Marianne North (1830-1890) was a well-known botanical painter who traveled around the world twice in search of rare flowers and plants. Her paintings of flowers in their natural habitats gave a glimpse of plants inaccessible to most people. In 1882, a gallery of her work opened at England's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The gallery, still open to the public, houses 832 paintings produced by North over 13 years.
Marianne North was born in Hastings, England, on October 24, 1830. Her father, Frederick North, was a wealthy landowner and a member of Parliament. Little is known about North's mother. North had a sister, Catherine, who was seven years younger and a brother, Charles, two years younger. North had little formal education, but the family was rich and cultured and she was exposed to well-known artists and botanists. She showed a talent for singing and took voice lessons. In 1847, the family began a three-year trip through Europe where North studied flower painting, botany, and music.
North's mother died in 1855 and North became the mistress of the family's homes in Hastings and London. She loved to sing, but when her voice gave way, she took up flower painting, which was considered a respectable hobby for a lady of leisure. Painting was never expected to be North's career, since wealthy 19th century women were not expected to work. She was also interested in botany and, through her father, knew Sir Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Every summer, after Parliament closed its session, North, her father, and her sister traveled to Europe. They visited Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Bosphorus. As was a custom at the time, each traveled with a diary and a sketchbook. North's friends encouraged her to describe her travels. During a trip to Spain, Marianne first attempted landscape painting using watercolors.
In 1864, North's sister married. After her father lost his seat in Parliament the following year, North and her father spent even more time traveling, visiting Switzerland, the South Tirol, Egypt, and Syria. She searched out plants and painted everywhere she went. Around 1865 North learned oil painting and found that she much preferred it over watercolors. In Visions of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North, she said, "I have never done anything else since, oil-painting being a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one."
During a trip to the Alps in 1869, Frederick North became ill and North brought him back to Hastings, where he died. North's father had doted on her throughout her life and she was devastated at the loss. She said of her father in her autobiography, "He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life, and apart from him I had little pleasure and no secrets." Painting helped her overcome her grief. Her large inheritance allowed her to resume her travels. She went to Sicily with her maid, but did not enjoy her companion's company. Two years later, at the age of 41, North sold the Hastings home and devoted herself to botanical painting. She began a series of trips in search of plants and flowers from all corners of the earth. "I had long had the dream of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance," North said in her autobiography.
Traveled Around the World
Her first trip, in 1871 and 1872, took her to Canada, the United States, and Jamaica. She returned to England, then went on to Brazil where she stayed for eight months and completed more than 100 paintings, working out of a hut in the jungle.
In 1875, she made plans to travel to Japan via the United States, where she visited Yosemite and other California sites. When she encountered lumberers harvesting giant redwoods, she lamented, "It broke one's heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries."
North suffered from rheumatic fever in Japan, making it difficult for her to put up with cold weather for the rest of her life. She returned to England in 1877 via Sarawak, Java, and Sri Lanka. While in Sarawak, a British colony on the island of Borneo, North discovered the largest known carnivorous pitcher plant. It became the first of five plants that were named in her honor, Nepenthes northiana. The others are Northea seychellana, a previously unreported tree in the Seychelles; Crinum northianum, an amaryllis; Areca northiana, a feather palm; and Kniphofia northiana, an African torch lily.
North exhibited some of her paintings in Kensington Gallery in 1877. Shortly after, she traveled to India for 15 months and produced more than 200 paintings.
Encountered Harsh Conditions
It was unusual at the time for a woman to travel alone, but that is how North preferred it. Sometimes, she started a trip with a friend or acquaintance, only to abandon them partway through the trip. In her autobiography, she claimed to prefer the company of "less civilized and more interesting people."
By less civilized, she apparently didn't mean native people, because her extensive diaries barely mention the indigenous people she must have encountered and they rarely appear in her paintings. Her diaries also gloss over the difficult conditions she endured. In the introduction to A Vision of Eden Anthony Huxley described how carelessly she mentions travel conditions: "Scorching sun, drenching rain, fearful road conditions, travel sickness, leeches and giant spiders, and unsalubrious accommodation are all dismissed in a few airy words," Huxley said.
North also had to deal with language barriers, a lack of doctors, and crude transportation. A typical diary entry describes how she traveled through India: "I started at four in the afternoon in a big cabin boat … and reached Quilon about twelve the next day … thence on to Nevereya, where we left the boat and crossed the boundary in a bullock cart. We went on in another canoe, hollowed out of one long tree, for twelve hours more… ." Much of the backcountry she visited was inaccessible by any type of vehicle, forcing her to traipse through jungles and swamps and scale cliffs and mountains, looking for botanical specimens. She was often accompanied by hired servants who carried her gear. The conditions for painting in the wild were crude and she was often forced to pack her paintings while they were still wet, then touch them up when she returned to London.
When she returned from India, she found it so tiresome to show her paintings to visitors to her London flat that she housed them in a gallery for two months so they would be accessible to the public. The show was so successful, she began to think about a permanent home for her art. She asked Sir Joseph Hooker if he would agree to building a gallery for her paintings at Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, at her expense. He accepted her offer.
Gallery Housed Paintings
North chose the location of the gallery within the gardens. She envisioned it to be a respite for visitors where they could stop and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. Refreshments, however, were not allowed in the gardens. North hired her friend James Fergusson, a well-known architectural historian, to design the gallery.
With planning well underway, North resumed her travels. North was a friend of Charles Darwin and shared his interest in geographical distribution of plants. In 1880-1881, North visited Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii at Darwin's suggestion.
After returning, she spent a year arranging the gallery, which opened in 1882. The gallery features elements of Greek temple architecture. North arranged the paintings and designed and painted freizes and other architectural elements throughout the two rooms. Two hundred forty-six different types of wood that North collected in her travels are also displayed in the room. North also compiled and paid for publication of a catalog of the collection.
North used her brush as people today would use a camera. Other botanical illustrators of the time described plants and made sketches, but North's work stood out because of its vivid colors. Many of the plants she painted were barely known at the time so her work became an important part of the botanical record. Most of the plants in North's paintings are depicted in their native environment. Her interest in zoology is evident in the birds, insects, fish, and other animals that sometimes appear in her paintings. As North traveled, she met botanists around the world who led her to the specimens she sought. Sometimes, her hosts brought plants to her and these are painted in a more contrived setting. Some paintings depict a plant laying on a table or a combination of blooms arranged in a vase, like a Dutch flower painting.
In addition to flowers, birds, insects, and animals, North painted landscapes, some of which show native buildings and people. These paintings gave a glimpse of distant lands not easily accessible in her day. Shortly after the gallery opened in 1882, North went to South Africa to paint flowers on that continent. When she returned, she added the new paintings to the gallery.
By the time North traveled to Africa, she was growing weaker and suffered from nervousness and anxiety. In her diaries during the African trip, she expressed frustration that she could not paint faster. Despite failing health and increasing deafness, she traveled to the Seychelles in 1883 and Chile in 1884. In Chile, she searched for and painted Araucaria imbricata, known as the puzzle-monkey tree.
A Lifetime of Work Displayed
After returning from Chile, she made her last additions to the gallery, which now totaled 832 works, picturing 727 genera and 1,000 species. (In total, North completed 848 paintings in 13 years.) The paintings range in size from a few square inches to 15-by-40 inches. The paintings remain just as North arranged them: They cover the walls, with little space between them, making for a colorful visual impact when people enter the rooms.
North had devoted her life to her work and now that she had completed her gallery, she retired to a house in Gloucestershire surrounded by fields, orchards, and gardens. From 1886 until her death in 1890, she spent her time entertaining guests and transforming her home's grounds into a showcase garden filled with rare botanical treasures. She worked tirelessly on the garden, doing much of the work herself, despite poor health. Undoubtedly, North's failing health was the result of the harsh conditions she had lived in during her travels. Marianne North died on August 30, 1890, at the age of 59.
North's autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life, a two-volume set compiled from her travel diaries and journals, was published in 1892. Her sister Catherine Symonds, who was a lesser-known botanical illustrator, compiled the work, as well as a third volume, Further Recollections of a Happy Life, published in 1893.
North, Marianne, A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North, Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1980.
Notable Women Scientists, Gale Group, 2000.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Anne Commire, editor, Yorkin Publications, 1999.