20 Dec, 2009

Travels with my brush | Gardens

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Marianne North did more than many botanists to bring home to England the plant wonders of the world. And she wasn’t even a gardener; she was a painter

These dark weeks of the year, when everything turns to soggy mush, can make even the most enthusiastic among us fall out of love with the garden. There’s no better time, then, to rekindle a sense of wonder at the plant kingdom with a visit to Kew Gardens. Ignore those majestic glasshouses, though, for in one modest, red-brick building you’ll find a botanical firework display featuring likenesses of nearly 1,000 astonishing plants – larger than life, brighter than the crown jewels, and all painted by one remarkable woman.

This is the newly restored Marianne North Gallery, which houses 833 of North’s paintings, the fruits of a self-taught, middle-aged Victorian woman’s travels to some of the world’s most distant corners.

North loathed the British winter: from childhood, she dreamed of the tropics, her imagination fired by a bunch of exotic red flowers (Amherstia nobilis) given to her by Sir William Hooker, Kew’s first director and a friend of her father. North and her father were inseparable: her mother, who died when North was 24, extracted a deathbed promise that she would never leave him, and for 39 years she remained a devoted daughter. When he died in 1869, she was finally free to marry – but she had other ideas.

Like many women of her class, North had received lessons in flower painting, but in 1867 the Australian artist Robert Dowling, while visiting for Christmas, had taught her to paint in oils. From that day, there was no stopping her. Oil painting, she declared, became a “vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one”. To the consternation of her family, she accepted an invitation to North America, where she planned to paint “its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance”. From there, she set off for Jamaica, arriving “alone and friendless” on Christmas Eve 1871. North couldn’t have been happier. She installed herself in a house in the Botanic Gardens, surrounded by orchids and palms. “I was in a state of ecstasy,” she wrote in her diary, “and hardly knew what to paint first.”

She was never friendless for long: “She was wealthy, well connected, but she was clearly also very good company,” says her biographer, Laura Ponsonby. North also had an unerring knack for meeting people who could help her, putting her up for months at a time or passing her on to ever more exotic destinations with letters of introduction. Between 1871 and 1879, she visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, the Canaries, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Java, Ceylon and India, followed, at the “royal command” of Charles Darwin, by Australia and New Zealand. Hunger, heat, humidity, filth and homicidal horses were endured with breezy fortitude; only cold really got her down, and the society of empty-headed “croqueting-badminton young ladies”.

In 1881, North returned to England to prepare her paintings for her new gallery at Kew, sorting them into geographical order. Predictably, this provoked itchy feet. “All the continents of the world have some sort of representation in my gallery except Africa,” she wrote, “and I resolved to begin painting there without loss of time.” By the next August she was in the Cape painting proteas, followed by trips to the Seychelles and Chile, before her health finally failed and she retired, reluctantly, to Gloucestershire. She spent her remaining years writing up her travels, and died, aged 59, in 1890.

It is hard for us to appreciate the original impact of North’s paintings, which would have been like images beamed from the surface of the moon. Even the eminent botanists of Kew, who would have known some plants from drawings or dried specimens, had little idea of the habitat in which they grew. North depicted not just the plant, but, for the first time, entire ecosystems. Her importance is less that she discovered plants new to science (though one genus, a tropical tree called Northea seychellana, and four species now bear her name); it is more that she expressed a modern, pioneering sense of the fragility of the plants and places she painted.

“She was ahead of her time in so many ways – in her lifestyle, in her painting style, in her ambitions as a conservationist and educator,” says Ponsonby. “She wanted ordinary people to understand where plants came from.” More than that, she shares with us her thrilled delight at the beauty and strangeness of plants.

• The Marianne North Gallery is open daily, 9.30am-3.45pm.

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