In the middle ground, sharply-defined blue mountains that stretch to masses of snow in the distance. A stand of palms in a swamp, above them the new moon in earthshine before the fading orange of sunset. A riot of otherworldly jungle flowers, some hanging on the vine, some clearly arranged for compositional purposes. These are but a few of the treasures to be found in Marianne North – The Kew Collection (Royal Botanical Gardens, 2018), a fairly constant companion since a friend introduced me to the book this past January. This large volume consists almost entirely of reproductions of the 848 oil paintings by North now hanging in London’s Kew Gardens in the pavilion the artist commissioned before her death. These extraordinary pictures, created between 1871 and 1885, revel in a world filled with marvels, bursting with colors and strange forms, integrated into their native environments. North painted these exotic flowers, trees, plants, landscapes and occasional human settlements during travels to the Canary Islands, Brazil, California, Japan, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, Chile, Jamaica, the Seychelles, Australia and New Zealand. Having already voyaged extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East with her father, the 41-year-old North began these mostly solo journeys after his death, hoping to capture images of flora and landscapes that were, in the words of her friend James Hooker, “already disappearing or [were] doomed shortly to disappear before the axe and forest fires, the plough and the flock, or the ever-advancing settler or colonist.”
North is well-represented on the Internet (I especially like this site revealing contemporary views of some of North’s Brazilian subjects), so I’ll just briefly touch on North’s paintings in conjunction with Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, a selection from North’s journals edited by Laura Ponsonby (Greystone Books, 2010). This engrossing accompaniment to the Kew book offers glimpses of North’s itinerant life, a fuller measure of her human engagements and a valuable record of a Victorian mind at once uncommon and of its time. Though catapulted into an almost singular obsession with painting the world’s exotic plants by being given a Burmese Amberstia nobilisas a gift, North shows in these journals a range of interests extending to everything she experiences. Letters of introduction, a large inheritance and resolute confidence allowed her almost unfettered access wherever she went. Though plagued by travel ailments which contributed to her early death at 59, North’s intrepidness comes through again and again. She shrugs off hardships, declaring some infirmity or injury “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading,” such as stings by fascinating wasps in Brazil she saw clumped together “like a bit of black coal” atop a plant. One shares North’s awe in her discoveries, such as of a large South African caterpillar that retracts its head to imitate a local snake via a corresponding snake-eye marking on its body, or a multi-colored bird with green wings lined in a deep magenta color that curiously washes out in water and then regenerates itself.
North might well have fit among Lytton Strachey’s “eminent Victorians”; she seems to have known everyone of her time and to have been sought out by many. Among her closest friends was the poet Edward Lear. Charles Darwin admired her work and encouraged her to go to Australia. She may even have served as the model for Helena Parry in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The darker side of her Victorian mindset appears in some casual attitudes towards the cultures she visits, which might today at best be described as orientalist or colonialist. However, her appreciation of individuals regardless of ethnicity or station is gracious and generous (one notable exception being her meeting with Brigham Young: “horrid old wretch! – my hand felt dirty for a week after shaking hands with him”). North seems to have been a true citizen of the Empire, claiming an almost inherent privilege to poke about the world; like other Europeans she encounters, she often came home laden with cultural and natural artifacts, such as the 300 samples of wood also housed at Kew, and even live animals (I lost count of how many souvenir specimens taken by North and others died in transit).
Still, North’s paintings and travel writings, nearly 150 years after she launched her project, come across as a mesmerizing, utterly invaluable record, an almost painful depiction of a lost, Edenic world. Many plants painted by North have already disappeared, and her work adds moving context to the U.N.’s recent report concerning the imminent extinction of up to a million species. One grieves at the thought of such diminished abundance, at what medicinal applications, inspirations for new materials and novel insights into natural mechanisms we miss without our ever even knowing what we’ve lost. But beyond any such practical concerns, North’s seductive, glowing work collectively conveys an overwhelming, enchanted world of which today we can glimpse but lingering traces, and tomorrow perhaps not even that.
Bay of Rio de Janeiro
"It was a perfect fairyland. The great blue and opal morpho-butterflies came flopping their wide wings down the narrow lanes close over our heads, moving slowly and with a kind of seesaw motion so as to let the light catch their glorious metallic colours, entirely perplexing any holder of nets, Gorgeous flowers grew close but just out of reach, and every now and then I caught sight of some tiny nest, hanging inside a sheltering and prickly screen of brambles. All these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable."