ON THE eve of the return of her Banksia paintings, artist Celia Rosser reflects on a life-long devotion.
In a lifetime of many pivotal moments, Celia Rosser recalls spying her first ever Banksia as among the finest.
"I could never explain it at the time, but there is a word now that is available and it’s 'epiphany'," says the 82-year-old botanical artist during a tour of her gallery.
"It was more than just, ‘Oh isn’t it beautiful’. It was something I could never express.
"I just fell in love with Banksias, it was quite complex and I wasn’t sure how to handle it, but you learn that later."
The discovery of the Banksia turned Celia toward the vocation for which she is now famous: her highly detailed, three-volume The Banksias series of paintings for Monash University, some of which will be on display at her Fish Creek Gallery, in South Gippsland, from Friday.
So synonymous is the name Celia Rosser with Banksias, that the most recently discovered Banksia species, Banksia rosserae, has been named after the artist.
It is a measure of her talent that Celia has done only one private commission in 25 years, but her reputation as a botanical artist is second to none. In 1977 she was awarded the Linnaean Society of London’s Jill Smythies Award for botanical illustration, and in 1995 was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
The exquisite detail of her work belies the heartache that shadowed her early years.
Celia grew up in Glen Huntly, in Melbourne’s southeast, and tragically her father died of a brain tumour when she was young. Nevertheless, she drew plants and flowers from an early age from her mother’s garden, and while it was not uncommon for girls of that era to get a job in their teens, it was a fate Celia was determined to escape.
"My elder sister, who was 17 years older, helped me go to art school at RMIT," she says.
"My mother thought I was doing dressmaking, but that was the last thing I wanted to do."
When she left RMIT in her late teens, she worked as a fashion illustrator, drawing for the Myer country catalogues.
Celia had to give up her job when her teacher husband, Neil Rosser, was posted to Swan Hill and, later, Orbost, in East Gippsland.
It was here she had her famed encounter with her first-ever Banksia, which kick-started her many years of painting the wildflowers.
In 1970, after a 14-year absence from Melbourne, Celia returned to take up a post as science faculty artist at Monash University.
She illustrated Peter Bridgewater’s The Saltmarsh Plants of Southern Australia and The Mosses of Southern Australia by George Scott and Ilma Stone, the latter of which took three years. In 1974, she began the project of painting every Banksia species for Monash University.
"No one knew how many there were," she says.
"When the project first started we thought there was 60 Banksias. There ended up being 76."
The project took over 25 years to complete, which is perhaps unsurprising considering Celia tried to see as many of the Banksias in the field as she could.
"It was so important I see them in the field, as there were some Banksias that were hidden inside a plant, and these things had to be taken in to consideration," she says.
The years rolled on with Celia chipping away at each Banksia, and while she was working on her third volume in 1999 – with a mere six Banksias to paint – Celia suffered a major bleed behind her eye. The detailed work had taken a toll.
"I got in to trouble because I wasn’t working hard enough," she says, with a smile.
"I wanted three months to recover and they gave me two months, and I managed reasonably well."
The publication of the final volume in 2000 represented the first time that such a large genus had been painted in its entirety.
Monash University has agreed to lend the 24 original paintings from volume one to the Celia Rosser Gallery for three months from March to May, with plans to display volume two and three in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Celia is impatiently waiting on a broken hip to heal so she can resume her rambles through the South Gippsland countryside framed by her much-loved Banksias.
"...There are six species of Banksias in this area, so I can go and get a fix of Banksias whenever I want."