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Marianne North - Botanical Artist (1830-1890)

Marianne North at her easel near 
Grahamstown in South Africa 1882

A woman of means who taught herself how to paint, funded her own expeditions to the far corners of the world to find her subjects, and wrote a biography or two recounting her adventures, may truly be described as unique. And that was Marianne North.

The eldest child of Frederick North, Member of Parliament for Hastings, Marianne had shown an interest in painting and writing, proper 'accomplishments' for a young Victorian lady, suitable hobbies for the daughter of an established family, but never a thought to making a career of such things.

For the sake of both business and recreation Frederick North travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East, and Marianne would often accompany him. During these happy years she learned to improve her skills as an artist, being taught first by a Dutch artist, Miss van Fowinkel, and later by Valentine Bartholomew, one of Queen Victoria's flower painters. She met Sir William Hooker who presented her with specimens to sketch while visiting Kew and refining her skills as an artist.

With the death of her father in 1870, Marianne found herself adrift and wanting focus. Having never married she had retained much of her father's modest fortune, and now sought to use it in her pursuit - painting flowers in their natural settings.

Her first journey alone was in 1871, she travelled via Jamaica to the United States and Canada. She carried with her suitable letters of introduction, so initially it would seem that her travels were properly accommodated, and this was indeed the case for the most part. Later, however, she found herself trudging through wilderness, scaling cliffs and enduring swarms of insects in the pursuit of her subjects. In the situation necessitated 'roughing it' in tents or sleeping on the ground, she did.

Her second solo journey took her to the jungles of Brazil, where she stayed for 8 months and completed over 100 paintings. Then in 1875 she travelled across America on her way to Japan, Sarawak, Java, and Ceylon and then back to England briefly. With barely enough time to unpack she was on her way again, this time to India. She remained in India for 15 months and produced a remarkable 200 paintings of mostly plants, but also of the local buildings she liked. Upon her return to London she exhibited her work at Conduit Street, where the positive reception and popularity of her work encouraged her to display her collection at Kew Gardens.

"Flowers of Angel's Trumpet"
Brugmansia arborea 
by Marianne North

In the summer of 1879 she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker offering to donate her collected works, along with a building suitable to house them, to the garden, with the stipulation that the gallery serve as place for garden visitors rest. Her donation was graciously accepted and Kew gained one of it most enduring features - The Marianne North Gallery. Her friend, architectural historian James Fergusson, designed the building after the colonial structures she had admired in India, and when it was completed, she carefully arranged all her paintings in a dense mosaic on the walls, sorted according to geographical location of subject. She even embellished the gallery with a few of her own designs.

But long before it was done, she was looking for another journey to undertake. It was at his suggestion of Charles Darwin , who had been a friend of her father's, that she chose her next great destination, Australia and New Zealand. While on an expedition through Australia she met with Marian Ellis Rowan, a talented young woman who would prove to be an accomplished natural history artist in her own right, and taught her how to paint with oils.

She developed a rapid, vaguely impressionistic, style that allowed her to complete most of her paintings in a day or less. While some critics have seen this as a weakness in her work, others have found in it a vitality, an obvious joy in creation that is almost palpable when viewing her works. Her paintings are not typical of most botanical artists in that her colours are almost more vibrant than in life, and her images, although accurate and true to the subject, do not full illustrate all the plant's distinguishing features. However, she was no stranger to plant identification and taxonomy, being something of an amateur naturalist herself. She even found and painted a previously unknown genus of tree that would later be named in her honour - Northea seychellana. For other species would be named after her, including Nepenthes northiana - one of the giant pitcher plants from Borneo, Crinum northianum - an obscure Amarylis relative she discovered in Borneo, Areca northiana - a feather palm, and Kniphofia northiae - an aloe relative from South Africa, sometimes known as Red Hot Poker.

A Nepenthes species as painted by 
Marianne North. This plant was later 
formally named Nepenthes northiana 
in her honourThe one continent missing from her travels, and therefore her gallery, was Africa, so in August 1882 she packed her bags and continued her mission. She travelled down to the Cape, and then up to the Seychelles, before returning home in 1883. Her health had been failing for some time, and by the time she made her expedition to Chile in 1884, despite rheumatism and increasing deafness, it had become evident to her that this would be her last great journey. She retired to Alderley, Gloucestershire, where she died on August 30th 1890.

Her extensive journals were edited by her sister, Catherine North Symonds, and published in two volumes in 1892 as Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the Autobiography of Marianne North. London and New York; Macmillan, 1892) and proved so popular that a further volume was released the next year - Some Further Recollections of a Happy Life, Selected from the Journals of Marianne North, Chiefly Between the Years 1859 and 1869. (Edited by Catherine North Symonds. London and New York: Macmillan, 1893).

The Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew houses 832 of her paintings, and is still one one the most popular attractions at the garden.

The Botanical Artists

 

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