Astounding adventures of Marianne North

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

I have long held an incredible amount of respect and admiration for Marianne North an adventurer and botanical painter of the Victorian period, and definitely a career that can only be marvelled. If you are not familiar with her work, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew holds the most extraordinarily large collection of her works which has now become much of her legacy. I have been very fortunate to visit this gallery a number of times and something that often strikes me beyond the sheer quantity of paintings is the volume of countries she would have visited in order to create them.
Marianne North Portrait
Throughout Marianne's life she experienced great times of grief after losing parents particularly her father, who was said to have been her closest friend, idol to which they held an incredible bond and devotion to each other. When her mother passed away in Marianne's twenties, her dying wish was to look after her father, and in many ways she dedicated much of her time to overseas travels together with him whilst he was alive. Taking her painting materials on trips some of the artworks we see today are from those journeys and inspired a lifetime of painting and adventure. Whilst Marianne's artistic journey began in the traditional way of botanical painting using watercolour, it didn't take too long before she moved onto oils which was completely against the usual manner of this genre.

Oil painting to Marianne was obsessive she said "almost addictive as Opium"!

After her father passed away, painting with oils became the solace she sought in her grief. With many miles tucked under her belt that she had accumulated from travelling with him, she took it upon herself to continue with these journeys by herself. She was from a comfortable background, her father holding a position in parliament during his time alive which that and other things left to to a great network of connections which would later help her greatly. Using these acquaintances in high society she was known to have ventured to different countries either staying with these people or using their introductions to others as a means to keep travelling.

One person eager to nurture her quest for travel and recording botany through her art was Charles Darwin, who is said to have encouraged her to go to Australia.

Marianne North, protea painting
It was by no means an easy feat to travel in the Victorian times, if you can imagine for a moment long arduous trips with unknown adventures, boat crossings over oceans, canoeing along rivers and hikes up humid mountains with no doctors and little support with encountering difficulties along the way. She travelled largely alone as her independence allowed her to keep travelling and painting. Moving from place to place on recommendations and inspiring words. Some of these countries, particularly in the jungles she was discouraged to continue travelling due to dangers ahead, however through shear determination or this unfaltering obsession and necessity to paint, Marianne kept powering through without complaint. I should think this would be unnerving enough in todays world but back then her stoic capacity to keep going is legendary for a woman of her time.
 Marianne North landscape
She was an enthusiastic gardener and botanist and hob-nobbed with some brilliant and influential people including Kew Garden's founding specialists. Her paintings along her travels began to pick up momentum with regards to being recognised as works of interest. In a time when photography wasn't anywhere near as it is today, certainly not in colour, paintings and drawings were a very important study of flora, fauna and indeed historical events. Marianne's work included new undiscovered species and of course a spectacular insight to foreign lands to British people at home. There must have been a source of wonderment seeing plants and exotic creatures in their natural habitat. Marianne often painted vivid scenes with entire landscapes in the background or views through leaves and flowers of exotic species, which gives the viewer a sense of far off lands.
Marianne Norths painting collection
During her travelling days she became less tolerant to colder countries as her rheumatism took a painful grip, so she favoured the warmer climates which you see in many of her paintings. At a point during a longer stay back in England she made a proposal to pay for a pavilion to be built on the garden grounds at Kew to hold a permanent collection of her work that she would continue contributing to after its erection. They of course absolutely jumped at this opportunity as Marianne was becoming quite well respected in her field.
Marianne Norths gallery 
The gallery, still stands there today holding the largest permanent collection of paintings by a female artist in the world. By the end of her painting career she had made 832 artworks and visited a staggering 17 different countries over 6 continents, and was commended by the Queen. Although due to being a woman she sadly could not be awarded quite the same title as her male counterparts, and indeed there probably wasn't even a man to match her extraordinary life of astounding resilience, confidence and tenacity to follow her creative and botanical endeavours.
For myself as a botanical illustrator it is not Marianne North's application of oil that impresses me, but it is her use of colour and perspective that transports me to the exotic and less explored lands of another time. There is something wildly romantic to the thought of travelling and painting and producing a body of work that encapsulates space and time.
Leaving you with this short film with actress Emilia Fox, that I discovered on a visit to Kew Gardens.

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  • Love this blog. What a woman!

    Deborah on

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