6 December 2016

Driving home for Christmas?

Discover Marianne North's travels over Christmases long, long ago

By Joanne Yeomans

Marianne North picture of Jamaica

With Christmas fast approaching, I decided for this blog post to look at where Victorian traveller and painter Marianne North spent her Christmases away from home. Marianne North travelled widely between 1870 and 1885, and completed over 800 paintings which are now permanently displayed in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew. In her memoirs, Recollections of a Happy Life, Marianne often described where she was and what she was doing at Christmas time in the various countries around the world during her years abroad. 


In December 1871, during the first of her many trips overseas, Marianne spent Christmas in Jamaica. Her diary states: 'In the West Indies! Christmas Eve. The next morning the landlady took me at daylight to see the opening of the new market. It was Christmas Day... A band was playing and all Kingston promenaded up and down.' Marianne spent a number of months in Jamaica as the last stop on an expedition which lasted from July 1871 to June 1872, and which also included time in the United States and Canada.

View over Kingston and Port Royal from Craighton, Jamaica: painting by Marianne North


During a trip in which Marianne spent almost two years in India, between September 1877 and March 1879, she arrived in Tanjore (now Thanjavur) on Christmas Eve 1877. Marianne writes:

'On the 24th of December 1877 I reached Tanjore by the earliest train, asked a policeman I saw to show me the way to the Doctor's, and walked under his porch about nine o'clock, to his great surprise, as he was sitting among his books deep in work, having expected me by a later train. Living with him was like living with a live dictionary, and was a delightful change... I had a delightful upper room full of windows, looking over some miles of country.'

Marianne also made a notable mention in her diary about the Temple of Tanjore during this time:

'I know no building in its way nobler than that temple of Tanjore. The colour of its sandstone is particularly beautiful; its whole history is inscribed round the basement in characters as sharply cut as if they were done yesterday.'


Temple of Tanjore, Southern India: painting by Marianne North



South Africa

After the gallery opened at Kew in 1882, and keen to continue painting, Marianne spent ten months in South Africa between August 1882 and June 1883, and Christmas itself in Grahamstown. Her diary describes:

'I spent Christmas Day at Grahamstown at a picnic with the A.s, a very solemn feast, at which the daughter's time was chiefly taken up with packing and unpacking provisions, plates, cups, etc. The drives over the bare hills were every now and then rewarded by the sight of a great lonely lily, or the huge pink king of all onions, the Buphane toxicaria, all alone without any leaves.'

Vegetation on the Hills near Grahamstown, South Africa: painting by Marianne North


In her last trip before she died in 1890, Marianne North visited Chile between November 1884 and January 1885. The entry in her diary states:

'I spent Christmas at Santiago, where Mrs. Pakenham tried her best to make it look like home... and on the 1st of January we went to an evening concert in the Quinta, almost in the open air, to hear sixty students of Salamanca playing guitars, all dressed in black velvet cloaks and ruffs.'


The Permanent Snows, from Santiago; Patagua in front with Hummingbird and Nest: painting by Marianne North


Marianne North Gallery

After her return from South Africa and Chile the Marianne North Gallery was extended and re-organised to make more room for these paintings, and also those she painted in the Seychelles between September 1883 and January 1884. Marianne went to many countries in the 14 years she spent travelling around the world painting and would have experienced Christmas in other countries such as the Seychelles, Brazil, Japan and Australia during this time. Her paintings are on display in the Marianne North Gallery, which is open daily. 

Kew's Library, Art & Archives team wish you all safe travels over the Christmas period and a very happy and prosperous New Year.

- Joanne - 

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