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.
On my travels, I went to places Marianne had also visited, mostly botanical gardens, and took photos, making my own record of my journeys.