This week, I’m back to one of my favourite subjects: intrepid Victorian travellers. A few years ago, while at Kew Gardens, I was blown away by the Marianne North Gallery, which is crammed full of the most vibrant paintings of plants from around the world. It’s a dizzying spectacle, and I had to find out more!
Marianne North was born in 1830 into a wealthy family, the daughter of an MP, and was expected to live a respectable life. But none of the options available to Victorian women appealed to her. While she thought marriage a ‘terrible experiment’ that transformed women into ‘a sort of upper servant,’ she felt that spinsters were expected to ‘sacrifice their health, time and money to become mothers and daughters to society.’ Following the death of her mother in 1855, she became a travelling companion to her father. Unusually for a young woman of the time, she mixed with key figures in science, art, literature and politics, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Edward Lear.
In 1867, although watercolours were considered more ladylike, she took lessons in oil painting and was soon hooked, describing it as ‘a vice like dram drinking.’ A few years later, her father died and, at the age of 40, she used her inherited wealth to see the world’s natural wonders. She travelled first to Sicily, and then to Canada, the United States and Jamaica, where she rose at dawn and painted in the open air in the morning, then continued indoors when the rains came. She’d found her life’s passion and over the next thirteen years visited Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa. Her work brought her to the attention of Charles Darwin, who suggested she visited Australia and New Zealand; afterwards she presented him with a painting. At first she carried letters of introduction to ambassadors but even though her connections opened many doors, she preferred to make her own arrangements for travel and accommodation. She despised the expatriate pastimes of ‘gossip, socializing and clothes’, describing herself as a ‘wild bird’ that needed liberty. She had no fear of ‘roughing it’ and clambered up cliffs and through swarms of insects in order to find her subjects, sleeping on the ground if she had to.
But Marianne was becoming well known in Victorian society as she returned home periodically with yet more exotic images. She exhibited her work in London in 1879, and the success of the exhibition gave her an idea. She presented her paintings as a gift to Kew and commissioned an architect to design a gallery in which to house them. The lower portions of the gallery walls were clad in wood collected from her travels and the paintings were hung according to their place of origin, with the stipulation that their tightly packed arrangement must never be changed.
Marianne was still missing one continent from her collection: Africa. In 1882 and 1883, she travelled down to the Cape and up to the Seychelles. However, by now her health was failing and her 1884 trip to Chile was her last. She retired to Gloucestershire and died in 1890. In total, she painted over 900 species of plants in great scientific detail, and was respected by both artists and botanists: the genus Northia was named in her honour
As well as being a talented artist, Marianne was also a skilled writer and published two volumes of her autobiography, aptly titled Recollections of a Happy Life.