Following in the footsteps of Marianne North
By Samantha Fergusson
The Victorian era was a time of progression, with huge technological advances and no corner of the world unexplored - in every way an age of exciting development and learning, yet it was still a restrictive time in which to be a woman. This is what makes Marianne North such an extraordinary person. Her passion for painting plants in their natural habitat took her all over the world - even as far as New Zealand - and for much of the time she travelled completely alone, scaling cliffs and forging rivers in her unforgiving Victorian dress in search of the finest specimens. Nowadays you can pay a visit to Kew Gardens where the Marianne North Gallery displays over 800 of her vibrant pieces, a beautiful documentation of her extensive travels.
But how did a Victorian lady from a well-off, respectable family manage to shun convention and become a celebrated botanical painter, respected by eminent scientific figures including Charles Darwin? Much of the credit can be given to her father, Frederick North, with whom she had a very close relationship. From an early age Marianne was encouraged to nurture her talents for painting and music - respectable pursuits for a gentile lady - and at 17 she travelled with her family around Europe for three years, practising her art all the while.
When her mother died in 1855, her father let the family house for the summer and took Marianne and her sister on yet another tour around Europe, exploring Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Greece and the Bosphorus strait. Her sister married, something that Marianne could never consider doing as she felt that it made a woman “a sort of upper servant”, so she remained her father’s companion and together they travelled to Switzerland (again), the South Tirol, Egypt, and Syria. This was sadly to be the last epic trip she took with him, as he passed away in 1869 leaving Marianne feeling truly bereft. In her memoirs, she said: “He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life, and apart from him I had very little pleasure and no secrets.”
Thankfully, her extensive travels with her family had prepared her well for a life that would be too intimidating for many women of the time to undertake. Her father had left her a large inheritance when he died and being unwed she could do with it what she wished. Since a child, inspired by visits to Kew Gardens, she had been fascinated by exotic plants, saying “I had long dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance.” And now she could. Her family’s political connections meant that she could furnish herself with letters of introduction to powerful figures around the world and be the guest of ambassadors, governors, rajahs and ministers.
Her first trip took her to Canada, America and Jamaica before she headed south to the luscious jungles of Brazil. During her eight month stay she painted over 100 pieces, detailing the tall palms, bright flowers and exotic wildlife that you can still find whilst exploring the country today. One of her most well-known pieces was painted in this time, detailing a blood lily with a red and black coral snake at its base and a fat spider spinning a web from the blossom - a perfect example of how she was stepping away from the classic Victorian way of painting flowers by documenting not only the plants but their ecosystems too. These days, blood lilies can be seen growing as colourful pot plants in many warm countries, but you should keep your eyes peeled as you wander the wilds of Brazil... you may just manage to catch a glimpse of one in the wild, just as North would have done.
After exploring Tenerife and the Canary Islands, North set her sights on east Asia where she painted temples and tumbling wisteria framing Mount Fuji in Japan, misty forests and brightly coloured pitcher plants in Borneo, plump fruits, butterflies and volcanoes in Java, and orchids, palms and beach scenes in Sri Lanka. She was so intrepid that she discovered species of plants that were new to science, some of which are named after her. For example, the Bornean pitcher plant she documented in her art is called Nepenthes northiana, or Miss North’s pitcher plant in honour of her. Every one of her paintings captures the lusciousness and life that each country possess. Should you travel to Asia, you will always be transported back by the sight of one of her pieces, and as you scale the steep-sided volcanoes of Indonesia, savour the scent of wisteria in Japan or battle through the undergrowth on various forest trails, your admiration for her will grow - she undertook it all in corseted dresses with thick, heavy skirts.
Her next major expedition took Marianne to India, where she spent a year travelling around the country documenting everything from unique angles of the Taj Mahal seen through a gap in verdant foliage, to lakeside temples and ruined forts, to her usual detailed landscapes and intricate portraits of flowers. Wander through the gardens around the pearly white Taj Mahal in Agra and you may just manage to capture a sense of the magic excitement that kept North travelling for as long as she did.
On returning from India in 1879, North wrote to the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew offering to donate all her works as well as providing the funds for a building to house them. He accepted, and work began on building the gallery that you can still explore today. With everything underway she set off on her travels again, visiting Borneo, Australia, New Zealand and California on the recommendation of none other than Charles Darwin. He loved the work that she returned with and complimented her on their vividness. Her final trips were to South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile where she painted the striking silhouettes of monkey puzzle trees. When she returned to England, she retired to Gloucestershire and penned her memoirs - Recollections of a Happy Life - before dying at the age of 59, her body prematurely tired from over 20 years of hard travel.
Marianne North was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. Whilst her love of painting flowers was perfectly suited to a Victorian lady, her determination to paint them in their natural environment and bring home her art as a study rather then a severed specimen, set her apart from the rest of society, and is still inspiring others today.
Make it happen
If Marianne North’s sense of adventure and love of the fabulous plants to be found across the world has inspired you, then our local experts can help. Whether you want to explore, Borneo, Brazil, Chile, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, South Africa or Indonesia, we have carefully chosen expert local agencies who can plan your perfect tailor-made trip. Let them know about your interests - whether that's botany, art or anything in between - and they will get to work on your bespoke holiday. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.