, with no protection from the Indians, Mexican desperados, and the numerous bears who infested the locality, except the firearms they carried ; and dependent greatly for food upon the fish to be caught in the mountain streams. During this adventurous time, the two artists were sketching industriously, their pictures finding ready sale in America, many of them appearing in Harper’s and Scribner’s Magazines. Returning to Paris in ’86, Mrs. Harrison resumed her studies under Julien Lebfevre and Benjamin Constant, and the same year, for the first time, exhibited at the Paris Salon, her picture being honoured with a place on the ‘line.’ Many seasons were spent in sketching among the peasantry of France, and the fisher-folk of the coast, whose modes of life were thoroughly studied.

This lady is now sojourning for a year or two in Australia, and was an exhibitor at the last views of work done by the Victorian Artists’ Society, her fine painting, ‘Winter Morning on the Coast of Normandy,’ attracting special attention. Mrs. Harrison and her husband are busily engaged in transferring to canvas Australian scenes, and the pastoral life of the country, some of which will, in due time, appear in America’s leading journals, thus making more widely known the Australian Colonies. Speaking of the land of her birth, Mrs. Harrison says : ‘Nowhere is the air so pure, not even in the Riviera, where eucalypts are planted at every door, and nowhere are its life-giving properties so strong. I am charmed with Australian scenery, so delicate in colour and original in drawing. The weird old trees, contorted into a thousand suffering forms, the delicious plains stretching far as the eye can reach, the all-powerful Southern sun, bathing the earth in an atmosphere of glowing colour, tempt one to forget even the art delights of Paris and Italy.’

Miss Florence Fuller is a young artist who, by her clever and conscientious work, has placed herself among the best Australian portrait painters. Her talent displayed itself while she was quite a child. At an early age she became a student at the Melbourne National Gallery, and an attendant of lectures on anatomy. When she was barely seventeen years old, the late eminent artist, Mr. Robert Dowling, who was a connection of Miss Fuller’s family, came to Victoria, and, feeling interested in the young girl’s work, offered to help her. She at once commenced a course of study under his guidance, at the same time fulfilling an engagement as morning governess. Before breakfast she devoted herself to anatomy, and worked out perspective problems in spare minutes during the day. Thus it will be seen how closely and industriously this young lady toiled to gain a thorough knowledge of her art ; and the fact that, during her two years’ study under Mr. Dowling, she received several commissions for portraits, proves how successful were the results. In ’86 Miss Fuller lost her instructor, who returned to England, where, it will be remembered, he unfortunately died a month after arrival.

The young painter now gave up teaching, and devoted herself entirely to her art, opening a studio in the City, but she sorely missed her kind friend. She felt the lack of some one to help and encourage her so much at this time, that referring to it she says : ‘I was so lonely and dispirited, I think I should have given up in despair, had it not been for Monsieur de la Crouée, an artist from Paris, who took the room next mine, and seeing that I needed help, gave it to me. I set to work with renewed zeal. He allowed me to work from his models, his wife often coming to sit with me.’ M. de la Crouée’s mode of painting was broader and more direct than Mr. Dowling’s, and though it was not many months before the French artist returned to Europe, Miss Fuller entirely changed her style of painting before he left. At the exhibition of the Australian Artists’ Association in ‘86, she exhibited her work for the first time, the picture being a portrait of Mr. Dowling, painted from life. Early the next year she undertook to finish a portrait of Lady Loch, which Mr. Dowling had commenced. This work, when finished, was exhibited at the artists’ next view of pictures, after which Lady Loch presented it to the Women’s Hospital, where it now hangs.

At the first exhibition of the Victorian Artists’ Society (the A.A. Association of the Victorian Academy amalgamated), Miss Fuller won the prize awarded to the best portrait painted by artists under twenty-five years of age. At the following exhibition, in September of the same year, her ‘Gently Reproachful’ was bought by Lady Clarke, while two pictures, respectively entitled, ‘Weary’ and ‘Desolate,’ were sold in her studio and sent to their destinations without being exhibited ; showing that this young artist, in her compositions, as well as in her portraiture, touches an appreciative chord in the hearts and tastes of the fine art patrons of Australia. Unfortunately, she has of late been suffering from delicate health, and can only work a certain number of hours each day, notwithstanding which, being a rapid worker, she gets through an astonishing amount of work, and has among her many commissions the portraits of several of Victoria’s public men.

Many other ladies might be included in the list of those who have done excellent work in the sphere of Australasian art, as interpreted with pencil and brush, but space will not permit, and with these four representatives, each of which portrays a distinct class of painting, we close this article.

Our portraits are from photographs as follows : Miss Florence Fuller, Batchelder and Co., Melbourne ; Mrs. Birge L. Harrison, Charlemont and Co., Melbourne and Sydney ; Miss Mary Stoddard, Freeman and Co., Sydney.

The Illustrated Sydney News (Sydney, NSW), Saturday 9 May 1891, pages 10-11

Editor’s notes:
pour passer le temps = (French) to pass the time

skied = thrown; a term used with the coin game of Odd Man, where copper coins are “skied” or thrown upwards [see: A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, Used at the Present Day in the Streets of London; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; the Houses of Parliament; the Dens of St. Giles; and the Palaces of St. James : Preceded by a History of Cant and Vulgar Language; With Glossaries of Two Secret Languages, Spoken by the Wandering Tribes of London, the Costermongers, and the Patterers (second edition), John Camden Hotten, London, 1860, pages 182, 216]

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