Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Happy Life of a Wild Bird

Marianne North 1830-1890.

I came across the story of Marianne North when I was researching Victorian plant hunters. To say that the Victorians were passionate about plants is an under statement. In true Victorian fashion everything was bigger than life and done and often over done with a flourish! It's the adventurous spirit, the enthusiasm, that I admire about this time period and it's what I found to be inspiring about Marianne. This was a woman who dared to have an unconventional, exciting life in a time when women did not have a lot of choices.

Frederick North, Marianne's father, was a member of parliament. He traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East and Marianne was his traveling companion. Early on in her life Marianne came to believe that "marriage was a terrible experiment" of which women became nothing more than an "upper servant." She was gifted in music and painting and very interested in botany. While they were in Holland she studied painting with Miss Van Fowinkel. Later in England she also studied with Valentine Bartholomew, the Queen's flower painter. Oil painting became a "vice like dram drinking" to her, she couldn't get enough. Upon the death of her father she was free. Being the eldest she inherited her fathers fortune. She was 40 years old. She now had the means to pursue her dream of funding her own expeditions to paint plants in their natural environment.

In 1871 she set off for America and Canada and eventually made her way down to Jamaica. She carried letters of introduction so it would seem she was accommodated. She rented a house in an abandoned Botanical Garden and painted furiously every morning. She was entranced by the passion flowers, banana's and exotic orchids. Polite society bored her to tears, "I am a very wild bird and I like liberty." She liked her privacy so much that when someone forced a companion upon her she would give them the slip preferring to make her own way. Nothing would stop her- not inhospitable conditions, swarming insects or precarious modes of transport. She roughed it in tents and over difficult terrain. Over the next 13 years she made her way to Brazil, Japan, Borneo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Java, and India.

Marianne North.

Charles Darwin, a family friend, suggested she travel to Australia and New Zealand to paint. While there she met and studied with Marian Ellis Rowan, a famous oil painter. Her paintings and her adventures were enthusiastically received back in London. She found all of the attention overwhelming but it gave her an idea. In 1879 she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker asking if Kew Gardens would accept her collection of paintings and a building in which to house them all. The offer was accepted and work on her gallery commenced. The only request denied her was the serving of tea and refreshment to visitors. So, in true Marianne North style she slyly painted pictures of tea and coffee plants over the doors herself so that she still got the last word on the subject.

Chilean Cactus. Chile was to be her last trip in 1884.

A grand total of 832 paintings hang in her gallery. They are grouped by country and in close, tightly packed formation. It was how she wanted it and the terms were clearly stated in her gift. The paintings are bright and alive and are not the average botanical. They are snapshots in time of the plant within  their environment as she witnessed them in person. A valuable and lasting gift of documentation. Marianne retired to Alderley, Gloucestershire and died there August 30, 1890. Her sister, Catherine North Symonds, edited her extensive journals and published them in two volumes in 1892. Aptly named, "Recollections of a Happy Life; Being the Autobiography of Marianne North."
In 1893 another volume followed, "Further Recollections of a happy life." A number of plants were named in her honor including an obscure amaryllis, Crinum Northianum, that she discovered in Borneo.

Nepenthes Northiana- Great Pitcher plant of Borneo.
Marianne North led her life on her own terms and left a botanical treasure trove for all to enjoy.
She led an inspired life and shared her love of the natural world through her paintings. One can only imagine her spirit soaring and exploring forever in search of adventure and beauty.