I must admit to being a bit surprised when a tweet came through saying that Kate Adie of BBC News fame has done a slideshow for the BBC on the Marianne North gallery re-vamp at Kew. But then when I thought about it for a moment, it's not so strange. Adie, as one of the BBC's top international journalists, has sent reports back from some of the toughest parts of the world. North, for her part, visited tough and beautiful parts around the world, undreamed of by her Victorian contemporaries. One travelled with an easel, the other a film crew but both were ground-breakers.
If you don't know Marianne North's work, have a look at this slideshow but before you do, it helps to have a bit of an understanding about Marianne North.
North began to travel the world after the death of her adored father in 1868 when she was thirty-eight, aiming to cure her grief by ‘going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation in its natural abundant luxuriance.’ She never married, so was not constrained by the restrictions of a Victorian family life, and her adventurous journeys and eccentric style are legendary. She admitted she cared little for the social niceties of the time, turning up to a Vice-Regal ceremony in India wearing an ‘old hooped-up serge gown and a shabby hat’.
Among her friends was the fellow traveller and artist, Edward Lear, and in August 1877 he provided her with a letter of introduction to Dr Arthur Coke Burnell, an English scholar of Sanskrit based in Madras. ‘If this is given to you by Miss North,’ wrote Lear, ‘please do all you can for her as to sights – particularly flowers, etc., etc., as she is a great draughtswoman and botanist, and is altogetheracriously clever and delightful.’
Lear’s introduction was successful, and she and Burnell became friends and correspondents, with North often describing her travels to Burnell. ‘I did not enjoy my elephant ride,’ she wrote from a hill station in India in 1878. ‘It was like a walking tree, and so slow! So I used my own feet and two men walked after me with 4 skins of a huge beast on their backs on which a bamboo seat was fixed and floated and I always came down the stream homewards on that frail barque – the men resting their bodies on the skins and paddling with their feet – it was a most primitive but very efficient means of going.’
A prolific painter, North brought home two hundred and forty oils after a visit to Buitenzorg in Java in 1878. She said she was encouraged to publish them by Sir Joseph Hooker of Kew, especially the paintings of the mangroves which had not been illustrated before, but by that stage North was a little reluctant to continue. ‘I do not think it would pay,’ she felt, ‘After all, few people really care for such things – one half the people who look over my work do it because it is the fashion to do so and would not find out if the things were topsy-turvy!’
However, it was not long before she came up with a scheme to leave her paintings to Kew in a more permanent collection. ‘I should like to build a Gallery,’ she fantasised, ‘close to the pleasure grounds (or in them) at Kew, hang my pictures and have coffee and tea for all the poor tired visitors – with a cottage for myself to go and sulk and paint in when I want rest and green trees. If Sir Joseph could find me a bit of ground I would build this – and leave it to him and future directors of the gardens, pictures, cups and saucers and all – Do you think my scheme will ever come to pass?’
It proved to be no daydream. Marianne North had the money to finance a gallery and Kew accepted, and while construction work was going on she travelled to Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, and New Zealand, getting to each at their best seasons. She also ensured that the project would be completed if something happened to her during her travels. ‘I shall leave the money for the building with the Trustees here, so that even if I am drowned the work will go on, and it will be a great pleasure to think I leave behind something which will be a help and pleasure to others, as the world goes on.’ The gallery opened the following year in 1882 after Miss North had overseen the hanging of over eight hundred of her works, and she lived on another eight years, dying in 1890 at the age of sixty. She has accurately been described as ‘a painter who travelled, rather than a traveller who painted.’