Showcasing Kew's Collections
On 9 July 1882, Marianne North’s extraordinary gallery at RBG Kew opened its doors to excited visitors. However, unhappy in the knowledge that Africa was not represented in her collection, Marianne set sail a few weeks later and spent the following nine months travelling extensively throughout South Africa recording the flora and fauna that she encountered along the way.
Marianne had set herself a tough challenge as South Africa’s flora, whilst unique, is also highly abundant. Nowhere else on Earth do so many plant species exist in such a small area. With 22,000 different plant species, it is also home to one of the world’s six ‘floral kingdoms’.
For Marianne, however, it was the protea that proved the most fascinating plant, for she had not comprehended its size and form. She states that ‘the proteas were the great wonder, and quite startled [me] at first’. Found in a range of colours, shapes and sizes, these shrubs are instantly recognisable for their vivid flower heads, which on closer inspection are a mass of small flowers encased in colourful bracts. Named in 1735 by Carl Linneaus after the shape-shifting Greek God Proteus, there are 82 Protea species to be found in South Africa, of which 69 occur nowhere else in the world.
During her journey Marianne spent a great deal of time trying to find a flowering specimen of the Protea cynaroides (also known as the ‘king protea’), the largest of its species. In an extract from her memoirs ‘Recollections of a Happy Life’ Vol. II, she describes her happiness at being presented with the one now depicted in her painting:
"I almost cried with joy at getting it at last, I had missed it so often; took it with me to Cadles, and painted it there. The bracts were like pink satin, tinted at the base with green, and a perfect pyramid of yellow flowers rose in the centre. While I was eagerly at work over this gorgeous flower, my landlord brought me a lory or touraco, with a lovely red beak and eyelid, and its green wings lined with that deep magenta colour which has made this bird famous ; for it washes out in soap and water, and, what is still more strange, the bird is said to have the power of recolouring it. The colour when washed out has been analysed and found to contain much copper. I was dumbfoundered when the bird was brought me to paint, as I could not give up the protea, so made a compromise, and managed to show only its head and part of the famous wing, the rest of the bird being hidden by the flower and leaves".
The painting ‘Not one Flower, but many in one, Van Staaden's Kloof’ (no. 419) is located in the small interior gallery alongside its fellow paintings from the Cape of Good Hope and is one of the 110 she completed on her travels to South Africa. Like the other 831 paintings featured in the sequence, Marianne used oil paint on good quality paper. Recent conservation work of the paintings has shown that she would have sketched in ink before applying oils, very often straight from the tube. Other discoveries about her methods include finding preliminary sketches and descriptions on the reverse of the paintings, as well as seed cases and pieces of insects found in the paint indicating that she worked outdoors and (to quote Marianne) ‘from nature’. Clearly her busy travel schedule meant that Marianne had to employ a degree of artistic licence in her attempts to represent the variety of plant species in the different regions she visited. In this instance, although the painting suggests the Protea cynaroides has been depicted in its natural habit, her detailed memoirs tell us otherwise, that it was in fact painted elsewhere and that the bird was an added bonus that she couldn’t resist including in the composition.
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