Famous Victorian botanical painter Marianne North was quoted as saying "I had long dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance,"
Unlike me, she worked in oils. But like me, she liked to paint in saturated colours. She was often described as ‘too gaudy’. Which only means that her paintings were wonderfully vivid, and not for those with magnolia tastes. (I’m identifying with her more and more)
Finding Her Technique
Like North, I believe in using the most pigmented colours I can get my hands on.
I am always looking for the brightest inks and paints. Living in this century has seen the advancement of different mediums. I would love to know what North would think of our modern materials, and all the choice we have.
In those times, supplies were expensive and scarce, especially when travelling. Like so many others she often reused paper. There is likely to be many hidden works underneath the ones on display.
Some people of the time really appreciated the bold colours. They didn’t have colour photographs of course. Many of them would never travel to the places that North frequented on her trips. So this was the only way they would see such splendid specimens.
In 1867 she studied oil painting and was hooked.
Interestingly, it was her use of oils which preserved her work so well at the time. It is unlikely the paintings would have arrived in England without some deterioration, if she had used a different medium.
However, as North didn’t use archival paper, the gallery are now struggling to preserve her work for future generations.
Although North enjoyed success during her own lifetime, I wonder whether she realised we would still be so enamoured with her now. In the time of digital cameras, cheap travel and an abundance of nature documentaries, something about botanical art is still magical.
She painted plants in the wild and, unusually for the time, included their native habitats in the background. It’s this that draws you further into her paintings. You are looking at a scene, rather than a specimen.
Her love affair with Kew began in her childhood. Her father was friends with the director, Sir William Hooker, and she visited regularly.
Her family, and later just Marianne and her father, travelled extensively during her childhood and beyond.
This gave her great skills and experience for travelling alone later in her life. Something not often undertaken by Victorian women.
When her father died she inherited his fortune. As she never married she was free to spend it as she pleased. Her independence was no accident. North staunchly refused to marry. Afraid it would turn her into 'a sort of upper servant’.
It makes sense as she wrote in her journal ‘I am a very wild bird, and like liberty’
I think it’s important to note here that on my research on Victorian plant hunters and botanical artists, there is a lot of disturbing content about colonialism.
I have not unearthed much about North in this context yet, although I have read that her journals contain a mix of prejudice and camaraderie in regards to indigenous people. It seems she preferred the company of local people in her travels, but probably still considered herself to be above them.
It’s extremely difficult to take someone out of their time and judge them by todays standards. But I also think we need to examine any unpleasant facts about someone that we admire, to get a realistic a view as possible.
I have unfortunately come across a lot of white feminism in my readings. When I see women I admire bucking against the rules of their time, I think it’s amazing. But often their feminism only stretches to other white women. Which as we know, is no equality at all.
So whilst I am writing about her as a feminist, and a trailblazer, I do acknowledge her failings, in common with the vast majority of people of her time.
19th Century Trolls
She has a whole gallery dedicated to her work in Kew Gardens. It is somehow the only permanent exhibition by a female solo artist in the UK!
North funded the gallery herself and donated the paintings. She also designed the interior of the gallery herself.
It is interesting to note that she wasn’t adored by all, and her painting style was often criticised.
I think it’s really important for artists to realise that all of us are criticised at some point. Our work will never be universally loved.
That’s not how art works.
I look at North’s work and see only beauty So it is odd to look at comments saying her work, and it’s display in the gallery at Kew, were both ‘displeasing’ and ‘unatractive’
These quotes were from Wilfred Blunt and William T. Stearn, writing in the 1950 book ‘The Art of Botanical Illustration’
Sounds like 19th Century trolling to me…
(I also feel better about my A Level art teacher calling my work ‘flat’)
Anthony Huxley also had a little whinge, when he said North’s work had seen ’little change throughout her period of travel’
Erm, that’s because it was already beautiful you muppet.
I do think you change and grow as an artist. But at the level that North was painting at, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see great changes in her style over the years.
But then, I’m not an art critic, I’m an artist. (Thank God)
Botany and Biology
There has been much debate about her worth as a botanical painter. She was often criticised for not being scientific or exact enough.
Apparently she also committed the most abhorrent of crimes, she sometimes used photographs to paint from.
This is actually hilarious to me, as I often have to paint from photographs.
Whenever possible I paint from life. But especially with animals, it is not always possible.
Personally, I am not so interested in the process or the ‘worth’ of the paintings. Only my own reaction to them.
I know many people that could be great artists are probably stopping themselves from creating amazing things by worrying too much about the process, dithering about the correct way to do things and procrastinating about being a purist.
This makes me sad.
If Marianne had listened to those boring critics, we wouldn’t have her beautiful paintings today.
Don’t let this happen to you either.
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