ArtSmart Roundtable: Marianne North, Victorian adventurer & botanical artist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.a-sense-of-place.com/?p=3946
Christina – John Singer Sargent’s Travel Pictures http://wp.me/p1HpWg-KW
Ashley – Station to Station: a nomadic art happening http://no-onions-extra-pickles.com/artsmart-roundtable-travel-and-the-nomadic-happening/#comment-65465
Jeff – Eurotravelogue: Norway Then and Now http://networkedblogs.com/ORI6Q