This extraordinary, independent Victorian woman travelled the globe and painted flowers like nobody else. Writer Nigel Andrew introduces the inimitable Marianne North…
Even by the standards of intrepid, globetrotting Victorian spinsters, the flower painter and tireless traveller Marianne North was an extraordinary woman.
In an age before air travel and motor transport, she crisscrossed the globe, living and painting in Jamaica, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Ceylon, India, Borneo, Java, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile – all in the space of a decade and a half.
Wherever she went, and whatever the obstacles in her way (cliffs, swamps, jungle), she carried on painting her astonishing, botanically accurate, vividly coloured oil paintings of the exotic plant life she found. And virtually all of her flower paintings – some 833 – can be seen together in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens.
Restored Marianne North Gallery Interior. Image: RBG Kew
‘I am a very wild bird’
Born in 1830 into a wealthy and well connected family, Marianne shared her father’s passion for travel and botany and, when she found herself alone, free and rich following his death (in 1869), she decided to indulge them both, along with her new-found love of oil painting – which she described as ‘a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one’.
She abhorred marriage – ‘a terrible experiment’, in her view, that turned women into ‘a sort of upper servant’ – and disliked company, so most of the time she lived, travelled and painted alone. ‘I am a very wild bird,’ she declared, ‘and like liberty.’
Her paintings survive her in such quantity and in one place because, having held a public exhibition of her work in 1879 and disliking the sudden celebrity it brought her, Miss North decided to donate all the works to the Royal Botanical Society at Kew. She also offered to build a gallery at her own expense to display them to the public.
The Marianne North Gallery after restoration. Image: RBG Kew
The gift was reluctantly accepted by the director Sir Joseph Hooker, and the gallery – a solid, rather chapel-like building in a corner of the Gardens – was duly built. It was recently restored, and is quite unlike anything of its kind – indeed Kew claims it is the only gallery devoted to a single female artist, with full public access, anywhere in the UK.
A very tropical palette
The effect of Miss North’s paintings en masse is somewhat concussing – those colours are so strong and bright! Her palette was certainly well adapted to the tropics. She typically painted her plants not as specimens in isolation but as organisms in an ecosystem, creating pictures that are beautifully composed and highly pictorial as well as precisely descriptive.
Burning Bush and the Emu of Chile. Image: RBG Kew
Ipomoea and Vavangue with Mahe. Image: RBG Kew
Native Vanilla Hanging from the Wild Orange. Image: RBG Kew
Often her paintings include fauna as well as flora (as in Burning Bush and the Emu of Chile) and her plants often frame a view of their habitat (as in Ipomoea and Vavangue with Mahe [an island of the Seychelles] or the beautiful Native Vanilla Hanging from the Wild Orange).
Northia Hornei. Image: RBG Kew
Sometimes she zooms in and fills the canvas with a single plant (as in Northia Hornei, though note the bird), at other times she is essentially painting a view with a little botanical garnish (as in The Permanent Snows, from Santiago) and occasionally she’s content to paint what amount to cut flowers (as in Cultivated Flowers, painted in Jamaica).
Cultivated Flowers, painted in Jamaica. Image: RBG Kew
‘Tea or coffee and biscuits’
It’s sobering to reflect that, if Marianne North hadn’t painted in oils, but in the more usual (and ladylike) delicate watercolours, little or nothing of her work would have survived her tropical travels and the ravages of time. Even her oils needed some repair work when the gallery was restored in 2008. They are as fresh now as when they were painted, and still hanging exactly as Miss North arranged them (hung very, very close). She also painted the frieze and the decorations around the doors.
The Permanent Snows. Image: RBG Kew
Her plans for the gallery were blocked only in one particular – she wished visitors to be served ‘tea or coffee and biscuits’, but Sir Joseph Hooker said no. In response, the indomitable Miss North painted tea over one door of the gallery and coffee over the other.
In the course of her travels, Marianne North discovered a number of new species, and several are named in her honour, including Areca northiana (a feather palm), Crinum northianum (an Amaryllis relative), Northea seychellana (a tree of a previously unreported genus) and Nepenthes northiana (a pitcher plant that she was the first to paint).
When her travels ended in 1885, she retired to Gloucestershire and lived quietly there until her death in 1890. She was only 59, but she had lived, travelled – and painted – more in her productive years than most would achieve in several lifetimes.
A visitor to the Marianne North Gallery. Image: RBG Kew
You can buy prints of Marianne North’s work and plan your visit to her gallery at the Kew website.
Nigel Andrew is a writer and host of the Nigeness culture blog. Thanks to Kew Gardens for supplying the images.