ArtSmart Roundtable: Marianne North, Victorian adventurer & botanical artist

Monday, September 2nd, 2013. Filed under: Art ArtSmart Roundtable Legendary Landscapes

Foliage and Flowers of an Indian Forest Tree of Great Beauty, oil painting c. 1878, Marianne North. Image credit: RBG Kew

After a month off for good times, I’m back in time for September’s ArtSmart Roundtable. Scroll to the end of this post for more on the Roundtable and links to my colleagues’ great blogs.  This month’s theme of Travel Art/Art in Travel inspired me to write about Victorian artist and traveller, Marianne North. The gallery featuring Miss North’s lush botanical paintings is one of the delights of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, just outside London, England. Her voyages to the farthest corners of the earth both astonish and inspire.

View of Kuching and River, Sarawak, Borneo, oil painting by Marianne North. Image: RBG Kew

Here is a coles notes version of Marianne North’s extraordinary life.

The Victorian era was one of great collections and great discoveries in natural history. Marianne North (1830-1890)  was the daughter of Frederick North, a Liberal MP.  The Norths led an active, adventurous, privileged life. Marianne had little formal education but excelled at the genteel pastimes of music and drawing. Trips between London and the North family’s country estates, as well as throughout Europe, were made with sketchbook and watercolours in hand.

Mangrove Swamp Sarawak Borneo

A Mangrove Swamp in Sarawak, Borneo, oil painting by Marianne North. Image credit: RBG Kew

Marianne’s art began to ‘flower’ beyond a hobby in her early 20s when she took painting lessons from Dutch artist Magdalen von Fowinkel and Valentine Bartholomew, ‘flower painter in ordinary’ to Queen Victoria. An introduction to oil painting by Robert Dowling, an Australian artist who stayed with the Norths over Christmas 1867, was life changing.

At 25, after the death of her mother, Marianne became her father’s caregiver and constant companion. It wasn’t a sacrifice. They continued to travel (with her sister Catherine, until Catherine married) and maintained a residence in London where Marianne enjoyed the company of her father’s social circle which included Charles Darwin and Sir William Hooker, the first director of Kew Gardens.

Two Australian Shrubs Sydney Harbour

Marianne North went to Australia and New Zealand on the personal recommendation of Charles Darwin. Here she depicts Two Australian Shrubs with Sydney Harbour. Image credit: RBG Kew

Her father’s death in 1869 was devastating to Marianne. Free to marry, she chose instead to distract herself with a painting trip to France, travelling down the Riviera to Sicily with a maid. Even with money and letters of introduction, travel in the 19th century was definitely travail (work), especially for women. Marianne faced prejudice and armed brigands, among other inconveniences. Getting along with the maid was another challenge. Marianne’s future trips would be solo.

Photograph of Marianne North by Julia Margaret Cameron

In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Marianne North stayed with famous Victorian portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron who posed her in traditional Ceylonese garb. Image credit: RBG Kew

From age 40 (1871) to 55 (1885), Marianne painted from rugged, remote nature in North America, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile–a total of 15 countries in 14 years. She hauled vast quantities of art supplies, few clothes. At home in London, she arranged donation of her paintings to Kew, commissioned the gallery building, learned the technique of architectural gilding, organized and installed her own paintings.

Photograph of Marianne North by Julia Margaret CameronCropped

Another photograph of Marianne North (1876) taken in Ceylon by Julia Margaret Cameron. North is wearing her usual painting attire. Image credit: RBG Kew

Marianne North had physical fortitude, courage and a knack for making friends on the road. She was a pioneer in lifestyle and her ambitions as a public educator. Eventually, though, her intense productivity and the hardships of 19th-century travel took their toll. Health failing, Marianne was forced to retire to Gloucestershire where she worked on her memoirs Recollections of a Wonderful Life. She died in 1890 at age 59.

View Over Ochos Rios, Jamaica. Marianne North hated English winters and yearned for the tropics.  Image credit: RBG Kew

So is Marianne North important? Yes! At a time when most of Kew’s staff only knew exotic species from the dried specimens in the collection, Miss North recorded entire ecosystems in glorious colour. Her contributions to botany included discovery of one genus and four species that now bear her name. The 832 small paintings on display at Kew document vanished vistas and are an exquisite ode to nature’s strangeness.

Nepenthes Northiana

Nepenthes Northiana, a Bornean pitcher plant discovered by and named for Marianne North. Image credit: RBG Kew

Visitors to London will find a day trip  to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew worthwhile any time of year. Even in winter months, Kew’s garden follies, Victorian glasshouses, secluded dells and earthy scents make for an enchanting ramble. No matter the London weather, Marianne North’s jewel-like paintings are always in full bloom, a window on tropical climes.

Crinum Northianum

Crinum Northianum, another species discovered by and named for Marianne North. Image credit: RBG Kew

Restoration of the Marianne North Gallery a few years ago cost 3 million pounds. Many of the paintings, however, still require conservation work.  If you have a special memory or relationship with any of the destinations the intrepid Miss North painted, or simply wish to help preserve this important historic collection, you can Adopt a Painting through the Kew website.

The Marianne North Gallery is located a short walk south (to the left) upon entry at Kew Gardens’ Victoria Gate. Admission to the gallery is included in the admission fee to Kew Gardens. For visitor information and directions, see Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens

North Gallery, Kew Gardens.

The ArtSmart Roundtable is a lively group of bloggers dedicated to sharing their passion for art and travel. Each month, members post on a chosen topic. If you’d like to know more about the art and architecture you’re seeing around town or around the world, why not subscribe? You’ll enjoy the diversity of members’ blogs and views. Here are this month’s links:

Erin – The Pantheon in Western Art

Christina – John Singer Sargent’s Travel Pictures

Ashley – Station to Station: a nomadic art happening

Jeff – Eurotravelogue: Norway Then and Now

Marble bust of Marianne North by sculptor Conrad Dressler.


Related posts

Monday in Central Park with painter Janet RuttenbergA stroll in the treetops, Kew Gardens, LondonArtSmart Roundtable: The Pre-Raphaelite BrotherhoodOn Hurricane Irma, and art of the Florida HighwaymenGeorgia O’Keeffe at the AGOVilla Palagonia, Sicily’s Baroque garden of monstersCHIHULY: spectacular glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly at the ROMIsland-hopping in the Atlantic with Azores AirlinesJ.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free at AGOPicturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic at the AGOVisions of Mughal India and Howard Hodgkin paintings at Aga Khan Museum, TorontoJean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time at the AGODining at London’s top churchesA pilgrimage to Georgia O’Keeffe Country, New MexicoArtSmart Roundtable: Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty at AGO, TorontoGrenada’s spice necklaceArtSmart Roundtable: Reopening of the Mauritshuis Museum, Netherlands, June 2014Atlantic City’s cool new Arts GarageColor Field paintings by Canadian artist William Perehudoff, in NYCArtSmart Roundtable: Deciphering Dalí’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador