Marianne North was a Victorian botanical artist, plant hunter and traveller.
She was born in Hastings in 1830, the eldest child of a wealthy family with several homes and seats in Parliament. Together with her two younger siblings and her parents, she used to divide her time between Hastings, London, Lancashire and Norfolk. While she was growing up, her parents ensured she received the sort of education considered appropriate for a young woman in Victorian times, which included painting and singing. Soon Marianne favoured the former over the latter, and it is thought that her father’s acquaintance with the Director of the Royal Gardens at Kew inspired her to paint exotic plants.
Travelling was a permanent fixture of Marianne’s life. She travelled with her family throughout her childhood, including on a three-year trip around Europe. When her mother died, in 1855, Marianne was asked to promise that she would never leave her father’s side. Frederick North was an MP, but every summer, after Parliament closed, he would travel to Europe with his daughters Marianne and Catherine. Together they went to Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy and Greece, and on one of these trips, Marianne painted her first watercolour. In 1864 Catherin married, and in 1865 Frederick retired from Parliament, which left him and Marianne even more time to travel. They went to Syria, travelled along the Nile and then headed to Switzerland and the South Tyrol. Here, Frederick became ill, and Marianne took him back to Hastings, where he died in 1869.
Marianne was devastated by the loss of her father, whom she considered her one “idol and friend” throughout her life. She was now nearly forty years old and unmarried, but the conventional lifestyle of Victorian women, revolving around the home and supporting their husbands and children, remained unappealing to her. Instead, she returned to her desire to paint exotic plants.
Armed with cardboard, oils and brushes, Marianne set off for Sicily first, and then, much to her family’s consternation, to America, where she visited Canada and the United States before heading to Jamaica and further south to Brazil. A great conversationalist and brilliant guest, Marianne was well trained in the art of socialising and managed to travel from country to country with letters of introduction, each new friend suggesting new countries to explore and hosts that she could spend time with. This nomadic lifestyle suited Marianne, whose mood was only dampened by the restrictions imposed on her gender and class, and by the dull company of “proper” young women.
Above all, Marianne cherished freedom: the freedom to explore, travel, and paint whatever she liked. Her style was influenced by her nomadic lifestyle: unlike other botanical artists, Marianne painted plants not against plain backgrounds but in their environment. Her flowers and leaves and plants are not flat green silhouettes but breathing organisms growing out of water, at the foot of trees, or in the desert, featuring the insects or birds that would feed off or near them. She also painted landscapes and monuments as a way to document her trips and show these faraway lands in England. As per her style, it has been pointed out that her colour palette was limited to a small number of colours: this, as well as her choice of painting on cardboard, was determined by her need to pack and travel light.
After Brazil, Marianne visited the Canaries, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Ceylon and India. Because of the impossibility of travelling with photographic equipment at the time, many plants were first made known to botanists by Marianne’s paintings. Among these, the carnivorous Nepenthes northiana, or Miss North’s pitcher-plant, painted in Borneo and named after Marianne.
In 1879, North returned to England. She offered to build a gallery at Kew Gardens to house hundreds of her paintings and drawings, which she also offered. Her offer was accepted, and Marianne commissioned architect James Fergusson to construct her gallery.
The following year, upon Charles Darwin’s suggestion, Marianne travelled to Australia and New Zealand, where she lived and painted for a year before returning to England and showing Darwin her Australian work. While still in her home country, she realised she had never been to Africa, and so, after her gallery opening, Marianne took off again, heading to South Africa and then to the Seychelles.
She was in Chile, painting the desert’s flora, when she fell ill and begrudgingly returned to England in 1885. She retired to Alderley, in Gloucestershire, where she spent her last years writing her autobiography. She died in 1890. The Marianne North Gallery is still at Kew Gardens, and, in 2004, a grant was awarded to restore both the building and Marianne’s work.
©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Recollections of a Happy Life, Being the Autobiography of Marianne North, MacMillan and Co 1892 // “Marianne North in India: travels of a pioneering Victorian artist” by Nancy Lyons // “Marianne North: pioneering botanical artist” by Zoe Wolstenholme.