26 May 2017

A spice sensation in oils at the Marianne North Gallery

As part of Kew’s Full of Spice festival, see the spice paintings by Victorian artist and traveller Marianne North, alongside items from the Economic Botany Collection

By Joanne Yeomans

The Marianne North Gallery

Many of Marianne’s 833 oil paintings depict spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and mace, pepper, tamarind and clove.

The Economic Botany Collection at Kew shows the extent to which humans have used plants, and items from this collection have been put on display in the gallery next to the permanent display of Marianne’s work, to further illustrate the uses of spices from around the world.

From 1870 onwards, Marianne North travelled the world while painting, and in 1882 she opened the gallery at Kew to display her work. She travelled to far reaching and exotic locations where species (such as the spices shown above) were growing indigenously, as well as in plantations and botanic gardens. Marianne encountered nutmeg during her time in Jamaica, having arrived on Christmas Eve in 1871. She had long dreamed of visiting the tropics and was overwhelmed by the vegetation. Here she painted the foliage, flowers and fruit of the nutmeg tree, as the species Myristica fragrans had been introduced to Grenada and the Caribbean by Sir Joseph Banks in 1782.


Foliage, flowers and fruit of the Nutmeg tree, and Humming Bird, Jamaica
Foliage, flowers and fruit of the Nutmeg tree, and Humming Bird, Jamaica by Marianne North © RBG Kew

The importance of nutmeg

Native to the Banda Islands in the Dutch East Indies — now Indonesia — the nutmeg tree was an important commodity due to its high price tag and was among many spices that at this time were flooding the western market. The Dutch controlled trade of this plant from 1621 when they invaded the Banda islands, the only location of the nutmeg tree, and created plantations. They dipped the nutmeg seeds into lime juice in case a fertile seed found its way from the island as well as keeping the price of nutmeg artificially high by destroying the crop if they harvested too much. The Dutch founded a Cape Colony in modern day South Africa in 1652, and used this as a direct ocean route to Indonesia up until the start of the 19th century when the Dutch Cape Colony was taken over by the British in 1806.

This direct sea route to and from Indonesia to the Dutch colony was important as transporting plants and seeds alive on long journeys by sea was a problem. In the 1770s, French horticulturist Pierre Poivre set up a ‘hospital’ for plants between Indonesia and Paris on the Île de France, now Mauritius. He ‘smuggled’ five nutmeg trees to the island and later increased this to 20,000 along with 300 clove trees. This helped to break the Dutch monopoly on their trade and in 1809 the British took the Banda Islands by force. They relocated some of the nutmeg trees to plantations in other parts of the world such as British Bencoolen, now Sumatra, where 100,000 trees were growing in 1820.

Sir Joseph Banks introduced the nutmeg tree to Grenada as the trees suited the soil and it brought the spice much closer to England, lessening the journey required. Growing economically viable plants in colonial gardens around the world was embraced by Britain, and the East India Company founded a garden close to the port of Calcutta in order to provide teak for the Navy’s shipbuilding. This led to the East India Company cultivating other plants such as cotton, tobacco, coffee and tea for the economic benefits as well as the advantage of exchanging plants with other botanic gardens to develop their collections.

Marianne North's Recollections of a Happy Life

During her time in Jamaica, in her diaries Recollections of a Happy Life, Marianne noted ‘two large nutmegs…with the beautiful outer fruit just opening and showing the nut and the crimson network of mace round it.’ The nutmeg tree is unique in that it produces two different spices. While in the Seychelles in 1883, Marianne painted cinnamon and clove trees. She wrote that ‘the trees of both cloves and cinnamon were from twelve to twenty feet high, and every leaf and twig was sweet, the young leaves of the most delicate pink colour’. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark from several trees of the genus Cinnamomum and is used in sweet and savoury foods. Cinnamon is also the commercial name used for many species in the genus but it is Cinnamomum verum which is referred to as true cinnamon.

"Chocolate, cloves and cinnamon were growing on the hills, and vanilla below in the hollows, as well as miles of cocoa-nuts on the shore." - Marianne North, Seychelles, 1883.

Marianne also painted species such as pepper (painting 613), and the clove tree features in paintings 492 and 688.

Joanne Yeomans - Gallery Assistant

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