Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rosa Catherine Fiveash (1854–1938)

by Eric B. Sims

This article was published:

Rosa Catherine Fiveash (1854-1938), botanical artist, was born on 22 July 1854 in Adelaide, youngest child of Robert Archibald Fiveash, businessman and superintendent of the Blinman and Yudanamutana copper-mines, and his wife Margaret, née Rees. She was trained by Miss A. Benham and at the Adelaide School of Art and Design in 1881-88, and then taught art privately and at Tormore House School in North Adelaide for many years. In 1882 Rosa was invited to illustrate The Forest Flora of South Australia by John Ednie Brown. Nine parts of this work, which was never completed, were published in 1882-90. Each one contained five attractive lithographs of native plants and Rosa drew 32 of the 45 published; they were drawn as specimens came to hand, in no particular botanical order.

Her services were increasingly sought as a versatile illustrator of scientific papers. She provided seven of the coloured plates accompanying (Sir) Edward C. Stirling's description in 1891 of the newly discovered marsupial mole, as well as 322 clear, bright illustrations of toas (Aboriginal direction signs), for a later paper by Stirling and E. R. Waite. Fiveash pioneered china-painting in Adelaide, attending to all stages of the process, including the firing. Her main love was flower-painting; a portfolio of these pictures so impressed the governor, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Barr Smith that they bought them in 1900 as a gift to the colony. She collaborated with Dr R. S. Rogers for thirty years, illustrating his publications on orchids, including his section on them in J. M. Black's Flora of South Australia Part I (second edition). Fiveash was so meticulous that she would wait for weeks for a rare orchid bud to open fully before recording it.

Apart from two years overseas, Rosa lived all her life in the family home, Gable House, North Adelaide, with her sister. They were both unmarried and devout Anglicans. Rosa worked steadily until failing eyesight supervened four years before she died. In 1937 she presented many of her paintings to the Public Library of South Australia. Most of her life's work—beautifully drawn flower portraits in glowing watercolours—is now in the State Library and the South Australian Museum.

Rosa Fiveash died on 13 February 1938 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. Rogers described her as the foremost Australian botanical artist of her day; this was well-merited praise, for her scientific illustrations had been rather inconspicuously acknowledged in her lifetime. She is remembered as a little lady of quiet dignity and with a zest for work. Australian Orchids, a book of her pictures from the museum collection, edited by Noel Lothian, was published in Adelaide in 1974. It demonstrates her ability to capture the beauty of a flower without departing from botanical accuracy.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Biven, Some Forgotten, Some Remembered (Adel, 1976)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 14 (1890-91)
  • Lone Hand, May 1915
  • South Australian Museum, Records, 1 (1919)
  • no 2
  • Victorian Naturalist, 49 (1932-33), 54 (1937-38)
  • South Australian Naturalist, 49 (1974-75), 55 (1980-81)
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Eric B. Sims, 'Fiveash, Rosa Catherine (1854–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 July, 1854
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


13 February, 1938 (aged 83)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.