I first came across the Victorian botanical artist and traveller Marianne North while wandering around Kew Gardens with a friend, when we stumbled into her gallery to seek shelter from the light autumn rain. We found ourselves in a high ceilinged room, covered in brightly coloured oil paintings of plants and scenes from around the world, displayed geographically, from Java to Japan, Singapore to Ceylon, the US to Chile. As an artist, Marianne North was unusual for locating her botanical specimens in their natural habitat, giving her viewers a sense of place as well as showing them plants they’d never imagined existed.
Marianne North spent much of her early life as a travel companion to her widower father, the MP for Hastings, visiting Europe and the Near East. His death when she was 40 left Marianne at a loose end, so she decided to travel. ‘I had long had the dream of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance’. Not that she had much idea where the tropics were: ‘Walter Scott or Shakespeare gave me their versions of history, and Robinson Crusoe and some other old books my ideas of geography.’ Nonetheless, she spent the next twenty years travelling around the world in search of extraordinary plants and flowers.
When I visited the Marianne North Gallery for a second time, a few years later, I realised that in the interim I too had travelled to many of the places she depicts. I’d also moved to Norfolk, where Marianne spent much of her childhood at the family home in Rougham.
Marianne was fond of East Anglia: ‘I was always glad to move to clean dull old Norfolk, with its endless turnip-fields and fir-plantations, pigs and partridges, and where I had the most remarkable donkey to ride. That donkey was a genius ! He could open every gate in the parish ; neither latch nor chain could keep him out. We called him Goblin, after the Fakenham Ghost, and he soon found me inconveniently heavy, and made riding unpleasant by taking me into ditches and under low prickly hedges, when my only chance of avoiding being torn in pieces was to lie flat on his back or roll off ; pulling at his mouth was as useless as pulling at the church-tower’.
She spent most of her time roaming the Norfolk countryside, her imagination fired by a combination of landscape and literature. ‘I was not sorry when I was raised to the dignity of riding a pony, on whose back I spent the chief part of my days, following my father around from field to field, tying up the pony while he was busy with his axe, and devouring Cooper’s novels under the trees he had planted, till I fancied myself in the virgin forests of America.’
Marianne’s curiosity about the natural world stemmed from a young age. ‘Mrs. Hussey’s two large volumes on British fungi were my great delight one summer, and started me collecting and painting all varieties I could find at Rougham, and for about a year they were my chief hobby. One, I remember, had a most horrible smell ; it came up first like a large turkey’s egg, and in that state was inoffensive ; and as I was very anxious to see the change, I put it under a tumbler in my bedroom window one night, and the next morning was awakened by a great crash. Behold the tumbler was broken into bits, and the fungus standing up about five inches high with a honey-combed cap, having hatched itself free of its restraining shell, and smelling most vilely. Good and bad smells are merely a matter of taste, for it soon attracted crowds of a particular kind of fly, which seemed thoroughly to enjoy themselves on it.’
Marianne was mostly self taught. ‘Governesses hardly interfered with me in those days,’ she says, until ‘at last some one told my mother that I was very uneducated (which was perfectly true), so I was sent to school at Norwich.’ This period of education was brief, lasting only a few months, after which the family went abroad for three years. Later, she took private classes in music and in flower painting.
By chance I discovered all three volumes of Marianne North’s journals, Recollections of a Happy Life, in an antique shop in the Cotswolds, near my childhood home and not far from Alderley, where she ended her days. In her journals, Marianne vividly describes her long journeys, the people she meets along the way, and her joy at seeking out rare plants in almost inaccessible places. She gives the impression of an independent woman, by turns sociable and solitary, with little patience for those too self-absorbed to notice the natural world around them.
One of the places where our paths have crossed is Calcutta, which Marianne visited in 1878, and I visited a number of times from 2016 to 2018. There are echoes of the Bengal countryside of her time; you can still find ‘whole forests of palmyra-palms’ set in the water, and the raised bamboo platforms and cottages on stilts at the edge of swampy ponds covered in green algae.
In the city, Marianne stayed in a huge cosmopolitan hotel, unnamed in her journal, in a suite of great rooms ‘with all sorts of curious creatures running over the floor. Six huge adjutant-birds were sitting on the top of the tall house opposite. I had seen them also on trees as I came along, which did not suit their long toes. They help themselves about with their beaks as old gentlemen help themselves with their walking-sticks.’
Marianne had a wealth of contacts around the world, either through family connections, or from meeting people on her travels. Although she was often critical of the inward-looking nature of colonial society, she seems to have had a good time in Calcutta. ‘Nearly every one was out of Calcutta, and my only friends were Mr. K., the manager of Newman’s (the great bookseller), and his wife, whom I had met in the steamer coming out. I could not have had kinder or more efficient friends. I met some of the most agreeable and best educated people at their house, and seldom have heard better talk.’ I tried to track down Newman’s, but the address in Old Court House Street turned out to be the Great Eastern Hotel, part of which is now under renovation. Neighbouring buildings have also fallen into disrepair, with banyan trees growing from the roof.
Another of Marianne’s friends in Calcutta was Miss S., ‘a young English lady who had undertaken the employment of teaching the wife of a Rajah of high rank, who had himself gone to see Europe. His poor little bride (a mere child) feared he would come back with a perfect contempt for all native ways, and she wished to educate herself and be taught the ways of Europe, so as not to disgust him on his return. Miss S. was a very bright, lively girl, and said it was a most amusing and interesting occupation teaching the poor little Rani, and telling her about the outer world. She even took her out sometimes (well veiled and incog.) to see sights.’
As was often the case, the focus of Marianne’s stay in Calcutta was the botanical garden across the Hooghly River. I made my own pilgrimage early one morning, the streets relatively quiet, the gardens almost empty with mist rising from the ponds. In the now neglected gardens, I could imagine Marianne searching out a quiet corner to set up her easel.
‘The famous botanic gardens are six miles from Calcutta, but the whole drive is full of interest and wonderful vegetation. A German was director of the gardens in Dr. King’s absence, and went heart and soul into my work of hunting up the Sacred Plants. He put me into the hands of a learned baboo who said “it pleased him much that I should take so much trouble about the flowers that Siva loved,” and he told me many things about them. One plant, the “Bah,” a famous cure for dystentery, he said he never passed without bowing to, and always put a leaf in his pocket every morning, then nothing could happen to him,—he must be safe, as Siva loved all who were near these trees. He also told me that when he felt old age coming he should go to Benares and die there, and so be quite sure of going to heaven.
‘The flowers I was in search of were still out of bloom, so I left Calcutta again the next morning at 7.30.’
This essay first appeared in Writing Places, edited by Arunava Sinha and published by Seagull Books.