Marianne North: Lady Painter

In 1872 a solo, female traveller in black dress and straw hat arrived at the Morro Velho goldmine just outside Nova Lima, Brazil. The operation cranked and spluttered atop a wealthy vein of gold located deep in the forest, gashed here and there by mine shafts, work sheds, dirt roads and housing. A mongrel dog named Lopez sidled up to the woman, sniffing at her refined, muddy edges. She nodded, put down her portmanteaux and stayed for the next eight months to paint tropical plants “in their homes”. Her name was Marianne North, of Hastings

Marianne was a botanical explorer, artist, and one of the most well-travelled women of her time. Her interest was seeing and recording the botanical wonders of the world, and she dedicated her lifetime to the pursuit. She made nearly 900 works, portraying 727 plant genera and roughly 1,000 plant species from across six continents.

At a time when women were expected to marry, have children and follow their husbands, Marianne never married and travelled independently to foreign destinations to work, equipped with paintbrushes, oil paints and easel.

Her life, in her own words, was a thoroughly fulfilled and happy one.

Marianne North was born in Hastings, England on 24 October 1830. The North family was wealthy, with land holdings and strong ties to conservative politics. Her father, Frederick North, was a Liberal MP and when parliament was out of session – or he fell foul of the voting electorate – the family spent their time travelling abroad. When Marianne was seventeen, they lived for three years across Europe, starting in Heidelberg, Germany and taking in Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Brussels amid a radical and changing landscape. In Heidelberg, Marianne recalled how:

“My father often took me on expeditions, starting by rail, and then plunging into the forests, over hills and valleys, where we met pretty roe-deer, hares, or foxes, and gathered great bunches of lilies of the valley; all was apparently so calm and peaceful, though at that moment great revolutions were hatching all over Europe.”

As an artist, Marianne started by drawing fungi and worked her way towards the plant kingdom. In London she received lessons in watercolour from a Dutch woman, Miss van Fowinkel, and later from the official ‘Flower Painter to the Queen’, Valentine Bartholomew. But her most influential instruction came from Australian artist, Robert Dowling, who showed her oil painting.

Marianne’s botanical education, on the other hand, began in the family’s garden at Hastings and expanded with regular visits to the Chiswick Gardens and Kew, where her father knew the director, Sir William Hooker. During one of the visits, Sir William gave Marianne a flowering branch of Amberstia nobilis (commonly, Pride of Burma). Years later, Marianne recalled how: “It was the first to bloom in England and made me long more and more to see the tropics.”

Portrait of Marianne North. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Janet North, Marianne’s mother, died when Marianne was twenty-four. There was a strong bond between father and daughter and, in keeping with her mother’s wishes, Marianne accompanied the widower Frederick for the rest of his life. This meant travel through France, the Pyrenees and Spain in 1859 (incidentally, the same year that family friend, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species). The summer of 1860 they spent in Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Turkey and Greece.

In 1865, Frederick lost his seat in parliament and channelled all activities towards the garden at Hastings. He had three glasshouses built: one for orchids (in the midst of ‘Orchidelirium’), one for temperate plants, and another for vines and cuttings. “We lived in those houses all the spring,” wrote Marianne, “my father smoking and reading in the temperate regions, where we had a table and chairs, while I washed and doctored all the sick plants, and potted off the young seedlings… We used to work like slaves, and were often working until it became too dark to see our flowers any longer.” Aside from gardening, that year the duo also took a cruise along the Nile and visited Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine.

Marianne was thirty-nine when her father passed away in 1869. The great loss of her friend and role model propelled her further towards what she knew best: travel, exploration, painting and nature. Despite the rarity of solo female explorers at the time, she covered remarkable distances, and made it to remote locales, with outward ease. In her travel writings she mentions nothing of loneliness or difficulties based on gender or language. She was an optimist, with money at her disposal and the privilege of class to open all doors. But even so, what drove Marianne to travel was her desire to work and experience nature in the purest sense.

She was quick on her feet, adaptable, and could tolerate the palaces of Rajahs as keenly as low-rent boarding houses and sleeping cars.

In July 1871 she made her first solo trip bound for the United States, commencing what would stretch out to fourteen years of independent, botanical exploration around the world. “Large leaved oaks, white pines, hemlock spruce and arborvitae hedges, wych elms (Ulmus glabra) and maples all showed one was not in England,” she wrote in her memoirs. She spent time in Boston, sketched for a fortnight at Niagara Falls, and visited New York. She dined with President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife and afterwards set out for Kingston, Jamaica. New York was for her lacklustre, just like all big cities, but tropical Jamaica was a revelation.

In Kingston she leased a twenty-room house, hidden in a deserted botanic gardens, for four pounds a month. Amongst mango, banana and mahogany trees, she declared herself “in a state of ecstasy and I hardly knew what to paint first … I painted all day, going out at daylight and not returning until noon, after which I worked at flowers in the house, as we had heavy rain most afternoons at that season: before sunset it cleared again and I used to walk up the hill and explore some new path, returning home in the dark.”

Cultivated Flowers, painted in Jamaica. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

She moved around the island for five months, staying with acquaintances, judges, doctors, governors and, at one point, at a house 1,500 metres above sea level, surrounded by a garden of violets, hibiscus, sweet verbena, gardenias, heliotrope and orange-flowers. Her time in Jamaica might have been perfect, if not for the locals at Port Antonio: “During the night rats came and ate holes in my boots, which were very precious and not easily replaced, so I always put them on top of the water jug during the rest of my stay on the island.”

Marianne returned to London in June 1882, but by August had boarded the Royal Mail Ship Neva bound for Brazil to continue her study of tropical plants. In Rio de Janeiro she lived at the Hotel des Etrangers and was driven daily by mule car – at full gallop – to the Botanical Gardens to paint. “The good Austrian director allowed me to keep my easel and other things at his house,” she recounted. “I felt quite at home there, and for some time worked every day and all day under its shady avenues, only returning at sunset to dine and to rest, far too tired to pay evening visits, and thereby disgusted some of my kind friends.”

Amongst them, Mr James Gordon, who was the superintendent at Morro Velho. He invited her to stay with his family at their jungle homestead, Casa Grande. Marianne accepted the invitation and started off on the 450km inland journey, intending to spend a fortnight there. Instead she stayed eight months. Casa Grande was “a rare house for an artist to settle in,” wrote Marianne, perhaps alluding to the mining colony itself, where slavery was still customary, or to her companions within the great house: macaws, peacocks, multi-coloured parrots and doves.

Her principal friend, she admitted, was Lopez the mongrel dog, who accompanied her on all walks, clearing her way and warning of two-headed snakes and other imminent dangers.

On these expeditions Marianne was able to observe what she called the “beauties of nature” within the pristine wilderness, and the “miseries of humanity” on the faces of slaves and the naked surface of logged forests.

View in Brazil near Ouro Preto with Oil Palms. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

These experiences in places like Brazil, and later in Tenerife, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and India, were privileged and unique, concentrated as they were around a turning point in the history of the world. In Rio de Janeiro, Marianne spent time with Emperor Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, who examined her paintings and helped her with plants she didn’t recognise. In Japan she was given permission by the Mikado to stay for three months in Kyoto, painting, when ‘sakoku’ policy still had regional effect. Letters of introduction placed her in the palace-home of Rajah and Rani of Sarawak and gave her access to locations where plants grew, still unknown to science. In the early days of cameras, Ceylon-based photographer, Julia Cameron, took Marianne’s portrait while she stood, tanned and draped in cashmere, her long hair in plaits.

She spent a year and a half hurtling through India on an unlimited rail pass and, in Darjeeling, sat and painted the view of a distant Mount Everest.

By March 1879 she was home. With a growing number of artworks causing havoc in her small London apartment, Marianne held a two-month exhibition on Conduit Street in Mayfair. In September she headed off again: first to meet her sister and brother-in-law in Switzerland; then for a few relaxed days on Lake Como; and on to Florence, where she saw the grape harvest. Her life was constant motion.

It was Charles Darwin who encouraged her to paint in Australia. “One day I was asked by Mrs Lichfield to come and meet her father, Charles Darwin, who wanted to see me, but could not climb my stairs.” Darwin told her that she shouldn’t attempt any further work until she’d seen and painted Australian plants. She took this as a royal command and left from Marseilles to Brisbane via Sarawak in April 1880.

By now it was established behaviour that, wherever possible, Marianne eschewed cities and maximised her time in the countryside. So she landed in Brisbane, visited the botanic gardens, and quickly retreated inland. “I spread my pocket handkerchief on a tuft of grass for a pillow and lay on my back examining the eucalyptus trees overhead for an hour at least,” she recalled of a visit to the Bunyan Mountains. In the Blue Mountains, she saw the waratah in its natural habitat. A local painter in Albany showed her wildflowers she “had never seen or even dreamed of before.”

Her botanist’s eye was, however, constantly disturbed, from Sydney all the way to Perth, by the sight of gardens “full of imported bushes and plants dying a lingering death of thirst”.

The completion of the Australian paintings left only one gap in Marianne’s works: the plants of South Africa. But travel was temporarily put on hold while she planned a permanent home for her collection. Her idea was to build a gallery within the grounds of Kew at her own expense. Sir Joseph Hooker, the son of Sir William (who had succeeded his father in the position of garden director) immediately agreed to the plan, and proposed a catalogue of her works too. While construction went on, Marianne headed to Cape Town, in search of a flowering king protea (Protea cynaroides). Over lunch in Port Elizabeth she mentioned her plight to a friend, who immediately excused himself from the table, ran down the road and brought her back a huge specimen, newly cut from a neighbour’s garden.

The Marianne North Gallery opened in June 1882. Inside, 832 of her paintings lined the walls like tightly placed postage stamps thrown into geographical order. The public poured in from day one to glimpse at Marianne’s experiences of exotic places and rare plants.

Ipomoea and Vavangue with Mahe, Seychelles. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit at the Takamaka, Praslin, Seychelles. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

At the end of September 1883, Marianne left her gallery behind bound for the Seychelles. There in the mountain rainforests she discovered a previously unknown tree, sent flower samples back to London, and Sir Joseph promptly named the genus for her, Northia seychellana. She painted constantly, but after some time was forced into quarantine on Long Island when an outbreak of smallpox occurred. In the confines of the island, and with the confluence of many events over the course of many years, Marianne’s nerves broke and she reported hearing voices, imagined threats. Distraught, she barricaded herself in her room until a boat came to return her to England.

Marianne’s final expedition was to Chile, where she hoped to paint the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and terrestrial bromeliad (Puya chilensis) despite the nervous anxiety that continued to plague her. Punta Arenas was the first stop, near the southernmost tip of Patagonian Chile. Here she saw, for the first time, great masses of Puya chilensis: “the flowers of a light yellow green, with intensely orange stamens, growing in bunches which were arranged spirally around the head of an aloe-like stem, eight or nine feet high.” Her search for the monkey puzzle tree posed greater dangers. Locals warned her of being eaten by pumas or, worse, suggested her hunt was futile because the trees had been logged to make railway sleepers. But, as she approached the Cordillera de Nahuelbuta mountain range, the force of each rumour vanished. The forests existed, and were owned by two Irish men, who happily accompanied her there.

“The most remarkable thing about the tree is its bark, which is a perfect child’s puzzle of slabs of different sizes, with five or six distinct sides to each, all fitted together with the neatness of a honeycomb,” she wrote, after seeing it with her own eyes.

At the age of fifty-five, Marianne discovered what she called “the pleasure of staying quietly at home.” She retired from travel to a cottage in Gloucestershire, planted a garden and wrote her autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life. After years pursuing exotic plants and places, she had arrived at one simple, personal conclusion: “No life is so charming as a country one in England,” she declared, “and no flowers are sweeter and more lovely than the primroses, cowslips, bluebells and violets which grow in abundance all around me here.”

Marianne died on 30 August 1890. She was fifty-nine and had accomplished in those years what others might, given three or four full lifetimes.

The Permanent Snows, from Santiago, Chile. © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

You can visit the Marianne North Gallery at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew throughout the year.

All images used with the kind permission of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Further reading: ‘Recollections of a Happy Life: The Autobiography of Marianne North’ (1892) Cambridge University Press.

Native Vanilla hanging from the Wile Orange, Praslin, Seychelles
Northia hornei Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit of the Capucin Tree of the Seychelles