ART HISTORY CAMEOS: Rosa Catherine Fiveash

Botanical Illustrator (1854-1938) ,  Adelaide.

Text: Liz Hansman
Images: National Library of Australia, vn2591715 and R.C. Fiveash

During preparation of the MLDHS exhibition “September is all about Flowers”, 2019, three small prints of Australian flora were found. These proved to be copies of original works which had hung in Sir Edward Stirling’s home, St Vigeans, in the Adelaide Hills. The only clues to the artist were the initials RCF on each one. With a little detective work, the story of Rosa Catherine Fiveash emerged. We were thrilled to discover that the artist was not only a young woman, but that she had been celebrated for her work and had been acknowledged in her lifetime by dignitaries, learned scientific individuals and  fellow artists.

Rosa Fiveash at work

Rosa was born in Adelaide, 22.7.1854 and died there aged 83 on 13.2.1938.
Studying at the Adelaide Art School, Rosa chose “Australian Flora” as her speciality. She also taught herself the art of botanical illustration. Achieving  her art teacher’s certificate with high marks in 1888,  she spent 3 years in London gaining further accreditation. Returning to Adelaide, Rosa taught art at Tormore House School,  living most of her life with her sister in the family home, Gable House, North Adelaide.
Her studio looked out to their garden filled with Australian wildflowers.

Rosa’s most notable work was done in a 35 year long collaboration with Professor Richard Sanders Rogers, regarding illustrations of “South Australian Orchids”. The collection was published in 1911. Prior to this, Rosa Fiveash had become well known and appreciated for her detailed and lifelike painting, so that she was offered several important commissions.

In 1882 John Ednie Brown, the government Conservator of Forests, asked her to illustrate “Forest Flora of South Australia”. This work established her reputation as a botanical illustrator. “…Enlarged drawings from “Forest Flora” were reproduced upon the walls in the South Australian Court of 1886 and the Indian Exhibition in London…”Although the work was not completed, 32 of Rosa’s lithographs were published. Ref 1. In the early 1890’s, Professor Edward Charles Stirling (later Sir Edward Stirling), chose Rosa to illustrate his paper about the newly discovered marsupial mole.  The small, but important book – “Description of a New Genus and Species of Marsupialia – Notoryctes Typhlops” , was published in 1891. Rosa later painted 322 Toa illustrations of the fascinating Aboriginal directional signs, for another paper by E.C. Stirling and E.R. Waite.

Notoryctes typhlops; The Marsupial Mole

Rosa became very interested in the process of China painting. She went to Victoria in 1880’s to learn more, especially  the firing process. She taught these techniques at the art school from 1894-1896, pioneering the art of china painting in Adelaide. “…In 1900 Fiveash’s portfolio of flower-paintings so impressed the Governor, Lord Tennyson and philanthropist, Robert Barr Smith,  that they purchased the pictures as the gift to the colony.” Ref.2 “…In 1908 Professor and Orchidologist, Richard S.Rogers, persuaded Fiveash to concentrate on orchids, and she quickly developed an ‘orchid eye.’ Rogers provided Fiveash with a set of Zeiss lenses and fresh specimens, and Fiveash provided the illustrations for his publications.

Together, Rogers and Fiveash produced:- “An Introduction to the Study of South Australian Orchids”, 1909 ; “Some South Australian Orchids”,1911; A section for J. Black’s “Flora of South Australia”, 1922. Fiveash’s orchid paintings were also published in “Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia”, 1926…Ref 2. Rosa Fiveash continued painting until she was 80 years old. She gave many of her paintings to the Public Library of South Australia but in 1979 they were finally given to the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide.

In September 2019, the MLDHS mounted a display to mark the centenary of the death of former resident, Sir Edward Stirling, son of noted pioneer family, Edward and Harriet Stirling after whom the village of Stirling was named.  Knighted in recognition of his contributions to medical science, exploration and anthropology, Sir Edward Stirling was also described as a “Renaissance ” man with broad interests and commitments to local government, botany and gardening. He promoted the rhododendron but also fostered the love of native flora.

 It was a great delight to discover and confirm his association with Rosa Fiveash via her  illustrations. That he knew her and had possibly asked her to paint the flora growing on his property in the Adelaide Hills, explained the three prints we found. The originals are now with the State Library. The Collection of Toas are housed in the South Australian Museum.

Further information about the Stirling family, the Horn Expedition and Rosa Fiveash can be found through Trove and Google investigations. The Mt Lofty Districts Historical Society History Centre Archives hold a collection of Edward Charles Stirling’s Scientific Papers; photographs of St Vigeans’ garden and interiors and some copies of family correspondence. See the Coventry Library for opening hours.

1. Olsen, Penny 2013 Collecting Ladies Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists National Library Australia p. 163. 
2.Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 8, (MUP). 1981, Eric B. Sims 3. Olsen, Penny 2013 Collecting Ladies Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists National Library Australia p 170

Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, Australian National Herbarium,Biographical Notes, Portrait photo: National Library of Australia, vn2591715

Do you have stories or memories of Rosa Fiveash which you can share?

Contact us at or drop into the History Centre at the Coventry Library, 63 Mount Barker Road, Stirling.