Marianne North: pioneering botanical artist

Zoe Wolstenholme, Gallery Assistant at the The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens, talks about Marianne North's life and works, and the recent restoration of her eponymous Gallery

Marianne North's vibrant compositions defied the conventions of botanical illustration, taking specimens off the white page and returning them to their natural context surrounded by hovering humming birds, Buddhist temples, and doting insects.

Her paintings thus prefigure works by 20th century botanical artists such as Margaret Mee, who set her Amazonian flowers within the larger ecosystem of the rainforest, drawing attention to the interrelation of plant life in the face of deforestation.

Indeed, in Kew Gardens director Sir Joseph Hooker's introduction to the Official Guide to the North Gallery when it opened in 1882, he writes how many of the vistas and plants displayed in The Marianne North Gallery "are already disappearing, or are doomed shortly to disappear, before the axe and the forest fires and the flock, of the ever advancing settler or colonist". The Marianne North Gallery and the now adjoining Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, set within the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, remain contemporary reminders of the richness but also the threatened state of our natural world.

Marianne North was innovative in both her painting and lifestyle, choosing art and travel over the Victorian institutions of husband and home. She travelled as a young woman and with her father, who she called her "one friend and companion", until his death in 1869. After his death she decided to dedicate her life to botanical painting: "to devote myself to painting from nature, and try to learn from the lovely world which surrounded me ... how to make that work hence-forth the master of my life".

In this later period of her life, North travelled unaccompanied to 15 countries in 14 years capturing the exotic flora and fauna of foreign lands in striking oils. She started in North America, where she lamented at the wasted treasures of felled redwoods, painted the night-flowering lily in Jamaica, and captured the scene of Mount Fuji framed by lilac wisteria in Japan. Her final journey took her to Chile - after The Marianne North Gallery had first opened in 1882 - where she found and painted the blue puya cactus and a landscape lined with monkey puzzle trees. Many plants that North painted were new to Western science and were retrospectively named after her, such as the pitcher plant Nepenthes Northiana, a carnivorous plant now known only to grow in a restricted area in Sarawak, and Kniphofia Northiae, more commonly known as a type of "red hot poker". Amusingly, she wrote that her secret to solo travel was "a joke [which] was often my most useful friend in travelling alone, helping me far more than any quantity of money (or men) could".

Almost all of the paintings still hanging today at The Marianne North Gallery, in North's original layout, are from this period of independent travel between 1871 and 1885. She first proposed building a gallery to house her paintings at Kew Gardens in 1879, writing a letter to Sir Joseph Hooker from Shrewsbury Station. She commissioned James Fergusson (1808-86) to design the gallery, allowing for an artist's studio to the rear of the exhibition space. Here North or other visiting artists to Kew could work on their botanical illustration.

Once the building was complete, North spent a year designing the layout of the hang and framing and installing her works. She also adorned the walls beneath the paintings with 246 wood samples and painted the doors and their surrounds with tea and coffee plants to make up for the fact that Hooker had vetoed real tea and coffee being served in the gallery.

In 2008 a restoration project began to return The Marianne North Gallery to its former glory after over 120 years of public adoration. The building itself was restored to a more faithful representation of its original Victorian style, with the white painted joinery and metalwork returned to the original darker grey, and geometric checked tiling re-laid on the gallery floor.

Essential conservation work was also undertaken on the 848 paintings which were removed from their backing boards, cleaned and returned to their original and newly conserved frames. During this process, new discoveries about North's artistic practice were uncovered. On the back of paintings and backing boards other works and sketches were revealed, showing North's preparatory practice and her reuse of materials throughout her artistic process.

Conservators also discovered that North would sketch out designs in ink before applying her oils, which she then squeezed straight from a tube onto the surface of the painting. She also wrote onto her works noting colours for her final paintings and observations of her travels, such as a description of a sloth which records its idiosyncratic way of moving and its tastes for local foods.

These insights enable us to gain a better understanding of both this inspirational woman's life as a traveller and her artistic process. This conservation work not only secured the future of these artworks and their iconic gallery building, but also unlocked secrets of Marianne North's incredible life journeying with her paints across the world.

See the permanent display of Marianne North's paintings in her iconic gallery alongside our current temporary exhibition on Brazil – a powerhouse of plants: Margaret Mee, pioneering artist and her legacy in The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

About the author

Zoe Wolstenholme is Gallery Assistant at the Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, a purpose-built space designed by Marianne North

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