About Marianne North
Although she had no formal training in illustration, and was rather unconventional in her methods, Marianne North had a natural artistic talent and was very prolific. She inherited her interest in travelling from her father, the MP Frederick North. Her political connections served her well, providing her with letters of introduction to ambassadors, viceroys, rajahs, governors and ministers all over the world.
Marianne undertook her first journey, to the United States, Canada and Jamaica, in 1871. This was followed by an eight-month stay in Brazil, during which she completed more than 100 paintings. She tended to depict landscapes and natural habitats rather than individual plants. One picture, from Brazil, shows a colony of the black, red and yellow butterfly Heliconius erato phyllis roosting on a palm leaf. Another shows Mount Fujiyama, Japan, framed by the climbing shrub Wisteria sinensis.
Marianne travelled to Japan across the American continent in 1875, returning two years later via Sarawak, Java and Sri Lanka. Today her paintings from these places provide an important historical record. Some places are still recognisable from her paintings. For example, stands of the giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) that she painted in 1877 at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, can still be seen thriving in the gardens today.
After exhibiting her paintings in a London gallery in 1879, Marianne had the idea of showing them at Kew. She wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, offering to build a gallery if he would agree to display her life’s work in it. The gallery was duly built in a mix of classical and colonial styles. After a visit to Australia and New Zealand, Marianne spent a year arranging her paintings inside the building. It opened to the public in 1882.