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