Marianne North: botanical painter & traveller

Marianne North was born in 1830 at Hastings Lodge, on the corner of Ashburnham Road and Old London Road. Although a childhood acquaintance of fellow painter Barbara Bodichon she never became involved with the women's emancipation movement. Her father was a wealthy magistrate and seven times MP for Hastings. Marianne lived in luxury and received a large inheritance, which she kept by remaining unmarried.

The 1851 census shows Marianne (20), her sister (13), their parents, a governess and five other servants living in Hastings Lodge. The family was one of the most prestigious in town, and was related to Countess Waldegrave. Marianne was trained to sing, but she loved to paint and showed great talent. Such activities were acceptable for women only as hobbies and "accomplishments" and it was thought unseemly for a woman of her class to aspire to a profession. Her sister was also talented at painting but she married and, if she continued to paint, her work never reached the public domain.

As a family the Norths travelled extensively together. Mrs North died in 1855, then in 1864 Catherine married John Symonds.

In 1869 Mr North died. Marianne found herself alone, with a large inheritance, and mistress of her own destiny. She forsook Hastings upper-class society and decided to travel the world, painting plants and flowers.

In 1871, aged 41, she sold Hastings Lodge and undertook her first great trip, covering North America, Jamaica and Brazil. Over the next 14 years she travelled over six continents and produced over 1,000 oil paintings.

On her return to England, she exhibited a large number of paintings and offered them to Kew Botanical Gardens.

Among Marianne's acquaintances and friends were Edward Lear, U.S. President Grant, and Charles Darwin. At the latter's suggestion she went to Australia in 1880 and then to New Zealand. Between 1883 to 1885 she worked in South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. She continued to travel until the mid-1880s despite poor health. Her journal relates scaling cliffs and crossing swamps to reach the plants she wanted, with little regard for danger. She mentions breakdowns and bad weather in passing, but usually follows this with a description of the flowers and plants she drew while waiting for it to pass. On her return to England in 1885 she lived in Gloucestershire, where she died in 1890.

Her work is of great botanical importance because she depicted nature as she saw it. The vividity and realism of her paintings is extraordinary. She completed 848 paintings in her first 13 years, of which 832 were given to Kew Gardens in 1882, and she paid for a gallery in which to display them. She supervised the architect and she herself painted the frieze and decorations around the doors. The gallery is usual because it contains almost the entire work of one artist and every inch of the walls is covered with paintings. It is one of the popular attractions of Kew Gardens, and the paintings remain as Marianne arranged them.

Marianne's autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life and Some further Recollections of Happy Life were published in 1892-3. Her sister Catherine Symonds was responsible for editing and getting Marianne's writings into the public arena.

Marianne North had one genus and four species named after her. Four of them were first recorded by her:

Northea seychellana - a tree in the Seychelles, a previously unreported genus.

Nepenthes northiana - the large pitcher plant of Borneo, first painted by her.

Crinum northianum - one of the Amaryllis relatives.

Areca northiana - one of the feather palms.

Kniphofia northiana - one of the African torch lilies or poker plants.

Top - Marianne North in 1868, sketching on Elephantine Island.
(Drawing A Friendly Audience by R. Phené Spiers)
Second - Australian plants painted by North.
Third - A rare photograph of Marianne North at her easel painting exotic plants.
Fourth - The North Gallery at Kew Gardens.
Fifth - A lily.
Sixth - Poinsettia, painted in Brazil.
Seventh - Nest of the Trabajor Lesser Canestero. Chile.
Last - An untitled painting from South Africa.