[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information.]
Marianne North was born in 1830 at Hastings Lodge, on the corner of Ashburnham Road and Old London Road (a convent now occupies the site). although a childhood acquaintance of fellow painter Barbara Bodichon she never became involved with the women's emancipation movement. Indeed she was in no need of personal assistance, for her father was a wealthy magistrate and seven times M.P. 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.
R. Phené Spiers, "A Friendly Audience"
After Mrs North died in 1855, Marianne and her father let their house during the summer and travelled extensively together. When he became ill in 1869 she brought him home to Hastings where he died. Marianne was heartbroken. Two years later, with a large inheritance and as 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. A further trip in 1875 started in the Americas and then went on to Japan, the East Indies, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
A rare photograph of Marianne North at her easel painting exotic plants.
In Brazil she did most of her work in a hut in the jungle. In 1875, after a few months at Tenerife, she began a two-year journey around the world, painting flowers in California, Japan, Borneo, Java, and Ceylon. She spent 1878 in India. 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.
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)
Left: Kew (North Gallery). Right: Marianne North, Australian Plants.
Her work is of great botanical importance because she depicted nature as she saw it.
She completed 848 paintings in 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 herself painted the frieze and decorations around the doors. The gallery is unusual because it contains almost the entire work of one artist. It is still one of the popular attractions of Kew Garden, and the paintings remain in their original Victorian arrangement.
According to Julia Gergits of Youngstown State University,
The [North Gallery] and its contents truly are...themselves expressions of a controlling vision that converted native flora and fauna into images arranged and depicted to satisfy the imperial imagination. As a traveler and artist, North benefited from the administrative machinery of British imperialism. Her close connections with Sir William Hooker and his son Sir Joseph Hooker gave her access to garden sites in the British colonial dominions. Wherever she went, she enjoyed the privileges of being not only a British citizen but of having what amounted to diplomatic connections.
In Recollections of a Happy Life, her autobiography, she scarcely mentions the indigenous peoples of the areas through which she travels. Society, when mentioned at all, is always British society. When she painted a scene, she either erased the native presence or pictorialized it in ways that reflected her position as a privileged viewer.
Last modified 2000