Icons: Marianne North
If one wanders to the corner of London's famous Kew Gardens they may well stumble into The Marianne North Gallery, built to resemble a greek temple with high ceilings then clad with wood from all over the world and crammed full of 832 botanical oil paintings from South America, Sri Lanka, Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. The Marianne North Gallery of Botanical Art provides visitors with a unique portrait of the plant life of our planet 100 years ago and as the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain a fascinating story behind its conception and woman who would be known as the Victorian era's greatest botanical artist.
Born on October 24, 1830 in Hastings, UK, Marianne North started her travels in Syria and along the Nile in 1685 with her father and continued to travel alone and paint for the next twenty years following her fathers death. Choosing to paint in vivid and durable oils instead of ladylike watercolours, her paintings not only captured an array of colours outstanding and unusual to British eyes but captured plants in context with the ecosystems they inhabited. For this reason her paintings not only beautiful but a source of information on how these plants interacted with their environments.
After travelling extensively in North America, Brazil, Tenerife and Jamaica, Charles Darwin suggested she travel to Australia and she spent a year in both Australia and New Zeland where she produced some of her most highly regarded work. The North Gallery was opened in 1882 and although Kew's director Sir Joseph Hooker had refused to let anything so silly as tea or coffee be served in the gallery (North's original conception for the gallery was to serve refreshments for the weary botanist). She was able to design the gallery herself, painting the doors and proudly showing pictures of tea and coffee plantations. The gallery was likened to 'a giant botanical postage stamp album' and contained an incredible, bright and mind bending tour of the natural world.