Marianne North was a Victorian plant hunter and prolific botanical painter.
She was an energetic, experienced and enthusiastic traveller who visited many continents and many countries in pursuit of interesting plants to paint.
Between 1871 and 1885 Marianne North painted over 800 paintings while visiting 17 countries on 6 continents in 14 years - during visits to
Unusually for a botanical painter - especially one who was travelling - she painted in oils.
Towards the end of her life. she presented her life's work - 832 paintings - to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and provided the funds for a Gallery to house it.
This page covers:
24th October 1830: Born in Hastings - at Hastings Lodge, 2 Old London Road, Hastings, East Sussex (on the corner of Ashburnham Road and Old London Road)
She was the child of two political families. Her father was Frederick North DL, JP (1800-1869), who was elected as the Whig/Liberal MP for Hastings seven times between 1831 and 1869. Her mother was Janet (d.1855), daughter of Sir John Marjoribanks M.P., 1st Baronet of Lees in the County of Berwick, in 1825. She had two siblings - a younger brother Charles and a younger sister Catherine.
Her family was "comfortably off" and cultured. As a child she spent much time on travels between family homes in Hastings, Norfolk and London.
Sir William Hooker, the Director of Kew (who founded the Herbarium (1853) and built the Palm House at Kew Gardens) was a friend of her father and she spent time at Kew. During visits to the Palm House she developed a love for exotic flora and the plants of the tropics.
She displayed a talent for painting from an early age. Her family supported Marianne’s attempts at singing and painting as suitable "hobby" activities for a Victorian lady.
She also studiously collected specimens of plants and grasses near her holiday home in Norfolk.
1847 - 1850 - a three-year family trip through Europe. North studied flower painting, botany, and music.
1855 - her mother died. Her mother had made her promise she would never leave her father.
Subsequently the house was let in the summer and she travelled extensively with her father and sister in Europe. They visited Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Greece and the Bosphorus.. North recorded her trips in both a diary and a sketchbook.
This means that when she embarked on her "around the world" travels to far flung places she was already a seasoned traveller.
1864 - her sister married. North remained her father's companion for the last five years of his life.
Where she lived until the age of 40 when she started travelling on her own all over the world.
1865 - Frederick North lost his parliamentary seat - which provided a great excuse for the two do yet more travelling! They visited Switzerland, the South Tirol, Egypt, and Syria.
1867 (age 37): received her first lessons in oil painting from Robert Hawker Dowling (1827-1886) who was an Australian colonial artist originally born in England better known for painting figures than flowers.
1869 - Her father became ill during a trip to the Alps. He returned with her to Hastings where he died.
The death of her father had a profound effect on her. As his companion and friend, he had become the centre of her world.
She received a large inheritance on his death. She was able to spend this as she wished as she never married. North abhorred the idea of marriage. Her view was that it turned women into 'a sort of upper servant’.
'I had long dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance.'
North did go against the conventions of her day deciding to travel and paint alone. Moreover, she did so without any significant concerns about her own safety or the way she looked and behaved.
PhD thesis by Lynne Helen Gladston
1871 - Age 40, she sold Hastings Lodge and began her solo travels around the world in pursuit of her devotion to botanical painting.
She travelled on her own, having found it difficult to find a satisfactory companion.
Her travel as a single woman was helped by her family's political connections. She was able to furnish "letters of introduction" to ambassadors, viceroys, rajahs, governors and ministers all over the world.
However she was not fond of conventional society and typically tended to prefer to make her way - on her own - across the next new country she was visiting.
1871-72- Her first trip covered United States, Canada and Jamaica.
Subsequently she travelled alone into the interior of Brazil and completed more than 100 paintings during her eight-month stay in Brazil.
1875 - Visited Tenerife and the Canary islands
1875-77 - She then started a two year journey around the world. She painted flowers in California, Japan, Borneo, Java, and Ceylon.
1877 - Exhibited some of her paintings in Kensington Gallery
1878-79 - Visited India and travelled alone around the country. Produced 200 paintings.
1879 - Exhibition of her paintings in a London gallery
1879 - Wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew - who she knew personally - with an offer to donate her paintings and provide the funds to create a building to house them. She subsequently donated her paintings (as a collection) to Kew Botanic Gardens.
1880 - Visited Borneo Australia and New Zealand (at the suggestion of Charles Darwin) and California. Produced 300 paintings in Australia.
An album containing 41 paintings made by Marianne North during her travels in Sicily, Canada, India, Tenerife and Australia was recently donated to Kew.
1881 - Visited Charles Darwin at his home, Down House in Kent, to show him her Australian paintings. On 2 August 1881, Darwin wrote to North to tell her that he is pleased to have seen her Australian pictures, and to comment upon their vividness.
1881 - The Marianne North Gallery opened to the public on 7th June 1881 - after a year of unpacking and working out the design for the hang. She was very astute and made it a condition of her bequest that the paintings were to hang as a collection in the Gallery she funded and the design could not be altered.
1882-3 Two month after the Gallery opened she was off on her travels again - this time visiting South Africa....
1884-84 - ...and the Seychelles Islands
1884–5 - Visited Chile to paint Araucarias and completed her last painting journey
1886-1890 - The last 4 years
My sister was no botanist in the technical sense of the term; her feeling for plants in their beautiful living personality was more like that which we all have for human friends. She could never bear to see flowers uselessly gathered their harmless lives destroyed.
2nd August 1881 My Dear Miss North, – I am much obliged for the “Australian Sheep,” which is very curious. If I had I seen it from a yard’s distance lying on a table, I would have wagered that it was a coral of the genus Porites.
This is the second edition of the best-selling and highly rated book about Marianne North which is published by Kew.
It contains a number of illustrations of her paintings. This second edition benefits from the use of new technology which allows them to be printed on a larger scale than hitherto.
This revised edition has a foreword by Chris Mills, former Head of Kew’s Library, Art & Archives, as well as updated information.
Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Kew Publishing (Second Edition)
Publication date: 3 Feb 2016
Average Customer Rating out of 5 stars:
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Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter. Second Edition. from Amazon UK
Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter - Second Edition from Amazon.com
You can obtain prints of paintings by Marianne North from Kew Gardens Prints. There is a special gallery on their website.
REFERENCE: Other places you can see images of her paintings online
Marianne North's paintings are a surprise to anybody used to conventional botanical illustration associated with journeys of discovery.
Interestingly, most of the books about the history of botanical painting also ignore her paintings and contribution to the art.
Maybe influenced by Wilfird Blunt who was NOT a fan - and at the same time appeared to ignore the conditions in which she was painting!
Indefatigable alike as painter and traveller, she scoured the globe for spectacular plants which she painstakingly recorded in oils in their natural surroundings. Botanists consider her primarily as an artist; but artists will hardly agree, for her painting is almost wholly lacking in sensibility. ....Moreover her work, being painted in oils, is almost unaffected by light and remains perennially gaudy...
Art Education and Practice
She had no formal training in illustration. As a result her methods were unconventional. It's unclear whether she ignored more normal practices because she wasn't aware of them or because she preferred doing things her way.
Her paintings clearly indicate that Marianne North had a both natural artistic talent and was very prolific.
Producing over 800 paintings in 13+ years equates to some 60+ paintings per annum.
"I have never done anything else since, oil-painting being a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one."
A lot was learned about how Marianne North worked during the process of conserving her paintings. Tests were made of samples of the paint
Conservation changes made by Kew
All the paintings received a detailed inspection prior to conservation:
In terms of restoring the paintings:
As might be expected of anybody who has taken the trouble to make so many paintings, she was keen to have them exhibited - and where better than Kew Gardens!
However if they were to be made available as a permanent exhibition they would need a Gallery to house them.
In 1879, North offered to donate both her 832 paintings and to provide a building for them to be housed in - on condition that the gallery also served as a place where visitors to the Garden could rest.
She catalogued her paintings but also had the assistance of the botanist W.B. Hemsley (1843-1924). He corrected identification of some plants and completed the task of identifying others.
She also donated her time and effort in designing the interior and paintings murals and decorative features around the interior.
The Design and Hang
The building was designed by a friend, the architectural historian James Fergusson. Given the colonial nature of much of her travels the style of the building echoes that of the colonial buildings of India.
The building as constructed contained a Gallery, a single storey studio for the artist's use on one corner and on another, a two-storey 'flat', which Marianne North intended as accommodation for a resident gardener.
It has a large verandah around the outside and some very comfortable seats which are very comfortable after a long walk round the gardens! There is also a lobby area - with information about the Gallery - outside the Main Gallery and the Inner Gallery.
The Main Gallery is a double height room - and it's a very impressive room - not least because of the arrangement of the paintings. They are hung close together, with no space in-between, from the dado rail to the high level clerestory windows at the top of the double height wall. This means a room full of paintings is flooded with light. It's not what you expect when you walk in for the first time....
As you look more closely at the paintings, it becomes clear that all the paintings are organised according to geographical location. The arrangement is a mosaic worked out by Marianne North herself.
Development and Restoration
For many years, although very much an Institution within the Gardens, the Gallery was something of a backwater.
However this changed when the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art was built next door and opened in 2008 - with a programme of changing exhibitions. The two buildings are now joined and Marianne North's Gallery gets a lot more visitors as a result.
We now celebrate Marianne North's contribution not only as an artist and intrepid explorer but as one of Kew's first benefactors whose building and collections constitute an important piece of our heritage and a unique window on to the past.
Works to restore the Gallery were also implemented at the same time as the development of the new Shirley Sherwood Gallery. As most buildings do, time and weather had caused the building to deteriorate. It had suffered problems with water penetration which in turn was threatening the condition of the paintings.
In addition the unusual wall-to-ceiling framing system that Marianne North invented to display her works was also causing problems as the paintings were in direct context with the walls (paintings should usually have spacers attached so that there is space behind them) and this meant that were much more likely to soak up any moisture which penetrated the brickwork and plaster.
Prior to the restoration, the Gallery was under threat of closure due to its condition. It needed a new roof and for the interior to be better weather proofed to protect the paintings. New state of the art environmental controls were also installed to help to maintain the paintings in the best possible condition for the future.
The Gallery reopened to the public in October 2009.
Kew Gardens raised funds for the scheme through
Conservation of the Paintings
When the Gallery reopened in 2009, the paintings looked different.
That was because the oil paintings were all treated to a visit to the new state-of-the-art Marianne North Conservation Studio, based in RBG Kew’s Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives.
Facsimile prints were installed while paintings were being cleaned and conserved prior to their return to the Gallery.
Marianne North at Kew Gardens
by Laura Ponsonby
The centenary of her death in 1990 was commemorated by this book by Kew Education Officer and Guide Laura Ponsonby. This was published in association of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Hardcover: 128 pages
Publisher: Webb & Bower;
Publication Date: 1st Edition 30 Aug. 1990 (it has since been reprinted)
Marianne North at Kew Gardens at Amazon UK
Marianne North at Kew Gardens at Amazon.com
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