Marianne North – painted the world’s flora.

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!

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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.


Gertrude Bell – queen of the desert

Gertrude Bell is the subject of a film, Queen of the Desert, scheduled for release later this year, so I’d better tell the story of this extraordinary woman before Hollywood distorts it. Gertrude was born in 1868 in county Durham, to a wealthy industrialist. She studied at Oxford where, despite a male tutor who insisted that women sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a first class degree in modern history. Because she was a woman, she was unable to graduate, and her Oxford education made her ‘unmarriageable’ so in in 1892 she jumped at the chance to travel with her aunt to Iran, where her uncle was the British Ambassador. She fell in love with the culture, visiting archaeological sites, and developing a great affection for the people. As a self-styled ‘queen of the desert’, she surrounded herself by an entourage of camels and male guides and travelled the Middle East, giving lavish gifts wherever she went. The locals were usually shocked to see a female traveller but Gertrude’s ability to speak their language (she spoke French, Persian, Arabic and Turkish) won her many friends; she was treated as an honorary male and not judged in the way she had been at home. In fact, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.

Gertrude spent much of the next decade travelling the world and learning about archaeology, as well as developing a passion for mountaineering; she became the greatest women mountaineer of the time and was renowned for surviving 53 hours on a rope, clinging to a rock face while caught in a blizzard in an attempt to climb an unconquered mountain in the Alps.

In the First World War, her knowledge of the tribes, geography and politics of the area attracted the attention of British Intelligence, who recruited her for an intelligence operation in Cairo known as the Arab bureau, along with T.E. Lawrence. But history has largely forgotten her; she was not mentioned in T.E. Lawrence’s biography and has more recently been patronisingly referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia. But while few Arabs remembered T.E. Lawrence, even now ‘Miss Bell’ is spoken of in Baghdad with affection.

Gertrude was an official of the British administration in Baghdad after the war, receiving a CBE and writing a white paper reviewing the civil administration in Mesopotamia and in 1921 attended a conference in Cairo, the only female delegate, where she drew the boundaries of the Arab state that became Iraq, as well as choosing its first leader, King Faisal. A lone woman among Arab men, she became a confidante of King Faisal and gained the nickname El Khatun, the lady of the court.

Gertrude never married but had an affair with a married man, Major Vahrles Doughty-Wylie between 1913 and 1915, with whom she exchanged passionate letters. She begged him to leave his wife, telling him, ‘it’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.’ Unable to choose, Doughty-White chose to lead a dangerous mission in Gallipoli in 1915 and was killed by a Turkish bullet. Reports of his strange calmness that day – he made no attempt to avoid bullets – have led to speculation that he was suicidal.

Gertrude described herself as an antiquarian at heart and she devoted her later years to archaeology, establishing the Baghdad Archaeological Museum but died unexpectedly aged 58 of an overdose of sleeping pills. It was not known whether her death was accidental or deliberate. An obituary praised her ‘masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.’