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.

Margaret Fountaine – around the world in search of butterflies

I first became fascinated with Margaret Fountaine when I stumbled upon an amazing collection of 22,000 butterflies in Norwich Castle museum. And each one was collected by an incredible Victorian woman. For over fifty years, her passions took her to sixty countries. She even raised butterflies from caterpillars or eggs so her collecting would cause no harm to the environment. And if that wasn’t enough, she also produced four volumes of sketches of butterfly life cycles that are now housed in the Natural History Museum in London.

Of course Margaret had something that’s a common theme among these intrepid Victorian female travellers that fascinate me so much. Money. An inheritance from an uncle, when she was 27. It was her passport to a world outside the confines of Victorian society, a world she recorded in twelve volumes of diaries that remained sealed, at her instruction, until 1978, a hundred years after she started them. And they revealed that she’d had quite a life – not many Victorian women could boast of hanging out with a gang of bandits in Corsica and speeding along a road in Tenerife crammed into a car with eight young Spaniards. Not bad for a woman who began life as a clergyman’s daughter.

Margaret never married, but she had her fair share of admirers. While collecting butterflies in Syria, she hired a local man fifteen years younger than her, Khalil Neimy, as her guide and translator. This arrangement worked well, so well in fact that they spent the next twenty-seven years together, until Khalil’s death in 1928. He even proposed to her and she accepted. Their adventures took them to North Africa, Australia, Central America, The Far East, India and the USA. But Khalil had forgotten one tiny detail. His wife in Damascus, whom he was going to divorce, of course. Nothing changes, does it? Only after his death did Margaret discover just how many lies he’d told her. After he died, Khalil’s wife bombarded Margaret with begging letters asking for support for his five children.

But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Khalil. There was no doubt that he was devoted to Margaret; he offered to work for her for no wages, just to be close to her. Margaret acknowledged him in naming her butterfly collection the Fountaine-Neimy collection. But her heart, it seems, already belonged to an Irish scoundrel, with whom she fell in love in her twenties. Here’s an extract from her diaries.

‘The greatest passion, and perhaps the most noble love of my life, was no doubt for Septimus Hewson, and the blow I received from his heartless conduct left a scar upon my heart, which no length of time ever quite effaced.’

Sadly, history doesn’t record exactly what scurrilous Septimus did to poor Margaret. We know he was slung out of the Norwich choir for drinking and went home to Limerick, where he died.

Altogether more romantic was Margaret’s end. She died in 1940, aged 78, of a heart attack while collecting butterflies in Trinidad. And that’s why I love her story so much. Could there be a more appropriate and happy ending to her story? I’m sure we’d all like to die doing the thing we love, so maybe we should increase the odds and spend more time on things we actually enjoy.