Marianne North: A Victorian Pioneer in Botanical Exploration and Art

Marianne North and her father, Frederick North, were regular visitors to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. During one visit, the botanist and family friend William Jackson Hooker—first director of Kew—presented Marianne with a hanging bouquet of Amherstia nobilis, a magnificent flower native to Thailand and Burma. It was 1856, and this moment ignited Marianne’s deep desire to travel to tropical regions and capture their vibrant vegetation on canvas.

The Unconventional Life of Marianne North

Born on October 24, 1830, in Hastings, Marianne North was part of a wealthy Victorian family. Despite receiving no formal education and having a brief and unsuccessful stint in school, her family’s bohemian lifestyle exposed her to a vibrant circle of musicians, artists, and botanists, including William Henry Hunt and Edward Lear. Her father’s friendship with Charles Darwin further enriched her upbringing. Although Marianne initially received music lessons, her true passion lay in drawing and painting, with a particular fascination for plants. The family’s extensive travels in Europe between 1847 and 1850 fueled her lifelong thirst for exploration.

Despite only a brief mention in her autobiography, the first significant turning point in Marianne’s life occurred with her mother’s death in 1855. She promised her mother never to leave her father. For the next nine years, Marianne and her sister accompanied their father on extensive travels throughout Europe. It was during one of these journeys, when Marianne was 37 years old, that she discovered the transformative power of oil painting through her encounter with the Australian artist Robert Dowling.

Nepenthes northiana, painted by Marianne North in 1876

Marianne’s world was shattered when her father passed away in October 1869, leaving her bereft and alone. Yet, his passing also granted her a substantial inheritance that allowed her to pursue her passions freely. At nearly 40 years old, Marianne found herself in control of her own destiny. She rejected the societal expectation of marriage and domesticity, she viewed marriage as a confining experience that transformed women into “upper-class servants.” Marianne cherished her freedom and sought solace among the natural world, finding companionship and inspiration in plants and flowers.

Selling her house in Hastings, Marianne embarked on a global journey armed with her painting equipment. She commenced her world tour in Sicily, followed by travels to America, Canada, the United States, Jamaica, and eventually Brazil. Unconcerned about societal conventions and unafraid of traveling alone, Marianne forged her own path, relying on letters of introduction to navigate the world. These letters, which served as her key to unlocking doors, connected her with fellow members of the British upper class throughout the British Empire.

Marianne North, The World Traveling Painter

Over the span of six years, Marianne ventured through numerous countries, including Japan, Borneo, Java, and Ceylon, capturing the essence of their botanical wonders on canvas. Her nomadic lifestyle afforded her the freedom to pursue her artistic inclinations and break away from the established norms of scientific illustration. Unlike her contemporaries, Marianne painted with oil, defying the prevalent use of brush or watercolor for botanical representations. Moreover, she chose to depict plants in their natural environments rather than on neutral backgrounds. Despite the challenges of painting outdoors, she adapted, employing cardboard and a limited color palette to ensure mobility in often arduous terrains.

Marianne North’s perseverance led her to South Asia, where she spent 15 months in India, creating over 200 paintings. Following a suggestion from Charles Darwin, she journeyed to Australia and New Zealand in 1880, producing over 300 more artworks. She later ventured to South Africa, the Seychelles, and Chile, discovering numerous plant species that were eventually named in her honor, such as Areca northiana, Crinum northianum, Kniphofia northiae, Nepenthes northiana, and the genus Northia.

Marianne’s ceaseless travels eventually gave way due to declining health, prompting her to settle in Gloucestershire. There, she dedicated her final years to pen her autobiography before passing away on August 30, 1890, at the age of 59.

Driven not only by her passion for painting but also by a desire to share the wonders of nature, Marianne sought respect and recognition for her work. Following a successful exhibition in London in 1879, she generously donated her collection to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, under the directorship of Sir Joseph Hooker, son of William Jackson Hooker. Marianne even founded the construction of her own gallery, which opened in 1882 and remains a testament to her legacy. Today, the gallery at Kew showcases Marianne North’s 832 paintings, inviting visitors on a botanical voyage across five continents and 17 countries, celebrating the harmonious union of art and nature.

If you want to read about another figure from the Victorian era, I wrote about the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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