Marianne North

Hello, it’s Michelle here, with a post about Marianne North (1830–1890), a Victorian traveller and nature artist who left an extraordinary legacy.

Painting 684. North painted the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) from a garden specimen in Java.

For almost 140 years North’s paintings have been on permanent display in the gallery she established at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, hung in a scheme of her own choosing. Stepping into the gallery from the airy openness of Kew Gardens is a sensory shock. Initially, your eyes don’t know where to settle and dance across the boldly coloured oil paintings which fill the walls. Over 800 paintings of varying proportions are stacked horizontally and vertically, separated from neighbours by only the width of their jet black frames. Portraits of trees and vibrantly coloured flowers dominate.

Interior of the Marianne North Gallery at Kew. This photo was taken in 2010, shortly after reopening following the galley restoration and painting conservation projects.

Marianne North was not a formally trained artist. Like most upper class Victorian girls she was taught to draw and paint watercolours as a pastime, and in her twenties she had sporadic painting lessons with various tutors. A turning point came in 1867 when she was introduced to oil paints. She described oil-painting as ‘a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one’ and from then on used this medium exclusively.

Painting 561. This pitcher plant was unknown to western science at the time North painted it. Her contribution to its discovery is recognised in its Latin name, Nepenthes northiana. It only grows in a restricted area in Sarawak, Borneo (Malaysia) and is considered vulnerable to extinction in the wild.

Many of her paintings focus on flowering trees and plants, or vegetation in a wider natural or cultivated landscape. Others show mountains, forests, jungles, plantations, temples, ruins and roadsides. Natural elements dominate over people or human-built aspects. Her plant portraits are accurate depictions but not the isolated specimens of classical western botanical illustration.

Painting 365. Strelitzia and sugar birds, painted in South Africa. The image to the right is Franz Bauer’s hand coloured Strelitzia lithograph (1818), from Kew’s collections.

North’s paintings offer a holistic view; they give context – growing environment, nearby species, pollinators, animals – which is often expanded on in detailed catalogue notes. Although she forged an individual artistic style outside botanical illustration’s conventions she didn’t paint for purely aesthetic ends. She used her work to pass on what she learnt primarily through reading and observation to a public she considered woefully ignorant of natural history.

Painting 110. Night flowering lily and ferns, Jamaica.

Some of her paintings and associated writings show awareness of the destruction colonisation wrought on the natural environment. The rate of logging in California caused her to predict that giant redwoods would soon become extinct. In India she was dismayed at the felling of fine mature pines, chopped to become firewood for the English at Shimla. In New Zealand she wrote that native flowers were being out-competed by introduced Scottish thistle. In Australia she reflected that ‘it is curious how we have introduced all our weeds, vices and prejudices into Australia, and turned the natives (even the fish) out of it.’ She travelled to Tenerife with Alexander von Humboldt’s descriptions in mind but arrived to find the native trees cleared, replaced with the terraces of cacti required for cochineal production. This industry had provided Tenerife with its main income but, due to the invention of synthetic dyes, was in decline when North visited in 1875. She reports seeing cochineal cacti pulled up and replaced with tobacco crops.

Painting 522. Cochineal gardens at Santa Cruz, Tenerife. The white rags were used to hold newly hatched cochineal insects onto the cacti plants from which they fed.

North’s extensive travels from 1871 to 1884 were made possible by her privileged social standing, wealth, family connections, and the existence of the British Empire. She benefited from her late father’s influential artistic and scientific friends. The names William Hooker and Joseph Hooker, successive directors at Kew Gardens, opened doors at colonial botanic gardens. Edward Lear, a dear friend, provided her with at least one letter of introduction to the Sanskrit scholar Arthur Burnell.

Painting 331. The Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India. When she first arrived in India in late 1877, North stayed at Burnell’s home in Thanjavur.

But North wasn’t simply a wealthy woman drawing on connections to idly fill time. Visiting the tropics was a dream she had cherished for many years, since at least the 1850s, when William Hooker presented her with the first branch of Amherstia nobilis to flower in England. Up until her father’s death in late 1869, she devoted her life to caring for him. It was only after this she was free to experience what she called ‘painting from nature’ and ‘learning from the lovely world’. It quickly became her life’s purpose.

Painting 594. North painted this flowering Amherstia nobilis in Singapore in 1876. As well as sparking an early desire to see the tropics, Amherstia featured in her first chance meeting with Burnell, on a ship from Singapore to Java. He won her respect after flatly contradicting her mistaken belief that Amherstia is sacred in Hinduism (it is associated with Buddhist, not Hindu, temples in Sri Lanka and Burma/Myanmar).

Travel also offered an escape from a stultifying life in England. Her posthumously published autobiography demonstrates the dislike of societal conventions and formality she felt since girlhood. She was equally, if not more, uncomfortable with colonial society, which she disparages in her journals and letters as shallow, superficial, and inward looking.

Painting 657. A misty morning view from North’s room in Kyoto, Japan. (Detail; entire image used as the header image.)

The people she truly bonded with were, like her, driven by passion for their work rather than concern for societal standing. Her correspondence with Burnell reveals a warmth that runs deeper than their shared collaborative project on sacred Hindu plants. (A project never completed owing to Burnell’s untimely death.) In their correspondence she refers to herself as ‘an old vagabond’, and writes gleefully of being alone on an Indian hillside, ‘delighted to be perfectly free’ of all obligations. She also openly shares her views on marriage, writing that she sees it as ‘a terrible experiment’, which relegates women to the role of ‘a sort of upper servant’.

Painting 818. North painted this vivid water lily, Nymphaea lotus, in Kochi, Kerala, India.

Another firm friendship was formed with Julia Margaret Cameron, who North stayed with twice in 1877. The Camerons had moved from the Isle of Wight to Kalutara, Sri Lanka in 1875, to be close to their sons and the family’s coffee plantations. North praises Cameron’s originality and cleverness, and it’s unsurprising that the two found much in common.

Cameron was working on a collection of Sri Lankan portraits, but decided that she would like to photograph North. It seems North was not keen, but after three days fending off the request she relented. She found the set up absurd, writing in her autobiography ‘she dressed me up in flowing draperies of cashmere wool, let down my hair, and made me stand with spiky coconut branches running into my head, the noonday sun’s rays dodging my eyes between the leaves as the slight breeze moved them, and told me to look perfectly natural.’

One of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of Marianne North, from Kew’s collections.

Their friendship was cemented with an impulsive gift given at the end of North’s first stay. ‘People often talk to me of the quickness with which young girls make friendships,’ North writes in her autobiography, ‘but I never heard of any so quickly made as this with Mrs Cameron; and when I admired a wonderful grass-green shawl on her shoulders, she said, “Yes, that would just suit you,” took a pair of scissors, cut it in half from corner to corner, and gave one half to me (which I have on at this moment).’

Painting 247. Captioned by North as ‘Foliage and flowers of the red cotton tree and a pair of long-tailed fly-catchers’; painted in Sri Lanka.

North continued travelling and painting after her gallery at Kew opened in 1882. In the winter of 1883 she suffered a breakdown while in the Seychelles, during a period of quarantine precipitated by a local outbreak of smallpox. She made one trip final trip, to Chile in 1884, but it was clear her health was no longer up to the rigours of travel.

Painting 26. The blue puya cactus, Puya chilensis, was one of two plants North travelled to Chile specifically to paint. Despite poor health, she climbed into the mountains – by foot once the path became too steep for horses – to find flowering specimens.

In 1885 she substantially reordered the gallery collection, adding paintings from South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile, taking the number displayed to 848. Then she retired to Alderley, Gloucestershire, filling her days with gardening and rewriting her letters and journals into an autobiography, posthumously published as Recollections of a Happy Life, being the autobiography of Marianne North.

With thanks to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for permission to reproduce images from their collections. All images © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

If you’d like to read more, my illustrated book Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter explores North’s life, travels, the gallery collection, and the projects to restore the gallery and paintings. The complete gallery collection of North’s paintings are published in Marianne North: the Kew Collection and described in the facsimile of the sixth edition of the Official Guide to the North Gallery. Sales from Kew’s online shop support Kew’s vital plant science and conservation work.

Online resources

Marianne North on ArtUK

Narin Hassan, ‘A Perfect World of Wonders’: Marianne North and the Pleasures and Pursuits of Botany, (chapter 3 from Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge and the Victorian Age), open access on JSTOR

Meena Subramaniam’s web portfolio. Meena is an artist based in the India’s Western Ghats; her practice is inspired by Marianne North’s approach to painting

Highlights from the 2017 documentary The Remarkable Miss North on YouTube, presented by Emilia Fox. Original UK broadcast on BBC4 under the title Kew’s Forgotten Queen

Julia Margaret Cameron on the V&A

Kanchanakesi Channa Warnapala, Dismantling the Gaze: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Sri Lankan Photographs, Postcolonial Text, Vol. 4 No 1 (2008), open access journal article, read online or download

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Who Was Alexander von Humboldt, from the Smithsonian Magazine

Julia Buckley, A Royal Flower – Bauer’s Strelitzia on Kew’s website

Franz Bauer’s Strelitzia illustrations on JSTOR’s Global Plants database