In honour of International Women’s Day two days ago, I’d like to introduce you to a fascinating explorer from the late 1800s!
Marianne North, born in England on October 24, 1830, broke all the molds. I knew nothing at all about her until I happened across an episode several years ago on television, “Kew’s Forgotten Queen”, aired by the BBC. I was mildly interested, having been to Kew Gardens several years before, but as the documentary introduced more and more about its subject, I became engrossed.
Miss North (as she would have been addressed in her time) was the daughter of a prosperous landowner and politician. She took up flower painting at a fairly early age, perhaps inspired by trips with her father to visit Kew Gardens, where her father knew the director, Sir Joseph Hooker.
Her sister went the traditional route for women at the time of getting properly married, but Marianne had no interest in doing that. She travelled extensively with her father, through Europe and into the Middle East. Her mother passed away when Marianne was only twenty-five, and painting helped her through her grief.
On her visits to Kew she’d been so intrigued by some of the tropical plants that she determined to see their countries for herself. After her father passed away in 1869, she took advantage of her inheritance to do exactly what she wanted: travel the world, painting.
Can you imagine not only travelling all over the globe 152 years ago, crossing the oceans in a steamship to barely-explored continents, but doing so as a single woman? I think we have to give Marianne North extra points just for courage.
For fourteen years, she visited fifteen countries, painting the people and cultures, dramatic landscapes, and most especially the plants.
Her skill and scientific accuracy attracted a lot of attention, and she met many famous people of the day. Visiting Canada and the United States, she visited the home of famous Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, who built his famous Orientalist-style house Olana, near Hudson, New York. He encouraged her to visit South America. Charles Darwin suggested she go to Australia, where she spent a year.
Her paintings are extremely beautiful, and she went to extraordinary lengths to find some of the rarest species. One of the pitcher plants that she painted in Borneo, had been unknown to science at the time. It was named after her: Nepenthes northiana. It’s always been one of my personal favourites of all her work.
North bucked the traditional stylized botanical paintings of the time, with parts of plants sedately placed on a light background, and instead vibrantly painted everything in its natural setting. Each painting became a time capsule, capturing the entire habitat as it looked in that era.
In 1879 Marianne offered her collection of paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker as well as commissioning a gallery to house them.
You can find out much more about her and view many of her paintings at the Kew Gardens website, and I encourage you to watch the original documentary on YouTube, The Incredible Life of Marianne North Through her Art and Adventures (Full Documentary), to see host Emilia Fox visit some of the same locations as a testament to Miss North’s remarkable passion and dedication.
May her life, and those of all the intrepid women before us, inspire us all to have the courage to live our dreams.