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Marianne North 1830 - 1890

Report of the lecture given by Dr Twigs Way
on June 26th 2012

Marianne was born 24th October 1830 into a well connected family. Her great grandfather was Roger North who had been the Attorney General under James II. Her father Frederick North became the M.P. for Hastings and her mother was a member of the wealthy Shuttleworth family of Gawthorpe Hall Lancashire. In the early years Marianne had a peripatetic lifestyle because her family spent time between the North family estate in Rougham Norfolk, Hastings and Gawthorpe Hall. In addition to a step sister Marianne also had an older brother Charles and Katherine a younger sister.

Marianne attended a school in Norwich for 18 months where she developed her aptitude for music and singing. However her school career was quite brief because when she was seventeen years old her family travelled abroad on the Continent for three years. Later when her Mother became increasingly infirm Marianne took over some of the responsibilities of the household, reinforcing her strong bond with her father. At about this time Marianne became interested in flower painting; she was encouraged to make sketches and write diaries of her travels. She was undoubtedly aided by her natural flair for learning languages.

Marianne received some instruction to assist her with her flower paintings in 1850 from a Dutch lady, Miss Van Fowinkel. This lady showed her how to group and arrange flowers in a classic style. She also had guidance from Valentine Bartholomew, a painter who worked for Queen Victoria, who specialised in water colour paintings of traditional flower arrangements.

Her mother died in 1855. Consequently her father decided to let the family house in Hastings and they moved to a flat in Victoria, London. Marianne and her father spent a lot of time visiting Kew gardens and she got to know Sir William Hooker, the Director at Kew, and his son John Hooker. Kew was renowned for collecting flower specimens from all round the world and they received many exotic plants form the Empire.

At this time flower painting was very formal usually in water colours with 'stiff' arrangements on plain paper backgrounds, the results were very accomplished but quite tame, often painted in a studio or a hothouse. A lady, called Matilda Smith, worked as a botanic painter at Kew Gardens for 40 years. In that time she produced over two and a half thousand excellent paintings and drawings but she was often working from dried up specimens, her results were careful and very detailed but a bit dull.

In 1864 her sister Katherine married. Marianne thought this was 'a terrible accident 'believing that marriage should be avoided at all costs. This gave Marianne and her father the opportunity to travel not only to the Continent but further afield to Egypt and Turkey. Marianne spent a lot of her time sketching all aspects of Egyptian life.

In 1867 when they had returned to Hastings an Australian artist Robert Dowling gave Marianne lessons in oil painting. She was so thrilled with the results that she gave up using water colour paints because the oil paints gave her work the vibrancy and freedom that she loved. Marianne claimed that 'oil paints are addictive like dram drinking'. She also shunned the carefully arranged formal flower paintings, preferring to paint her plants in their natural surroundings often including possible imperfections.

Sadly her father died in 1868 and she felt bereft because he had been her friend and supporter all of her life. Nevertheless she was determined to continue with her travels this time taking a maid Elizabeth as a companion; they went to the South of France, Pisa, Naples and Syracuse. This proved to be an unhappy arrangement because the maid whinged and complained nonstop until Marianne decided that it was better to travel on her own. She dreamed of travelling further afield and set off to the USA, often staying with friends and acquaintances and sometimes using the assistance of the British Consuls and Governors to help her make her travel arrangements. She started off by following the 'tourist' trails but she was eager to travel to the more exotic parts of the world despite the travelling conditions being uncomfortable and the sea journeys very long.

Her work was widely admired by influential people such as Charles Darwin but at the same time she was often criticised because her work was considered too rushed or it contained elements that were regarded as 'not very nice' such as pitcher plants or being too explicit for the Victorian taste. She continued to wear heavy Victorian clothes despite often working in hot humid conditions; often there was little time to complete her painting because the plants she was painting had a very limited life span.

In the course of her travels Marianne often discovered 'new' or unknown plants and flowers; several species have been named after her. For example a pitcher plant - Nepenthes Northiam. One of the chief aims on one of Marianne's visits to India was to build up a collection of painting of plants sacred in the literature and religion of India. These paintings have been displayed as a group at Kew.

In 1879 she approached John Hooker with a proposal to build a gallery at Kew Gardens to house and display her work. She provided the finance for the scheme, her offer was accepted and the design of the gallery approved is based on a Greek Temple with high clerestory windows. The suggestion to have a place where visitors could rest and buy refreshments was rejected as being unsuitable. Marianne made sure that she had pictures, 832 in total, from all parts of the world. She controlled the arrangement and display of the paintings; stipulating that the gallery could not be altered. In addition to the paintings there is a dado made of 246 various types of wood from around the world.

When her health began to fail Marianne decided to settle in England for good. She bought a house in Alderly in Gloucestershire where she devoted herself to creating a delightful garden. She died on 30th August 1890.

I am left with the impression that Marianne was a very determined lady who knew her own mind and she was prepared to put up with a certain amount of discomfort in order to achieve her goals. She has left behind an attractive, colourful and stimulating body of work.

Heather Head

Dr Twigs Way chats with members in the Arts Centre Gallery after her lecture.