Marianne North: The Victorian gentlewoman who documented 900 plant species

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Born into wealth in 1830 as the eldest daughter of an English member of parliament, like many upper class women of the time, Marianne North devoted herself to painting flowers. Unlike other Victorian women, though, North could not be satiated by roses. At age 40, she set off alone to travel the world, braving rough ship and living conditions to document over 900 plant species in just 14 years. She has four plant species named after her.

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Marianne North painting a Tamil boy in Ceylon, 1877. (Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron)

Born into wealth in 1830 as the eldest daughter of an English member of parliament, like many upper class women of the time, Marianne North devoted herself to painting flowers. Unlike other Victorian women, though, North could not be satiated by roses. At age 40, she set off alone to travel the world, braving rough ship and living conditions to document over 900 plant species in just 14 years. She has four plant species named after her.

It helped, of course, that she was both rich and single. Financially independent following the death of her father, North used her spinster status and the freedom it allowed her to her advantage when she embarked on the first of many far-flung trips to paint the world’s flowers. “Marriage? A terrible experiment,” she once wrote.

North’s great journey started in 1871 with a trip to Canada, the US, and Jamaica. She then moved on to Brazil where she bushwhacked through the Amazon for eight months to paint its as yet undiscovered flora. Over the next 13 years of travel—an odyssey that would take her around the world twice over—North would discover numerous plants.

“Honeyflowers and Honeysuckers” (1882), South Africa (via WikiPaintings)

“Honeyflowers and Honeysuckers” (1882), South Africa (via WikiPaintings)

But unlike most male naturalists of the time, she didn’t stuff rare flowers in her suitcase to show off back home. She simply painted what she saw with a scientific accuracy that would make her paintings vital botanical records. And by eschewing ‘ladylike’ watercolors for oil paints — all the better for capturing the rich colors of the tropics with — and painting flora in their immediate environment rather than as individual plants against a white background, North’s style was unique.

Marianne North knew how to live: Wherever she was in the world, her days would begin at dawn when she would take her tea outside to watch the world awaken. She would then paint frantically outdoors till noon, consumed in what to her was “a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.”

Rainy afternoons were spent painting indoors, while evenings were given over to exploring outdoors and returning home well after dark. Her life, as she described it, was one of “wander and wonder and paint!”

North may have been privileged — her family name granted her letters of introduction to ambassadors, viceroys, and rajahs all over the world; she even traveled to Australia on the personal recommendation of Charles Darwin — but by traveling mostly alone (she found company tiresome) and battling her way through hostile terrain, often on rickety transport, there’s no doubt that Marianne was an adventurer.

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens. (Photograph via Wikipedia Commons)

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens. (Photograph via Wikipedia Commons)

 

Pitcher plants of Borneo (1876) (via Wikimedia)

Pitcher plants of Borneo (1876) (via Wikimedia)

Source: matadornetwork.com

Author: Ailsa Ross

Feature Picture: Marianne North (courtesy A McRobb/RBG Kew)

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