Marianne North (1830-1890) was a legendary Victorian traveler, an accomplished painter, and an extremely knowledgeable botanist. After many years of caring for her father, Marianne (at the age of forty) began an astonishing series of trips around the globe. Her primary goal was to paint plants in their natural habitats, and for the next fourteen years she trekked to Canada, the United States, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, South Africa, the Seychelles, and Chile.
Luckily, North was also a prolific diarist. A new selection of her writings has just been published, Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, Botanical Artist (pictured above), condensed from her three-volume Recollections of a Happy Life.
Marianne North was especially known for the scientific accuracy with which she painted her botanical subjects:
Several plants that Marianne North painted were new to science, and many were eventually named in her honor, including Nepenthes northiana (pictured above), a new pitcher plant found in the limestone mountains of Borneo — alongside North’s painting of the fruit and foliage of Sterculia parviflora.
As remarkable as her globe-trotting travels were, Marianne North began one of the most important chapters in her life when she returned home to England for the last time. In her last days, Marianne oversaw the design and construction of a gallery to house her work, all of which she donated to the Royal Kew Gardens. She arranged the paintings and hung them herself, as well as painting the decorative panels surrounding the doorways. The gallery first opened in 1882, and was an immediate sensation, bringing exotic lands and plant forms home to Victorian England
Michelle Payne’s Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter provides a wonderful visual tour of North’s life, and of the Marianne North Gallery at Kew. Over 800 paintings are hung edge to edge, in one of the most impressive displays imaginable.
Many, many years ago we literally stumbled into this gallery, totally unaware of Marianne North or her work. Thus began one of the most memorable gallery visits of our lives:
The Marianne North Gallery recently underwent a complete renovation. The tile floors returned, and the gallery has never looked better. Take a quick tour for yourself!
Marianne North in Jamacia: Leonotis nepetaefolia & Hummingbirds:
“Marianne North finally reached her long-dreamt-of tropics on Christmas Eve 1871, when her steamer docked at Kingston Bay. Despite feeling ‘entirely alone and friendless’ upon arrival, in the end she stayed for five months.
She quickly established herself in an enormous ramshackle house in the old botanic gardens….She used the large upper-floor veranda, which opened to a spectacular view of the valley, as her main living space. The valley’s vegetation was so rich and varied it overwhelmed Marianne, who recalls being ‘in a state of ecstasy,’ declaring in her Recollections that she ‘hardly knew what to paint first.’ She quickly established a daily routine of going out to paint at daylight and returning at noon. In the afternoons, when it often rained, she stayed at home but continued painting from inside the house. Then, after sunset, she would take an exploratory walk, returning home in the dark.” — from Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter by Michelle Payne.
For much more on Marianne North’s life and work be sure to visit the Kew Gardens website — it’s a terrific site!