Marianne North, Victorian Explorer

Marianne North in Ceylonargaret_Cameron

One of the nice things about Kew Gardens is how you can go on discovering new things there however often you go. I must have walked past the Marianne North Gallery dozens of times without giving it a second thought until I discovered one day who Marianne North actually was and what a fascinating life she led, travelling the world in search of unknown flowers and plants and bringing them back to the UK. Between 1871 and 1885 she went to America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles, Chile and, of course, Japan.

A Brazilian Climbing Shrub and Humming Birds 1873

A Brazilian Climbing Shrub and Humming Birds 1873

She wasn’t a young woman when she started her travels. She’d been devoted to her father and it was only after his death, when Marianne was already forty, that she was free to do what she liked. She was never interested in marriage, calling it ‘a terrible experiment’ that turned women into ‘a sort of upper servant’. Instead she set off to fulfil her dream of painting tropical plants in their natural habitat. She travelled alone and her experiences ranged from dining with the President of the United States to discovering plants new to science and having one genus and four species named after her.

Bornean Crinum 1876

Bornean Crinum 1876

Her autobiography is called Recollections of a Happy Life. Her recollections of Japan are entertaining, though you have to make allowances for Victorian attitudes to foreigners. She rides in ‘jinrickshas, a kind of grown-up perambulator’, drinks cherry blossom tea – ‘the smell was delicious, the taste only fit for fairies’ and is amused by ‘all the funny little people manuring and watering their tea-gardens and cabbages.’ She had to get a special order from the MIkado to allow her to sketch in Kyoto, which was still closed to Europeans, and was perfectly happy there though ‘Sir Harry [Parkes] himself had been nearly murdered there on his last visit’.

Distant view of Mount Fujiyama Japan and wistaria 1876

Distant view of Mount Fujiyama Japan and wistaria 1876

If you’re interested in reading more, the book is available for free download from openlibrary.org.

Foliage and fruit of Sterculia Parviflora 1870

Foliage and fruit of Sterculia Parviflora 1870

She painted more than a thousand pictures and captured the imagination of the British public who flocked to an exhibition of her paintings in 1879.

View from the Istana Sarawak Borneo 1876

View from the Istana Sarawak Borneo 1876

She then wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew, offering to build a gallery at her own expense to display the paintings permanently. It was finished in 1882, with walls lined with 246 different types of wood that she had brought back from her travels.

Kew Gardens Marianne North Gallery

It holds 832 of her paintings, hung according to their place of origin and so tightly packed together than one contemporary described it as ‘rather like a gigantic botanical postage stamp album’. It is quite marvellous to visit, a special place with an atmosphere all of its own.

Kew Gardens Marianne North Gallery

There’s a bust of Marianne North in the entrance to the gallery. The picture of her at the top of this post is an albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron showing Marianne North painting a Tamil boy in Mrs Cameron’s house in Ceylon.

Kew Gardens Marianne North Gallery

You can see more of her paintings at Wikipaintings, or visit the gallery at Kew Gardens. Entry to the Gardens costs £14.50 (under 16’s free) but after that entry to the gallery is free.

10 thoughts on “Marianne North, Victorian Explorer

  1. what a fascinating woman! her attitude would have been shocking for the times, but perhaps things haven’t changed that much, or maybe even got worse … occasionally i think of being a mother as an upper AND lower servant 🙂

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  2. The paintings are beautiful – all that botanical detail, but in a context with scenery in the background. Thank you for introducing me to someone I’d never heard of….. and reminding me that one of the great holes in my London knowledge is that I’ve never visited Kew Gardens… I’m making a resolution as I type to remedy that sometime soon!

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