Marianne North (1830-1890)

Marianne North at work
Marianne North at work

Marianne North was a remarkable Victorian artist who travelled the globe in order to satisfy her passion for recording the world's flora with her paintbrush. The result of these epic journeys can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew, where tier upon tier of brightly coloured paintings of flowers, landscapes, animals and birds are arranged. There are 832 paintings, all completed in 13 years of travel round the world.

Marianne was devoted to her father Frederick North who was Liberal MP for Hastings. When he died in 1869 it had a profound effect on her, for until then all life had centred on him.

In 1871, Marianne at the age of 40, began her astonishing series of trips around the world inspired by earlier travels with her father and the exotic plant collections she saw at Kew. Her words on embarking on this new period in her life sum up her excitement: 'I had long dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance.'

Between 1871 and 1885 she visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. Often she would stay away for long periods. In India she visited a number of regions over a period of nearly 18 months; in Brazil she spent 13 months travelling into the interior and making long and arduous journeys across very rough terrain. Marianne was fortunately well connected through persons within her father's political circle and was able to contact many useful people who supported her in her travels.

She was invited to dine with the President of the USA and the poet Longfellow and was able to stay with a range of well-to-do acquaintances such as the Rajah and Rani of Sarawak. In the UK she also had many supporters, including Edward Lear, Sir Joseph Hooker (Director of Kew) and Charles Darwin, the latter encouraging her to visit Australia to paint their extraordinary flora.

Notwithstanding these 'introductions', Marianne was rare among women of this period - travelling unaccompanied and visiting areas virtually unknown to many Europeans. She was at her happiest when discovering plants and painting and spent nearly all of her time abroad in the wild, surrounded by the habitats and plants she longed to capture in oil paint.

Some of the plants she painted proved new to science and one genus and four species were named in her honour. She took a year off from travelling in 1881-1882 to arrange her pictures in the Gallery, which was built at her own expense and designed by James Ferguson, the architectural historian.

Eventually feeling tired due to her extensive travelling, and with failing health, Marianne North retired to Gloucestershire, where she died on 30th August 1890. Her legacy lives on in the gallery, providing visitors to Kew with the chance to explore the amazing 'snapshot in time' represented by her paintings.

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