North, Jamaican cultivated flowers, 1871
Her father Frederick North certainly introduced her to the great and the good in the world of politics and of science. Frederick travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East, on both business and pleasure, and Marianne would often accompany him. On these trips, she learned to improve her skills as an artist, being taught first by a Dutch woman artist, and later by Valentine Bartholomew, a flower painter connected to the royal court. While visiting Kew, she met Sir William Hooker who presented her with specimens to sketch. But she had little formal training in drawing and painting.
North, Tobacco Plants
With her father’s death in 1870 and having never married, Marianne received much of her father's very pleasant estates in Lancashire and Norfolk, and now sought to use it in her passion: painting flowers in their natural settings. She clearly had the means, funding her own trips to the far corners of the world to find her flowers in their natural environment.
And, as Edwardian Promenade has shown, there was new wave of lady explorers travelling the globe not as mere appendages to their male kinfolk, but as scholars in their own right. This blog also lists some wonderful books on Victorian lady travellers and scholars.
Her first journey alone was in 1871, when she travelled via Jamaica to the United States and Canada. Being well connected from birth, she of course had suitable letters of introduction, so initially it would seem that her travels were comfortably looked after. However sometimes she had to make her way through rough landscape, scaling cliffs and enduring swarms of insects.
North learned to paint in a fast, impressionistic style that was seen as either a feminine weakness or a scientific triumph, full of vitality. She understood plant taxonomy, being a keen naturalist herself, and had a number of species named after her.
Her second solo journey took her to the jungles of Brasil, where she stayed for 8 months and completed 100+ paintings. Then in 1875 she travelled across America on her way to Japan and Ceylon, then she returned home. In a very short time, she was on her way again, this time to India. She remained in India for 15 months and produced a remarkable 200 paintings of mostly plants, but also of the local buildings she liked. Upon her return to London in 1879 she exhibited her work at The Conduit Street Galleries, where visitors seemed to enjoy her work. LITTLE AUGURY, Heather on her travels and Squidoo blogs have image after image of North’s beautiful work
Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens
In 1879 she wrote to the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sir Joseph Hooker, suggesting that she bequeath her collected works, along with a building suitable to house them, to his Gardens at Kew. There was only one extra request: that this site should serve as place for garden visitors to rest. Her donation was accepted and Kew gained one of it most significant components, The Marianne North Gallery. Her friend, architectural historian James Fergusson, designed the building after her favourite Indian colonial sites. Later (in the 1880s) she carefully arranged all her 832 paintings in a dense mosaic on the walls, sorted according to geographical location of subject.
Charles Darwin, a close friend of old Mr North, encouraged Marianne to travel to Australia and New Zealand, to paint Antipodean native plants in oils. In that expedition she met and befriended the younger artist, Marian Ellis Rowan, an important meeting, as we will see next post. In the meantime it is of interest to note, according to Laura Ponsonby, that North considered Darwin the greatest man living and had hoped that he would open her Gallery in 1882. Sadly he died some weeks before the event.
In 1883 North was in the Seychelles and in 1884 in Chile, still painting. After a life time of travel, no mean feat for a woman of that era, having led an adventurous, productive life. She retired to Gloucestershire, where she died in Aug 1890.
Her book, published 1892, two years after her death
After her death, Marianne’s extensive journals were edited and cleaned up by her sister, Catherine North Symonds, and published in two volumes in 1892 as Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the Autobiography of Marianne North, London, Macmillan, 1892.
Marianne North was the best connected and the most intrepid woman artist of this era, but was her oeuvre considered popular and talented during her own life time? I can find a few contemporary references to her work by admiring women activists, but none by male artists.
Florilegia, collections of flower paintings, have been done since Sir Joseph Banks depicted and published images of plants he collected on the Endeavour in the 1760s. Yet it is only now (1995) that Chelsea Physic Garden established its own Florilegium Society whose primary aim is the portrayal of the Garden's entire collection. These modern scientific artists would have loved having North as part of their team.
In the next post, I will write Amazing botanical artist II - Marian Ellis Rowan.