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C u l t u ra l P u r s u i t s | M a r i a n n e N o r t h G a l l e r y

Specimen

A Rare

In the late 19th-century, British artist Marianne North dismissed tradition and set about exploring the world on her own. With her easel and paints in tow, she toured no less than 17 countries, documenting their extraordinary flora and fauna with astonishing detail.

ipomoea and vavangue with mahe harbour in the distance


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foliage, flowers, and fruit of the capucin tree of the seychelles

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native vanilla hanging from the wild orange, praslin, seychelles

t the age of 40, when most women of her day were married, past child-rearing, and focused on suitable hobbies, Marianne North went on an unprecedented expedition. Her father had often taken her to Kew Gardens in London as a child, and she’d long dreamed of seeing the plants in their native lands. Upon his death she inherited a large sum of money. Unmarried and unencumbered, she gave the remainder of her life to travel and botanical painting. Between 1871 and 1885, she visited the Americas (where she met President Grant), the Caribbean, Asia, Australia (at Charles Darwin’s insistence), India, Africa, the Canary Islands, and the Seychelles. She travelled unaccompanied and relied on a network of friends established by her father while he was a member of Parliament. Many of the plants she captured in her 833 paintings were new to science—four of them were named for her. While on a break in England she struck a deal with Kew: she would donate the works if, at her own expense, she could build a small studio and gallery on the grounds. Kew agreed and she called on architectural historian James Fergusson to help design the building, which opened to the public in 1882. North was not only a painter, but an avid writer. She kept detailed journals of her travels (the “apricot sands” of Egypt and the “perfect fairyland” of Brazil), which she intended to publish. Though not in her lifetime, they were put into several volumes and edited by her sister as Recollections of a Happy Life. ENTRAMAGAZINE.COM | 5


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view in brazil near ouro preto with oil palms


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n 2008, the gallery was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for restoration. Donald Insall Associates drew up a plan to restore the Victorian ambience, while incorporating modern technology. “Michael Shippobottom and Robert Davies bridged the art and building conservation divide by enabling me to design a new hanging mechanism that removes the cycle of mold outbreaks,” says senior conservator Jonathan Farley. The floor was recreated based on original tiles, and the wood specimens collected by North and installed below the dado were cleaned. Rather than close the gallery for the duration, copies were put on view while a team of five paper conservators averaged 10 paintings a week—including a previously unknown work. North’s choice of cluttered-hanging was based on a contemporary style of portraiture display that put the nearest relations closest to the head of the family. “It really is quite appropriate for the world of plants,” explains Farley. “The walls are arranged into a geographical order of the lands she visited, and within each group there are one or two main paintings, the others then radiate out in a thematic way.” It’s clear that the staff have developed an affection for North. “She went into the wilds of the world in her time, to places that British society believed a woman shouldn’t go on her own,” Farley says. “Years before the women’s suffrage movement, she was laying the groundwork for it, proving that women did have a mind and a will of their own and were capable of doing what society thought they couldn’t. The gallery is in effect a continuing statement of that spirit.” The gallery officially reopened in March. To support their continuing preservation efforts, visit the Kew Fund. 8 | ENTRAMAGAZINE.COM

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male pawpaw with flowers and imperfect fruit [south africa] flowers of datura and humming birds, brazil

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foliage, flowers, and fruit of the tatamaka, praslin

Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens  

Writer, Entra Magazine, July/August 2011

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