Marianne North: Foliage, Flowers and Fruit at the Takamaka, Praslin

That Damned Woman: Marianne North

17th February 2011

There is a line in Christopher Rudlen's one-act play about Marianne North in which the heroine comments 'I've been called a lot of things in my time…'. She goes on to describe them… 'Marianne, Miss North, Miss Marianne, Ma'am, Memsahib…' and the narrator turns to the audience and adds to the list: 'That Damned Woman!'

Joanna Goodwin investigates the life of one of the great Victorian explorers

Marianne North had, by her own admission, a privileged start in life. Born in Hastings in October 1830, she was the daughter of Frederick North, the local Member of Parliament, and his wife, herself an MP’s daughter and an adequately wealthy widow. Life was certainly comfortable.

Marianne’s childhood was unremarkable, except perhaps for its peripatetic nature: the family spent winters in Hastings, spring in London and the summers in either Norfolk, where Mr North had a farmhouse, or in Lancashire at the home of Marianne’s older half-sister. When her father was out of office they also travelled abroad, sometimes for months at a time, and – on one occasion when Marianne was in her late teens – for more than two years. This nomadic upbringing gave her a taste for travel, while her father’s fondness for gardening in general and orchids in particular was later to shape her entire life.

As a child she was musical, spending long hours in piano and singing practice, but her enthusiasm waned as she grew up; her voice was thought very fine and she sang solo in several concerts, but nervousness marred her enjoyment. She turned instead to painting, applying the same dedication that had previously led her to spend up to eight hours a day at her music. She took lessons from eminent teachers, concentrating on botanical subjects.

The hours she had spent helping her father in his greenhouses, pricking out seedlings and repotting young plants had stimulated her interest in horticulture, as had many trips to Kew, where her father maintained a close friendship with Sir William Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Sir William gave her cuttings to paint, and showed her newly discovered tropical plants such as Amherstia nobilis; Marianne described this as ‘one of the grandest flowers in existence’, and was filled with longing to see such specimens in their native habitat.

After the death of her mother, Marianne remained her father’s devoted companion. Her siblings had married, and she and her father travelled widely throughout Europe, and as far afield as Turkey, Syria and Egypt. She painted constantly on these journeys, mainly in watercolour, but the turning point in her artistic career came when she was 37, with her first lessons in oil paintings. She became passionate about this new medium, and longed even more for the opportunity to practise her new skill in unknown lands.

Everything changed with the death of her father. Although she was truly distraught, as time passed she also became aware of the fact that she was now free. Fond as she was of her extended family, there was really nothing to keep her in England. Two years later, at the age of 40, she set sail for the United States – on a journey that really did change her life. Travelling at first with a friend, she saw New England, and Canada, where she spent days painting Niagara and attracting much attention from curious tourists. She passed time in New York and Washington before setting off, alone, for Jamaica.

Portrait of Marianne North at work

‘I was in a state of ecstasy and hardly knew what to paint first,’ she wrote in her journal. Escaping the clutches of resident Europeans who wished to be kind to her, she rented a house in the deserted Botanic Gardens in Kingston, hired two servants and spent some five months painting almost every day.

This trip set the pattern for the rest of her life. She returned to London for two months before setting off to Brazil, where she travelled widely and painted ferociously. Then, after a cold winter in London (Marianne had grown to hate the cold), she went to Tenerife, before heading back to America en route to Japan. Then it was Singapore, Borneo (where she stayed with the Rajah and Ranee, who found her energy exhausting), Java and Sri Lanka. Over the next few years she continued to travel extensively, taking in India, Australia, New Zealand, which she loathed, South Africa, the Seychelles, Chile… painting wherever she went. Her health deteriorated, but she was never a woman who listened to reason, and she continued to travel and record the plants she saw until she was in her mid-fifties. By then she had amassed hundreds of paintings, and had little room to store them all in her London apartment.

Foliage, Flowers and Fruit of the Capucin Tree

What could she do with them all? One summer day in 1879, finding herself in the unlikely setting of Shrewsbury Railway Station with an hour to spare before her train, she took up paper and pen and jotted a note to Sir Joseph Hooker, the new Director at Kew. Would her, she enquired, allow her to donate all her paintings to the Gardens, housing them in a small gallery to be built at her expense? Not surprisingly, he would, and at Marianne’s request a site well away from the Main Gate was found: she was keen that the gallery should be found only by those who really loved plants, who had taken the trouble to make their way there, rather than by the fashionable day trippers promenading in public view. On a Bank Holiday in the 1870s there could be upwards of 70,000 people at Kew.

The Gallery opened in June 1882, with 627 pictures on display; others were added later, and there are now nearly 900. It is an amazing legacy; she painted vividly and with tremendous detail, and the sight of so many works, painted in just 13 years, crammed together in one room is breathtaking.

Chile in 1884 was Marianne North’s last journey. When she came home she settled in Gloucestershire where she lived quietly until her death in 1890. She attended to her own garden; she prepared her memoirs. Despite all the marvellous places she had seen, she always loved England best…

Find Your Local