Marianne North

Tuesday 24 November 2023 marks the 193rd anniversary of the birth of Victorian-era traveller, botanist and botanical painter, Marianne North. (For those who don’t like to count: She was born in 1830 and she died in her early 60s, on August 30, 1890.)

Those who know me, know that I love flowers, painting and travelling, and I really like discovering plant species that I have not seen before. while painting, I am excited when I see how amazingly diverse nature is. Well, I can’t compare myself to Marianne, but I think she was the same way.

I discovered her remarkable work in Kew Gardens in London. There is a gallery, in which something new and exciting appears every time, even if you visited it perhaps a thousand times. Exotic flowers and fruits are part of the landscape here. They are botanically accurate and painted with bright colours.

Marianne has had a close relationship with art since childhood. She wanted to be a singer. However, she did not finish her studies due to problems with the classics, so she devoted herself fully to painting plants. Her interest in botany was also encouraged by a family friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Mariana’s new desire was connected to trips to foreign lands. After the death of her mother, she and her sister accompanied her father on his business trips and continued travelling alone after his death. Among other things, it was a way to overcome sadness and loneliness when her father died and her sister got married. Marianne continued to deepen her hobby and brought the daily practice of painting plants to absolute perfection. She travelled to Canada, the United States and Jamaica. She spent a year in Brazil, mostly working in a cottage deep in the jungle. She visited South America, painted in Tenerife for several months, and spent two years painting flora in California, Japan, Borneo, Java and Ceylon along her journey around the world.

Marianne preferred to travel unaccompanied, observing plants in their natural habitat and bringing back boxes of paintings from each trip. Those paintings depicted exotic plants and often served scientists to recognise and classify new species.

In 1880, at the suggestion of Charles Darwin, Marianne went to Australia and New Zealand, where she spent a year painting local plants, and in 1882, her gallery officially opened at Kew Gardens, in which 800 of her oil paintings were exhibited, representing 20 years of travel and creation. Mariana’s paintings were of immense value also because photography was still in its infancy at the time and the invention of colour photography dates to 1861. Therefore, it is not surprising that several species of plants were named after her, such as the palm Areca northiana or a plant with delicate petals named Crinum northianum. And more. The most famous is probably Nepenthes northiana, a carnivore plant with huge pitchers that can digest even lizards or small rodents. It only grows in Borneo and Marianne was the first to display it and introduce it to the world.

In the gallery, there are all of Marianne´s paintings carefully described and you can learn the names of these plants if you want. And then you can find many of them directly in Kew Gardens and their greenhouses. 

In Kew Gardens, you can also see a large collection of carnivorous plants. They are absolutely amazing and I would like to paint one of them one day. Carnivores plants are simply „yum yum“. Yesterday I bought my grandson a little one, from the genus Nepenthes. It’s not as huge as Nepenthes northianum, but he likes it. Let’s draw it before it eats us!

Note: Unfortunately, the opening photo is not Nepenthes northiana, I took a picture of a similar plant, Nepenthes dyeriana.

Sources of information:

  • BEAZLEY, Mitchell. The Art and Science of Gardening Explained and Explored. Botany for Gardeners, RHS. London: Quarto Publishing plc, 2013. ISBN: 978 1 84533 833 6. Str. 168 a 169.

Sources of pictures:

Painting by M. North Nephensis northiana,_Borneo.jpg

Painting by M. North: Delonix regia:

Other photos and a photo in the preview are my own.


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