This series pays tribute to the artists we would love to visit and see when travel restrictions are lifted.
Have you ever been surprised when entering a cathedral, Gallery, or grand old ballroom? It is usually opulence or vastness or a single stunning painting or sculpture that causes this reaction. Think of Michelangelo’s David or Chartres Cathedral or the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
A gallery in London is unique. It’s the only one of its kind. The “globe” is covered with paintings of distant places and plants. In a few steps, you can travel from South America through North America and Asia.
The paintings were all painted by the Victorian botanical artist and explorer Marianne North. The Gallery is nestled in an enchanting natural setting — Kew Gardens, beside the Thames River.
A very intrepid painter
North was largely responsible for the design and layout of the 800 paintings, with the help of Kew Gardens staff. She was a self-taught illustrator of botanicals, but she also found four specimens named after her.
Julia Margaret Cameron photographed Victorian adventurer and artist Marianne North at her Ceylon home around the 1870s. Wikimedia commons
My first impression was of peace and softness when I entered the Gallery. The Gallery had wooden panels covered from top to bottom with paintings. The Gallery is packed with artworks.
I then notice the gold letters of the countries and continents that are above the panels – America, Australia, Japan and Jamaica – and start to explore the natural environment as it was during Victorian times.
Closer inspection reveals the vibrancy, color and beauty of each painting.
Charles Darwin wrote:
[…] The most beautiful and wonderful forms have evolved and continue to evolve.
This Gallery shows this in a beautiful way, with a large avenue of Indian Rubber trees in Ceylon, Sri Lanka, medicinal plants in the tropics and vibrant tangerine flowering coral trees in Brazil. It also includes early coffee plantations on Jamaican soil, as well as a majestic tall monkey puzzle tree from Chile. The Australian banksias, bottle trees and bottlebrushes are beautifully and accurately depicted.
The Gallery allows me to travel back into time and see how Mudgee, NSW looked at the end of the 1800s.
Marianne North visited fifteen countries in 14 years and produced more than 800 paintings.
Read more: Friday essay: the forgotten German botanist who took 200,000 Australian plants to Europe
Then there are the four specimens named in North’s honour . Kniphofia northiae , discovered in South Africa, now grows in many gardens with the common name red hot poker ( Painting no. 367 ). Northia seychellana is also called the capucin tree Painting no. 501 ). Nepenthes northiana , a large and unusual pitcher plant, was discovered by Marianne in Borneo ( Painting no. 561 ). And crinum northianum, in the lily family ( Painting no. 602 ), comes from Sarawak, Borneo.
Marianne North painted A New Pitcher Plant From the Limestone Mountains Of Sarawak Borneo in 1876. Wikimedia/Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Charles and Marianne met.
North was among several Victorian-era British women explorers. She was born in 1830 into a wealthy and influential family. Her father, Lord William Hooker, knew the first director of Kew Gardens.
In the days before photography, her interest in botanical artwork grew out of a desire to educate and pass on knowledge. She created nearly 900 pieces from continents and large islands.
North, who was determined to “paint nature,”” set off on her first major botanical tours in 1870, 40 years after Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle. Her accurate paintings of birds, mammals, and terrain helped raise awareness about the evolutionary links between plants, animals, and the environment.
North and Darwin had a friendship. In 1880, they met to discuss her paintings. He advised her to paint the Australian foliage, which was “unique” in any other country. North followed Darwin’s advice and returned to Down House in 1881 with a collection that covered Townsville to Perth.
Marianne North’s View near Brighton in Victoria, circa 1879. Wikimedia/Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Read more: Guide to the classics: Darwin’s The Descent of Man 150 years on — sex, race and our ‘lowly’ ape ancestry.
The world through her eyes
North donated her botanical collection and a gallery for it to Kew Gardens. She also arranged the artwork and decorations around the gallery doors. The interior of the Gallery has a unique and global design. It was opened in 1882.
We can now explore her life, travels, and global study of nature in one Gallery. We can view much of the online with today’s technology, which comes in handy when we are under lockdown. What have global warming and human expansion done to these special places? What would I see if I could retrace North’s steps?
You can enter Kew Gardens after “browsing” the continents. You can find the rare Australian Wollemi Pine growing on the grounds of the World Heritage Site.
It is easy to remember the words of Darwin from 1859’s Origin of Species: “This view of life has grandeur.””