The Marianne North Gallery - A botanical gem restored for Kew's 250th anniversary
Press release, 15 June 2009
Save the date: Press Preview 10am, Thursday 8 October 2009
The restored Marianne North Gallery reopens Sunday 11 October 2009 with a special day-long community celebration, filled with dance, food, and special guided tours – an autumnal highlight in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s 250th anniversary year. A hidden gem in Kew Gardens’ 300 acre site, the Gallery and its paintings are being dramatically renovated and conserved, safeguarding its rich heritage for the future.
Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) says, “The Marianne North Gallery is one of the unique treasures at Kew and I am delighted that this stunning building and its rich collection are being renovated, refreshed and conserved as a highlight in our 250th anniversary year. With the two year restoration project well under way, the legacy of this remarkable woman is being preserved as she would have remembered it, for future generations to enjoy.”
Brimming with 833 vibrant paintings, this purpose-built Gallery, designed by renowned architectural historian, James Ferguson, is the only gallery in the UK where all the work on display was produced by one female artist. An intrepid Victorian botanical artist, Marianne North travelled around the world to 15 countries including South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Sri Lanka. In search of rare, exotic and beautiful plants, she documented over 900 plant species in her unique style. Donating her life’s work to Kew Gardens in 1882, her paintings hang like a vast patchwork quilt, frame to frame, unchanged from the original hanging scheme. The Marianne North Gallery displays botanical and landscape paintings that are not only beautiful and part of Kew’s rich history and heritage, but also important to plant science and conservation. Her legacy of artworks provides a unique snapshot of the world’s flora and fauna over 100 years ago, documenting species and areas of the natural world now threatened.
In June 2008, RBG Kew was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £1,867,000, towards the total cost of £3.7 million; kick starting the two year conservation project which began in July 2008. RBG Kew is inviting people to ‘Adopt a Painting’, helping to safeguard the future of the collection. For more information see www.kew.org/mng
Renovating the building
While the design of this striking Victorian Grade II listed Gallery has stood the test of time, with no insulation and fluctuating humidity levels, penetrating damp conditions have persisted. Through this project, the Gallery has undergone a dramatic renovation, using modern technology to help preserve the building restoration work – bringing it back to its former glory.
The Gallery has been re-roofed with slate and lead tiles. A new air conditioning and heating system has been installed, providing a monitored, environmentally controlled space for the collection to hang in. Architect James Ferguson’s innovative design, inspired by Greek temples, included high misted windows, which successfully allowed for minimal sun damage on the artworks. The window frames and front doors have been repainted to their former dark blue and a new lighting system has been installed, illuminating the pictures more effectively. This new lighting system incorporates both modern optic fibre lighting technology and a re-envisioning of the earliest lighting system known in the Gallery. The historic tiled floor has been recreated, transforming the Gallery back to its original design.
Access facilities have been improved with a new entrance to the rear as well as a link corridor which connects the Marianne North Gallery on to The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. Finally the benches which lined the Gallery’s exterior veranda have been replaced with replica wrought iron benches, where visitors can take in the view looking out to the Temperate House.
In addition to the paintings, the Gallery also features a collection of 246 exotic wood panels which Marianne North collected on her travels. These have been cleaned and conserved off-site by expert conservators at Plowden & Smith. This team is also conserving the 4 door panels and 3 door surrounds, which were adorned with Marianne North’s vibrant art work.
Restoring the artworks
A team of five expert paper conservators are restoring all 832 oil paintings on paper in the state-of-the-art Marianne North Conservation Studio, based in RBG Kew’s Herbarium. The artworks have been grouped into five treatment requirements, and the team are busy, conserving approximately 10 paintings every week.
On return from her travels, Marianne North stuck all her oil paintings onto stiff board, to give them more rigidity. However this board is acidic, posing a risk to the paintings. Each board has to be removed from the back of the paintings, using a scalpel and palette knife cutting away 5 mm squares at a time, and replaced with a conservationally sound museum board. In their work, the team have discovered hidden inscriptions written on the boards, and in these cases, the boards have to be sliced horizontally in order to preserve these colourful insights into the painting.
Due to the Gallery’s unique hanging style, with each wall blanketed with paintings, Marianne North occasionally had to extend the paintings, adding strips of paper to allow the paintings to fit into the frames. In these cases, to ensure the strips remain aligned, when the acidic boards are removed and replaced, Japanese paper is pasted on to the front of the painting. This then has to be carefully peeled off with steady hands.
Fluctuating humidity and temperature levels in the Gallery have caused some of the paper supports to distort, leading to cracking and flaking paint on over 200 artworks. Working under a microscope the team gather these flakes and stick or iron them back into place using a heated spatula.
Eleanor Hasler, Conservator, says “Restoring Marianne North’s artworks is an ambitious project, and a delight to work on. In my profession, it is a rare opportunity and privilege to conserve such a big collection by one artist, and I feel like we are really getting to know Marianne North. Each month we are discovering hidden inscriptions, sketches and even leaves and grass on the paintings – teaching us how she worked and insights into her character. And with the new interpretation in the Gallery, it means that visitors can get to know Marianne North and the collection as well.”
The paintings are being conserved in two stages, with the ones needing least treatments being tackled first. This will allow 70% of the collection to be fully restored and hanging when the renovated Gallery reopens. The remaining 30% will be facsimiles which will be replaced with the conserved paintings throughout 2010, allowing the public to see the conservation process unfold.
Re-opening the Gallery
When the Gallery re-opens new interpretation installations will be in place, allowing visitors to learn and engage with the artworks. On entering the Gallery, visitors will discover a travel chest, reminiscent of the one North would have used on her globe-trotting discoveries. This chest will be filled with artefacts, letters, sketches and paintbrushes similar to those she used. Opposite the chest, a marble bust of Marianne North by artist Conrad Dressler will be on display.
Two touch-screen monitors will be in place at the centre of the Gallery, allowing visitors to investigate 52 of the paintings in further detail. By clicking on a country or an individual painting, visitors can trace the paintings’ history and zoom in to see it in more detail. Read extracts from Marianne North’s memoirs and experience each country, view and plant as Marianne North did in the field. Discover the stories behind each painting, and the conservation and scientific work RBG Kew does with the plants featured.
Marianne North’s historic artist’s studio, tucked away in the corner of the Gallery, has been opened up and transformed into a new exhibition space, filled with interactive installations allowing visitors to learn, engage with and reflect on the life and work of Marianne North. Take inspiration from the plant memories of RBG Kew scientists and seed hunters, and leave personal reflections on the ‘plant memory map’. Travel in time, and discover how the landscapes in four of Marianne North’s paintings - Jamaica, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Tasmania - have now dramatically changed today. Learn about the role of botanical art in documenting plants in their natural setting and its role as a scientific tool, recording the intricate details, colours and dimensions of plants.
Learn about the red hot poker plant, Kniphofia northiae – one of the four plants named for Marianne North after she discovered, painted and brought these species to the attention of gardeners and botanists in Europe. Marianne North painted this plant near Grahamstown, South Africa, capturing its tall torch like flowers, with tiny vibrant un-opened red and orange flowers at the top, which melt into creamy yellow open flowers at the bottom. On her return from South Africa, Marianne North presented this plant to Kew and it was first grown at the Gardens in 1883. Today visitors can see this colourful plant, which owes its name to Marianne North in the bedding for the new ‘Kew around the world’ map at Victoria Plaza.
Celebrating the re-opened treasure
A community celebration will mark the re-opening of the Marianne North Gallery on the 11 October 2009. Drawing inspiration from the countries which Marianne North visited, RBG Kew has been working with local community groups to build local partnerships, educate and inspire them in the work of Marianne North, and more widely, the importance of plants. Festivities will include a ‘World Tea Party’ where visitors can engage with local artists and share travelling tales and recipes over a cup of tea. See a local dance academy performing a self-devised piece, inspired by the life and memoirs of Marianne North. Meet the conservators and see them at work, or take a free guided tour around the Gallery and out into the Gardens, to see the plants featured in the paintings.
- For further information please contact Bryony Phillips, Tarryn Barrowman and Bronwyn Friedlander in the RBG Kew Press Office on email@example.com or 020 8332 5607.
- Images are available at http://www.kew.org/press/images/marianne_north.html . Please contact the RBG Kew Press Office for a username and password to download in high resolution format.
- For more details on current exhibitions in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art and elsewhere in the Gardens please see http://www.kew.org/press/art2009.html.
Notes to Editors
Opening Times: Check the Gallery and Garden opening times online here
Admission: Admission to Kew Gardens includes free entry to all Glasshouses, Galleries and the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway. Adults £13, Concessions £11, FREE for children under 17 (accompanied by an adult).
Adopt a Painting
Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) sustains and transforms a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, HLF invests in every part of the UK’s diverse heritage. HLF has supported more than 26,000 projects, allocating over £4billion across the UK. Over £840 million has been granted in London alone, with nearly £24million going to 72 projects in Richmond upon Thames. Website: www.hlf.org.uk.
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is open all day and on weekends as per the opening hours of the glasshouses in the Gardens. Entrance to the gallery is at no additional cost to Gardens admission.
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
In 1759 Princess Augusta, mother of King George III, started an ambitious nine-acre physic garden around Kew Palace. Every generation has added to the charms and curiosities of Kew, now a major international visitor attraction. Together the landscaped, 132 hectares of Kew Gardens and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew Gardens is a UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage Site and houses over 40 listed buildings and other structures including the Palm House, Temperate House, Orangery and Pagoda as well as two ancient monuments, Queen Charlotte's Cottage and Kew Palace. RBG Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world.
Wakehurst Place is also home to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. By 2010, RBG Kew and its partners will have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25% by 2020 and funds are being actively sought in order to continue to develop this vital work.
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