Marianne North - botanical artist and adventurer


Marianne North - botanical artist and adventurer

Marianne North was a prolific Victorian botanical artist known for her plant and landscape paintings, her extensive foreign travels, her writings, her plant discoveries and her gallery at Kew Gardens in London.

Marianne North was born in 1830 in Hastings, East Sussex, to a rich land-owning family whose wealth and importance went back many generations. Her father was the MP for Hastings, and Marianne, his eldest child, was close to him.

Her sisters married, but Marianne thought marriage was a terrible idea, which turned women into 'a sort of upper servant', and she avoided it. Instead, when her mother died in 1855, she took to travelling with her father, who, like her, was interested in botany.

She had shown artistic promise in childhood and began flower painting at this point. Marianne was devastated when her father died in 1869. She received a large inheritance, sold the family home in Hastings and abandoned Victorian upper class society to pursue her early ambition of painting the flora of distant countries.

Between 1871 and 1885 Marianne travelled extensively, almost always on her own. From Brazil, to Jamaica, to Japan and India, she visited 15 countries in 14 years and painted the people, places and plants that she saw. She was extremely intrepid, prepared to brave tropical storms, giant spiders, leeches, and many discomforts to achieve her aim.

Watercolour against a white background was the norm for botanical illustrations but Marianne used oil paints instead which gave her paintings more vibrancy and impact.

She also painted plants within their natural settings, sometimes including animals, temples and people in her paintings. 

Although different to traditional botanical illustration, it was a style that gave the viewer a sense of the habitats in which different plants grow.

Years before the invention of colour photography, her paintings were a vibrant snapshot of faraway places that many people in Europe had never seen before.

On her travels, she collected and discovered plants that were new to botanical science at the time. 

A pitcher plant she painted in Borneo, for example, was unknown to science at the time she painted it. When botanists saw it, the painting caused great excitement. The species was named Nepenthes northiana in her honour.

Marianne commissioned the Marianne North Gallery at Kew in 1879, to allow others to experience the places she'd visited through her work, at a time when travelling was a privilege for the wealthy. 

Through her art, she sought to inspire and educate people about the natural world. 

In 1886 Marianne's health began to fail and she spent the last four years of her life in Gloucestershire. Here, with her last energies, she transformed the garden into a showcase of rare botanical specimens and died in 1890, aged 59.

Over 800 of her paintings are still displayed today at the Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens. 

Further reading

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