Guide to Victorian Painter, Marianne North's Botanical Paintings
Recollections of a Happy Life
When you think of great Victorian explorers inevitably you have an image of Darwin or Livingston, rucksack, pith helmet and machete in hand. Not a little middle-aged women with a collection of brushes and an easel, painting in the heart of the Brazilian jungle. “Well Marianne North, I presume”.
Born in October 1830 at Hastings Lodge, Hastings, England the eldest daughter of Liberal MP Frederick North. When tragically her mother died in 1855, she spent much time accompanying her father on his travels. When younger Marianne had been trained as a vocalist but it was in painting that her true passion lay.
Tutored by Ms V. Fowinkel as Dutch painter and later Valentine Bartholomew she developed her talent for watercolours. It was an era when it was normal for a woman to have a hobby. After her father died in 1869 she decided that with the vast inheritance she had acquired to travel the world and paint plants and flowers.
The Tour begins
So at the age of 41, in 1871 she set off to Canada and the United States to begin her project. Later in the year she moved on to Jamaica and afterwards spent the best part of a year in a hut in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. All the time recording the plants, trees, flowers and landscapes around her.1875 saw the start of a busy two-year world tour, taking in Californian valleys, Japan to capture cherry blossom, Borneo, Java and Ceylon where she recorded the tobacco and tea plantations. Her journals make interesting reading, telling of crossing swamps and climbing cliffs to reach new species. By 1878 she had reached India and recorded their native plant life.
The Gallery and Into Africa
Returning the Britain she met up with the curator of Kew Gardens and offered to build a gallery at her own expense, providing it housed her works. It was agreed and her long time confidant James Ferguson set about designing the building. During this time she also saw Charles Darwin, an old friend of the family and it was he who encouraged her to travel to Australia and New Zealand in 1880.Upon her return in 1882 the gallery was finished and North took a year off travel to decorate the insides and hang her paintings. The rest didn’t last long and despite losing her hearing and chronic arthritis she set out on what would be her last trip. Taking in the one continent she was yet to conquer, Africa. Spending much of 1883 there and painting some gorgeously vivid pictures at this time. The following year she moved on to the Seychelles and made Chile her final destination. Ill health had gotten the better of her and she retired to Alderly in Gloucestershire where she died in August 1890.
North’s paintings have an impressionistic feel to them, they are bright, colourful renditions of the originals the foliage, buds although botanically correct express her joy at seeing these plants. There is a looseness and freedom in her style to which, other painters of this genre do not submit.
Two years after her death, her sister Catherine edited and published tales from her journals entitled “Recollections of a Happy Life”. Kew Gardens has just October 2009, completed the restoration of the North Gallery, which after 120 years needed some £3.7m in preservation work. There again this is unique amongst art galleries being the only one to house almost the entire collection of a single artists body of work. Of the 848 paintings she produced 832 are kept here. Marianne North logged and discovered hundreds of plants, she had a genus of tree, and four species named after her. The legacy of material she left us is remarkable and especially so, as many are now under threat. All of this because she just wanted to.
Other Artists on this Hub
Twentieth Century Welsh Painter - Gwen John
Sister of Augustus John, Rodin's lover and artist
Female Painter from the Baroque Period - Artsmisia Gentileschi
First female member of Florence's Accademia della Arti a Disegno,
Renaissance Painter - Jacopo Bassano
Female Painters of the Renaissance - 1400 -1650
Baroque Painter - Caravaggio
Brilliant, inspired artist, leading light who died tragically young
Rococo Portrait Painting - Rosalba Carriera Innovative miniaturist and pastellist
Dadaist - Hannah Hoch