Reckoning with Marianne North

In the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens in London, 832 botanical paintings by one woman hang frame-kissing-frame in two vaulted rooms, both visible at once. Agaves, mangoes, cacti, palms, spices, fruit and flowers from India, Australia, South Africa, Japan, the Seychelles, Borneo, Chile and America lie splayed out before you. It’s a lot to take in, like being with a lover who gives too much too soon and, despite being in love, you somehow feel diminished by their largesse. You’re forced to wonder: how can I ever do enough?

The gallery opened in 1882: North paid for its construction. I first visited 104 years later, when I was a young intern in the alpine department at Kew. North’s paintings didn’t resonate with me then; while I’d painted Canadian wildflowers for conservation work, I wasn’t into what I then would have called ‘tropical flowers’. I likely couldn’t contextualise her work either; the rub between botanical illustration and colonisation didn’t have the intellectual friction it does for me now, so there was no spark.

In North’s 19th century, the velocity of empire swept up both people and plants. As a young woman, she attended England’s first Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Britain’s colonies – including India, Canada, Australia, the West Indies – were all represented. As Richard Mabey wrote of the zeitgeist of the time: ‘Nothing was more encouraging to an aggressively expansive and optimistic people than the ceaseless parade of new resources and natural marvels that its explorers and entrepreneurs were bringing home from the colonies.’ You feel that acquisitiveness in the gallery; there are simply so many incredible plants. While world’s fairs highlighted imperial conquests – animal, vegetable or human – economic botanists went on the hunt for foods, medicines, resources and products to feed the factories of the global north. North was not among them – she stands apart for many reasons, but primarily for being a woman. Still, she was a part of her time, when the affluent and educated went abroad on study tours, on archaeological digs, on painting trips and collecting expeditions – and through them colonisation, capitalism, individualism and globalisation spread.

North’s gallery – the busy Victorian all of it – the paintings, the architecture, the colours, tiles, gilt and the 265 species of ‘exotic’ wood, framed piece-bypiece as wainscoting, are more reminiscent of Sir Hans Sloane’s giant cabinet of colonial curiosities than a gallery. The serried paintings are numbered with corresponding cards lower down in the gallery, so your head bobs up and down if you choose to read. In the section marked ‘Australia’, the tag of a lush floral still life simply reads Wild Flowers of the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Brazilian orchids covers what looks like three species. There are not solely plant portraits, but also landscapes, scenes of villages, portals, ruins, gates and islands. The paintings sing, but the text beguiles: Chilean ground orchids and other flowers reads a floriferous #18. #441 says Green-flowered Ixia, and other Cape Singularities. It’s easy to wonder, but hard to learn.

Marianne North painting in Makhanda, South Africa. c.1883 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

NORTH WAS FIFTY-TWO when she opened the gallery, precisely the age I am now – a time when I can afford to sit with her work for a long while. I go to the gallery six times during a visit to London to see my son and hole up in a flat in Kew to write. I’m working on my second book, which is loosely about tropical and semitropical flowers, but instead of wandering the glasshouses, or writing, I spend my mornings reading about North. I want to know how she created such a vast body of work by my age. How could she, a 19th-century woman, have travelled alone in Borneo? And India and Africa? How did she eschew marriage, children? Focus so intently on her craft? I sit in the gallery thinking it’s research, when maybe what I’m looking for is the answer to the question of how her passion and commitment might guide me in living the next chapter of my life.

That answer is not in her autobiography. It’s tamely titled Recollections of a Happy Life, and serves more as a travelogue than memoir. The opening page stolidly traces her lineage; in the first hundred words she lists eight prestigious men’s names. It’s an honest start, I suppose, these markers of privilege. North had means – she did not work for a wage. Who, in her position or of her gender, then, would, or even could? Her father was a Member of Parliament. When he died and she resolved to paint plants and travel, she knew well the social fabric of empire and pulled the many strings accorded to her class. She had been introduced by her father to Sir William Hooker, the first official director of Kew; later his son Joseph, also a director of Kew Gardens, would approve her donation of the gallery.

Marianne North. Native Vanilla Hanging from the Wild Orange, Praslin, Seychelles. Oil on board, c.1883. © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

HER AUTOBIOGRAPHY DETAILS HOW, on her travels, she used letters of introduction like tickets to ride – in rutted roads on colonial governor’s buggies, up rivers, over mountains – to places where she might get a bed and maid, or rent a house, or slum it on a camp cot in a barn. By today’s standards she was, by turns, incredibly brave and bewildering. She barely batted an eyelash at slavery, writing in 1894 (more than sixty years after the UK’s Slave Emancipation Act): ‘It is a mistake to suppose that slaves are not well treated; I have seen them petted as we pet animals, and they usually went about grinning and singing.’

Not to diminish the horror of those words, but The Great Exhibition may have had an effect. To borrow from academic Michael Brooks: ‘The exposition’s human and material displays educated visitors about … their colonial subjects’ lifestyles in an idyllic and picturesque manner, devoid of any notion of resistance, conflict, pacification or violence.’ North considered herself ‘civilised’, and her nation considered itself a civilising force.

In Brazil she is questioned how it is she can afford to travel and paint flowers. ‘Did the Government pay my expenses?’ she writes. No, she did, but so odd was her independent womanly path, and so broad the reach of colonial science, that it wasn’t such a strange question to have been asked.

I’VE WRITTEN ONE BOOK ON FLOWERS and I’m at work on another. The government hasn’t helped with either. I lecture, give workshops, grow and sell flowers, cobble and create. That’s still not enough because I love to travel and see my son: so how do I support that? I don’t – like North, a history of patriarchs provide.

Looking back at my younger self, I’m guessing I saw North’s work and figured, with twenty-something aplomb, I could do something similar with my life: travel, make art and write. But I didn’t have enough money or focus or gumption then, and so I did not do something similar with my life – I had a baby and found a way into graduate school shortly after leaving Kew. And with that baby now settled not far from the garden, I feel I should do more for plants. I’m acquisitive too: I yearn to photograph flowers in far-flung places, not glasshouses. And yet it’s so hard now, environmentally, to travel.

My favourite grandmother had a safari room (brass tables, animal skins, grass wallpaper) where she hung a framed map of the world. She pushed coloured pins into this map to record her travels. With matching thread, she connected cities and countries so that patterns stretched across the hemispheres. One thin yellow line went up the Yangtze; blue thread strung together the Falklands, and green triangles fell across the Black Sea. Europe dazzled me with its web of pins, while New Zealand and Australia were connected in a taut white line stretching to and from Hawaii. In Africa, she had one colour for Egypt and Morocco, another for Kenya, South Africa and the Seychelles. The Galapagos she wove into a small nest of purple, mirroring the pale blue clouds of thread floating above the Caribbean. In one corner of the world, she strung out a legend with the threads, each colour labelled with a year.

When I was learning to colour the countries of the world in school, I’d sit at my desk gnawing a rainbow of coloured pencils, straining to remember what shade went where, to somehow match my legend to my Granny’s. I have not entirely, but the ethos of travel-as-edification handed down from Victorian times still burns in my veins.

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, botanists went abroad to collect, sketch and press plants. The style they used – taxonomic, line-drawn – could be reproduced lithographically, water-coloured and, later in the century, reproduced chromolithographically. Interest in plants grew from these books, and botany – of the many sciences – was considered an acceptable subject for women. The 19th century also saw the mass production of hothouse-grown plants, carpet bedding, a fern craze and an orchid craze … all fuelled by botanical exploration and exploitation in the global south.

But North was not a collector or botanist. She worked in oil paints. She also worked in ecological associations, so in the gallery section marked ‘Jamaica’, Leonotis nepetifolia (an African species) flames orange while a hummingbird sails past. In Borneo, the white stars of a crinum (that would come to be named for her) fill the frame, and you’re sated with just that one image until you glimpse the same plant growing in the stream behind. She knew: there is so much to know about plants. After fifteen years of travel and painting, she stated her goal had been to ‘paint from nature’. Some consider this was North’s desire – to show the connections between living things. Her era was Darwin’s and she knew of his work; they eventually met in 1880. Unfettered by conventional employment outside the academy, North painted what she saw, hinted at what she understood. Victorian botanists were deconstructing seed from leaf, prying things apart and, if not fully objectifying nature, then at the very least stripping the subjective from it. North did the opposite, painted the people in the garden, the child carrying the fruit and the bird with a plant’s seed.

Marianne North. Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit of a Queensland Tree, and Black Cockatoo. Oil on board. c. early 1880s. © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe,’ John Berger once wrote. You visit a gallery, bring a new set of issues to it, and you see something new. That’s how art works. It’s you and the art, and the art isn’t changing: you are.

I realise that North’s world is radically different from mine. And though I see her work through a fractured lens of history, politics and identity, still, somewhere in my heart of hearts, I admire her clarity of focus. Her words: ‘after a month of perfect quiet and incessant painting … ’ sound like peace. I too want to deep-see; to do my work and have my identity fall away. Now we check our privilege at almost every intersection of thought, and rightly so. But there are so many thoughts as a writer, so many intersections, and some days, it’s too much. North’s paintings make me want to lose myself when I feel I live in an era that requires that self to be constantly, indefatigably, present.

Did all the time I spent with North tell me how her passion and commitment might help me live my life? Looking back, I’d have to say yes. Within months of returning from England, months when her books sat on my desk, I started a grant program – very small, but something others wanted to donate to. It gives grantees the ability to travel or write on behalf of flowers. I know the element of travel is problematic, but so is the luxury of time to research and write about plants. Perhaps North, in all her largesse, helped me recognise that despite my privilege, I could never do enough. But I could do something: I could help other women study plants.

Post cover image caption: Marianne North. The Baths of Cauquenas in the Cordilleras, South of Santiago. Oil on board, c.1880s. © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.