Marianne North Gallery
Please note: Due to staff shortages, both the Shirley Sherwood Gallery and the Marianne North Gallery will be closed on Mondays until further notice. Please contact the galleries on 020 8332 3622 to confirm opening hours.
History and design
Although she had no formal training in illustration, and was rather unconventional in her methods, Marianne North had a natural artistic talent and was very prolific. She inherited her interest in travelling from her father, the MP Frederick North. Her political connections served her well, providing her with letters of introduction to ambassadors, viceroys, rajahs, governors and ministers all over the world.
Marianne undertook her first journey, to the United States, Canada and Jamaica, in 1871. This was followed by an eight-month stay in Brazil, during which she completed more than 100 paintings. She tended to depict landscapes and natural habitats rather than individual plants. One picture, from Brazil, shows a colony of the black, red and yellow butterfly Heliconius erato phyllis roosting on a palm leaf. Another shows Mount Fujiyama, Japan, framed by the climbing shrub Wisteria sinensis.
You can buy beautiful prints of Marianne North's paintings online.
Marianne travelled to Japan across the American continent in 1875, returning two years later via Sarawak, Java and Sri Lanka. Today her paintings from these places provide an important historical record. Some places are still recognisable from her paintings. For example, stands of the giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) that she painted in 1877 at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, can still be seen thriving in the gardens today.
After exhibiting her paintings in a London gallery in 1879, Marianne had the idea of showing them at Kew. She wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, offering to build a gallery if he would agree to display her life’s work in it. The gallery was duly built in a mix of classical and colonial styles. After a visit to Australia and New Zealand, Marianne spent a year arranging her paintings inside the building. It opened to the public in 1882.
In 2008, Kew began restoring the Marianne North Gallery, with a £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant and additional financial support from other donors. The project involved making much needed structural repairs to the building, which reopened to the public in October 2009.
Each of Marianne’s 833 paintings, depicting more than 900 species of plants, was also restored and conserved. The conservation project started in the newly built Preservation studio in the Herbarium at Kew in 2008 and took two years to complete.
During the restoration, paper conservator Rachael Smith discovered a hidden painting. It had not been seen for over 120 years - since Marianne North covered it with its backing board. It took 16 hours to uncover half the image.
Kew conservationists achieved this using treatments ranging from removing the acidic backing board which Marianne stuck to every oil painting to make them rigid, to working with a microscope to gather, reposition and stick down tiny flakes of paint which had come loose in the fluctuating humidity.
Things to look out for
There are two touch screen monitors in place at the centre of the Gallery, allowing visitors to zoom in on 50 of the paintings and read extracts from Marianne’s memoirs. In the artist’s studio, visitors can view a set of ‘then and now’ photos. These show how the landscapes in four paintings – in Jamaica, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Tasmania – have dramatically changed in the intervening years.
Marianne decorated the doors and their surrounds in the Gallery. She had originally asked Joseph Hooker that visitors to the gallery be served, 'tea or coffee and biscuits (nothing else) … at a fair price,' but Hooker had not allowed this. She therefore painted coffee over one door and tea over the other.