Books

To find true botanical art, go … North!

Marianne North: the Kew Collection by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 2018. Kew Publishing.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are rightly famed for their living collection of plants from around the globe (and for the world-renowned architecture of the iconic Palm House and recently-restored Temperate House…). However, one of the unsung gems of Kew is a building that’s devoted to representations of plants. That building is the Marianne North Gallery [MNG], which houses the most amazing collection of plant paintings. And it’s that collection that is celebrated in Marianne North: the Kew Collection [hereafter referred to as the Kew Collection].

To the uninitiated, the Kew Collection is approx. 263 pages of postcard-sized – or slightly larger – images of the pictures that adorn the walls of the MNG. At which revelation you may well express concern that this is just a glorified exhibition catalogue, which doesn’t sound that exciting or special. And I understand that reaction. However, what makes the Kew Collection exciting – and rather special – is the all-important context to the paintings themselves, and, in particular, the extraordinary story of the artist.

Plant portraits aplenty, but paucity of painter’s pen-portrait

The details that surround the artist, the veritable Ms Marianne North, and the story of what those paintings represent and ‘how the MNG collection came to be’ is a fascinating one. Somewhat disappointingly, there’s very little about the woman herself in the Kew Collection. In my view, the barely 2.5 pages of text that is included – although usefully including a timeline summarising Ms North’s life and travels – doesn’t really provide enough background to do either the artist or the collection sufficient justice. Now, you could say that’s justified because the book is supposed to be about the paintings. And, as this represents the first time the entire collection of MNG paintings is reproduced in a book, the Kew Collection it is a remarkable piece of work. However, it is at least interesting – and I think it’s also important and necessary – to know a little more about the amazing woman who created these remarkable images, and thereby provide that important ‘art and its context’ dimension. Maybe that minimal biography is also intentional so one is encouraged to purchase other books – referred to on the Kew Collection’s p. 304 “Further Reading” [several of which are Kew publications…] – to provide that background. Well, and especially if you’ve already invested in the book itself, you don’t need to spend any more money to do that – you can access for free various web sites that will satisfy your thirst for ‘Northiana’ (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here). Plus, there‘s a BBC programme about Ms North – “Kew’s forgotten queen”  – that is apparently freely viewable on Vimeo. But, as you wait to consult those, here’s a potted biography of the wonderful Ms North, culled from those – and other – sources that justifies the Kew Collection‘s exciting and special quality:

A brief biography of the irrepressible Ms North, and some important background to her Kew collection

Marianne was born in 1830 in Hastings, and died in 1890 in Alderley (both locations in the UK). One of three siblings, Marianne was apparently her father’s favourite, largely self-educated and an accomplished artist. After the death of her mother, when Marianne was 25 years old, she devoted the rest of her life as companion for her non-remarrying father (Liberal Member of Parliament for Hastings). They travelled extensively together until his death in 1869, after which traumatic event Marianne ‘hibernated’ for a while. But, thereafter – and with a considerable inherited fortune to support her – she indulged her passion for travelling to exotic places where she could paint her beloved plants where they grew. Allegedly, inspired to study plants after an incident involving an ‘exploding mushroom’ (Antonia Losano, Women’s Studies 26: 423-448, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1080/00497878.1997.9979178), Ms North initially used water-colour as her medium of botanical expression. But, having been introduced to oil painting in 1869, she exchanged water for oil, and never looked back. Which is why her paintings in the MNG are such extravagant, vibrantly coloured, celebrations of nature, that have truly stood the test of time.

Her 14 years of travelling took her to at least 16 countries on five continents, and resulted in the creation of more than 1000 oil paintings (about 80% of which are in the MNG, and reproduced in the Kew Collection). Essentially travelling alone – although armed with an array of those oh-so-important ‘letters of introduction’ from eminent Victorians that opened doors to her that would have remained shut to less well-connected individuals – she painted in the Seychelles, Australasia, South America, North America, meso-America, the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Sarawak, Java, Japan, Tenerife… Often enduring rather trying circumstances in her botanical explorations, she also suffered many medical ‘mishaps’, including typhoid, influenza, rheumatic fever, and broken bones. And her journal tells of her “scaling cliffs and crossing swamps to reach the plants she wanted, with little regard for danger” as if they were trifling everyday occurrences. In truth, such acts of derring-do and downright bravery were, for her.

Truly, she suffered for her art. But what art it is though – in both quantity and quality! From Victorian drawing room to room for drawing in Victoria’s Empire – and beyond – the remarkable Ms North painted and painted. Although there’s not much by way of temperate flora in the collection, the predominantly tropical and sub-tropical plants she recorded must have given an intriguingly glimpse of the exotic botanical bounty of far-flung lands for its Victorian audience in Great Britain when first displayed. And, even today, those paintings provide multiple windows onto foreign lands and their floras for the audience from around the globe who visit Kew Gardens. The MNG became part of Kew Gardens in 1882 when it was built – at Miss North’s expense – to house her extensive collection of paintings. And, that collection is now the longest-running, permanent exhibition of a solo female artist’s work … in the world(!)

An eye for detail: More important background…

Marianne must have been quite a sight, dressed as you’d imagine a Victorian gentlewoman would dress, but plonked amongst a jungle with her easel and artist’s accoutrements painting furiously away. She was also a very driven woman, driven to record as many plants as she had time for, and seemingly oblivious to everything apart from her botanical subjects that she represented in great detail. Indeed, so detailed were the plants she painted that new species could be recognised from the likenesses she recorded, e.g. Nepenthes northiana (painting No. 561; image 5 on p. 205 in the book), which is sadly now red-listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the wild*.

And it’s been remarked that, since she wasn’t trained in botanical illustration, Ms North was not hidebound by the conventions of that discipline. Her paintings were therefore more naturalistic, and – importantly – often showed the plants in situ, surrounded or accompanied by the other biota in their habitat. They are therefore much more realistic representations of nature which give valuable insights into the plant’s ecology – e.g. tree-frogs, and stick insects are also captured alongside some of the plants. In some respects Ms North’s ‘nature studies’ bring to mind the famous image of Albrecht Dürer’s extremely naturalistic 16th century masterpiece, the ‘great piece of turf’. But, Ms North didn’t just paint plants, she also collected, and sent to Kew, thousands of plant specimens on her global adventures. One likes to think that she painted then pressed some of her plant subjects and in that way uniquely associated the visual record of the specimen with the herbarium sheet in those far-off days when scientific photography was an embryonic technology (and one that was probably non-existent in the depths of the Bornean, Javan, Brazilian jungles, etc.).

For all those reasons the Kew Collection is an exciting and rather special book.

Summary

The small images in the Kew Collection aren’t – nor should they be! – a substitute for the full-sized, real thing in the MNG. However, as presented in the book they can be viewed more comfortably than the full-blown, wall-to-wall-to-ceiling collection in the MNG. Indeed, the 360 degrees, fully-immersive experience at the MNG can be quite overwhelming – although in a good way. But, whilst you await your next – or even first – visit to the MNG, the Kew Collection will be a great reminder of the botanical – and artistic – riches within that amazing collection. And, if you haven’t yet visited the MNG – and such a visit is a definite ‘bucket-list item’ – this book should provide the impetus you need to do so. The Kew Collection, like the real thing, is a stunning collection: Prepare to be blown away.

Minor quibbles

All of the book’s 848 paintings are listed at the back of the book, with Ms North’s original descriptions. However, what is missing – and which would have been so useful – is a reference to the page where the painting can be found in the Kew Collection – because they’re not presented in the body of the book in numerical order. As one might expect from Kew, it’s very good to see the currently-accepted scientific names of Ms North’s plants – identified in square brackets – amongst the original descriptions that Marianne gave to her paintings [although not all plants in a painting are necessarily named…]. But, and especially since this is a Kew publication, another useful feature would have been a separate index of plant names (and the page(s) where they could be found in the book). As it is, one has to look at the list of painting numbers at the back of the book, and then flick through the pages to try to find the numbered painting, to find a particular favourite plant. Perhaps that’s intentional, and encourages readers to browse and wallow in the imagery..? Possibly; but if such an index was also provided, one would at least have the choice. Painting No. 232 is described as being wild pine apple in Borneo, yet unexpectedly and ungeographically it’s listed amongst the pictures from India & Sri Lanka (rather than those for Borneo & Java). Painting No. 626 – palms in Rio de Janeiro – is curiously listed under artworks from Borneo & Java rather than – as expected from its title – included with those from Brazil & West Indies. Without that Index I’m not sure where those paintings are grouped in the body of the book; but, there’s clearly something that needs to be sorted out here.

* Other plants named in her honour include Kniphofia northiae (painting No. 367; image 3, p. 147 in the book), and a whole genus, Northia, e.g. N. seychellana (painting No. 501; image 7, page 177 in the Kew Collection), and which is ‘vulnerable’ in the wild. Don’t ask me how long it took to run down the images for these species without that index. Crinum northianum and Areca northiana are also named after Ms North, but neither could I find in the Kew Collection, although A. catechu, C. moorei, and C. asiaticum var. asiaticum are represented there.

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