Marianne north - painter and explorer

In 1699, at the age of 52, the German artist Maria Sibylla Merian, accompanied only by her younger daughter, traveled some 5,000 miles from Amsterdam to the Dutch colony of Suriname to study and paint the country’s insects and plants. Nearly two hundred years later, in 1871, the British artist Marianne North (1830–1890) traveled solo to North America and Jamaica to paint the countries’ landscapes, plants, and wildlife. Like Merian, North had a burning obsession to explore and study nature at close range and, in her words, “to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance.”

North’s modest fortune allowed her to finance numerous solo expeditions over the next thirteen years, visiting 16 countries on five continents: Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Brazil (100 paintings over 8 months), Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Sri Lanka, India (200 paintings over 15 months), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Seychelles, and Chile. She was fearless in venturing into wild areas and difficult terrain where she would simply set up her easel and paint until the work was finished. In all, North created more than 800 oil paintings, many of which portrayed plants that were little known to botanists. Like Merian, she routinely included insects and all manner of wildlife in her paintings.

In addition to botanical subjects, North's works also include magnificent scenic landscapes and snapshots of local life, architecture, statues, and temples. Many of the paintings use a single plant to frame a distant landscape, thus setting the plant clearly in its habitat, something that traditional botanical illustration doesn’t attempt. While this style has had its critics, it is remarkable and engaging. The painting, at right, of the pitcher plant, Nepenthes northiana,1 is an excellent example of this style of presentation.

In 1880, North met with Charles Darwin who encouraged her to travel to Australia and New Zealand to paint their most unusual vegetation. She viewed this as a "royal command" and was in route by April. On her return voyage to England the following year, she stopped briefly in Arizona to paint its unique desert plants. The work, "Vegetation of the Desert of Arizona", portrays a landscape that includes saguaros, ocotillos, and a number of smaller plants on the desert floor. A graceful blooming ocotillo stem frames a distant view of mountains. Note that North’s saguaros, like many others by nineteenth century artists (John Mix Stanley comes to mind), are not drawn in a particularly accurate way.

Some of North’s later critics have objected to her use of oil painting instead of watercolor2 that has traditionally been used in British botanical art. But North liked the vibrancy of oil painting, calling it “a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” North's painting of the pitcher plant shows the success of using such intense colors.

North’s final journey was to Chile, in 1884, where she went in search of Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree. At this point she was beginning to suffer the effects of her constant travels. Her last years were spent in Alderley, Gloucestershire, where she transformed a lawn-tennis ground into a terraced garden, populated with plants sent to her from Kew and from friends around the world.

North gave all of her paintings to Kew Gardens to be housed in the Marianne North Gallery, a project for which she paid all design and construction costs.3 The photograph shown above is but one of the galleries, all of which are a dizzying explosion of color. North herself designed the galleries, including the tight spacing between paintings. In all, there are 832 paintings in the Gallery along with 246 types of wood that she collected during her travels. Kew Gardens has prepared a brief video tour of the Gallery on YouTube

All of North’s works can be seen on Kew’s website, but the size of the images is a bit small. A far better viewing experience can be had at Art UK.

In 2018, Kew published for the first time all of the 832 paintings from the North Gallery. Marianne North: The Kew Collection, is a glorious book, organized by location and complete with North’s annotations for the works. The book, reasonably priced and readily available online, is truly mesmerizing. Also available online is an earlier work published by Kew, A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North, which contains many of her paintings along with extensive excerpts from her autobiographies.

North's autobiography, Recollections of a happy life, being the autobiography of Marianne North, is fascinating. It was edited by North's sister and published posthumously. Particularly interesting is her sister’s account of North’s final years in England. Both Volume 1 and Volume 2 can be read or downloaded from the Internet Archive.—Cindy Hartwell

1The interesting account of finding and painting the pitcher plant can be found in North's autobiography. In 1876, she was working in Sarawak, Borneo, when "Mr E. [Everett] went up a mountain near and brought me down some grand trailing specimens of the largest of all pitcher-plants, which I festooned round the balcony by its yards of trailing stems. I painted a portrait of the largest, and my picture afterwards induced Mr Veitch to send a traveller to seek the seeds, from which he raised plants and Sir Joseph Hooker named the species Nepenthes northiana."
The traveler sent to find the seeds was Charles Curtis, one of many plant hunters employed by Veitch Nurseries to collect new plants from distant lands. It required more than a little effort to locate the plant, as was recounted in Hortus Veitchii: "After long and unsuccessful effort, Curtis gave up hope, under the impression that Miss North had been wrongly informed, but fortunately before leaving the district it occurred to him to look over steep escarpment in the hill-side, accomplished by lying prostrate on the ground, when to his great joy he discovered the long-looked-for plant some distance below."

2The art historian Wilfrid Blunt (brother of Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures and Soviet spy) was no fan of North's work. He wrote in The Art of Botanical Illustration: "Botanists consider [North] primarily as an artist; but artists will hardly agree, for her painting is almost wholly lacking in sensibility. ... Moreover her work, being painted in oils, is almost unaffected by light and remains perennially gaudy... "

3Wilfrid Blunt also had unkind words about North's gift of her paintings and funding for the gallery's construction. "The disagreeable impression made by her pictures is enhanced through her determination to display nearly eight hundred paintings in a gallery barely capable of showing fifty to advantage." Blunt is frequently quoted as describing the paintings in the galleries as "a gigantic botanical postage-stamp album”.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the October 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.