On Being Intrepid, Focussed & Inspired

An early photograph showing the artist Marianne North, fully dressed in long, heavy Victorian ladies' wear, with mahlstick in hand, sitting at her easel in a tropical garden under a massive cactus plant
Marianne North at her Easel

'Eight Miles Only in Thirty Hours...' so wrote the little known artist, Marianne North, in 1865 during a trip in Egypt, one of the earliest journeys she did. It surely must have started to prepare her for the epic undertaking that she would embark on just a few years later. What is interesting is that nowhere else in her writings does she mention the hardships of her travels as much as in this chapter, and if you think about what she actually accomplished by the end of her life, that is quite remarkable

For me her story took me on my own voyage of discovery, albeit under much more comfortable conditions.

I first came across her work when I was browsing through the bookshelves of a charity shop and was intrigued by the alluring title of a pristine hardback, ‘A Vision of Eden.'

I picked it up and casually flipped through its pages. To my astonishment and delight it was filled with exquisite colour plates of paintings of exotic flora. That was enough of an incentive for me to buy it – for one thing, plants and flowers fascinate and excite me, and for another, at the time I was very much into painting flowers.

The reproductions in the book are of the paintings of this extraordinary Victorian woman whose work, believe it or not, is housed in a gallery that she herself had designed and had built in the magnificent Botanical Gardens at Kew in London.

Marianne would have been remarkable in any age, but she accomplished what she did before planes and motor vehicles, before electricity and running water, before international travel insurance, before it was considered ‘decent’ for a woman (particularly a single woman) to wander the world unaccompanied. Not to mention that she regarded herself as a shy person.

In 1869, at the age of 39 she inherited a considerable legacy after her father’s death. She had been very close to him, caring for and travelling with him for several years, so his death was a great loss while, at the same time, providing her with the means for an independent life of travel that she embraced with gusto.

Intrepidly she travelled (preferably alone) through many remote parts of the world, painting incessantly and recording what she found, in oil paint. In a time before photography had really come into its own, her work was a significant catalogue of the world’s flora.

Painting of an exotic plant that grows like a vessel. In the background a range of mountains is picked out in deep indigo blue. The plant itself is created using oranges, reds, yellows and greens, and is large enough to entirely fill the picture plane in the foreground of the painting.
Pitcher plant painted by Marianne North

There are even four plants named after her as they had never before been seen by Western botanists. And she wrote about her travels in an engaging and lively style.

Finally, when travelling had thoroughly exhausted her, she returned to England and restored her vitality by creating a beautiful garden in her newly acquired home in Gloucestershire, where she finally died in 1890.

Her legacy is a magnificent painted record of places and flora from every corner of the world. The Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens houses 832 of her botanical paintings – as well as a fine collection of 246 different types of wood that she collected during her travels; and the delightful written records of her wanderings.

I had walked into a charity shop and stepped into another world as though I had stepped into the wardrobe and stepped into Narnia. But the leap into Narnia really only happened after I had googled her and found that a contemporary abstract artist whose work I admire enormously, Ian Mckeever, has also been inspired by her work and created a series of enormous paintings. https://www.ianmckeever.com/paintings/marianne-north-paintings/

Painting of bright red tamarind pods that spiral around their shiny black seeds and hang from leafy branches festooned by ferny green foliage that indicate their structure perfectly clearly.
Tamarind pods by Marianne North

I find it fascinating to see how artists take their inspiration from each other and resolve things in their own unique way. But in particular I am grateful to Marianne North for bringing me back to my magnetic north in respect of my own work and to Ian MckEever for inspiring me with ideas on how to move through this phase of strictly representational to the abstract.

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