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Kew Gardens: Marianne North

Posted 24.05.18  - Craft

Marianne North was an English biologist and botanical artist, known for her pictorial record of tropical and exotic plants. North travelled around the world mostly alone, after her mother died in 1855 - illustrating flowers with pen and ink on heavy paper and oil paints from the tube.

North recalled being ‘in a state of ecstasy’ when she achieved her lifelong dream of visiting the tropics in Jamaica, and hardly knew what to paint first. North’s work has a permanent value due to the scientific accuracy in which she documented her work. Many of the plants North painted have since disappeared over time. There are a number of plant species named in her honour including Areca northiana, Crinum northianum, and the genus name Northia.

After a few years of travelling, North returned to London in 1879 to host an exhibition of her drawings, and following an overwhelming response from the public who flocked to see these exotic plants, she offered to build a gallery to Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, if Kew Director, Joseph Hooker, agreed to display her life’s work in it. Kew Gardens claims that the North Gallery is the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain.

Her paintings of tropical plants are bright and bold, showcasing colours which were rarely seen in Britain. North originally wanted to serve tea and coffee in the gallery, but when this was decided against she instead painted a coffee plant on one of the entrances, and a tea plant on the other. The gallery officially opened in 1882 and holds the finest collection of botanical art. Her paintings—833 in total—are displayed in geographical order, showcasing a map of flora from around the world.

In 2008, a £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant plus additional donations allowed for the restoration of the building and the conservation of the artwork. During this conservation, a painting was discovered for the first time after 120 years, hidden behind the backing of another piece of artwork.

The Marianne North Gallery is open daily from 10am – 5:30pm at Kew Gardens.

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