Review: Marianne North – The Kew Collection

Visitors to Kew Gardens will be familiar with the Marianne North Gallery, wherein are displayed the paintings of this remarkable Victorian traveller and painter who travelled the globe recording the world’s flora with her paintbrush.

Now, for the first time, in a unique and stunning book, Kew Publishing have brought together all of Marianne North’s Kew collection. ‘Marianne North – the Kew Collection‘ is arranged geographically as they appear in the Gallery, with Marianne’s original titles alongside each painting, they present a stunning record of the flora and landscapes of thirteen countries including Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia Japan and Canada.

This is an exquisite publication with over 800 of Marianne’s beautiful paintings taking the reader on a world tour as we follow this amazing woman on her travels. When Sir William Hooker, Kew’s first director, gave Marianne a bunch of Amherstia nobilis flowers, they stimulated a desire to visit the tropics. What followed was an extraordinary global pictorial diary that she eventually placed at Kew where at her own expense she built a gallery to house them.

Writing in the Introduction, Christopher Mills, former Head of Kew’s Library, Art and Archives, comments that at the start of Marianne’s travels, she didn’t set out to create a collection for exhibition. For her, painting was primarily for pleasure as she developed a record of the places, animals and plants she encountered on her expeditions. He points out that North’s style is in many respects unique as she used oil paint, while conventional botanical artists used watercolour. Because of this her work was often dismissed by some botanists, however, such dismissal fails to appreciate the educative qualities of the pictures.

(above) View of the Bay of Rio, Brazil

In fact, each picture is a study from nature because she captures the essential elements of the species she depicts. What is particularly appealing is the fact that she not only depicts surrounding plants but occasionally animals and other features, putting a scene in context and giving a feeling for plants more akin to a human relationship.

Her work is awesome and I found particular delight in her studies of Tenerife and the Seychelles. The book provides a fantastic pictorial record of this wonderful collection and is a treasure in itself to keep on the bookshelf. The detail in her paintings is precise but there is also a romanticism in them as we are transported to far off places in far off times. (pictured right: West Australia vegetation, ‘Jarra’)

When Marianne offered her collection to Kew, the then director Sir Joseph Hooker, was well aware of their value and significance. He realised that they formed an important visual record of where many plants, now rare, grew. The collection today is evidence of how landscapes have changed and still relevant for the scientific information they contain bearing witness to Sir Joseph’s foresight in recognising their significance for future generations.

It’s a book that will make an excellent present and one that will be treasured by the receiver. Kew have given us a rare gift with its publication and for those who have not been to the Marianne North gallery it will act as a stimulus to visit – for those who have a wonderful memory. At the back of the book there is a full list of paintings and description.

Marianne North – The Kew Collection’ is published in hardback by Kew Publishing the publishing house of the Royal Botanic Gardens, KewIt is priced at £40.00 and available from October 2018.For information see: http://shop.kew.org/kewbooksonline

We wish to thank the publisher for a review copy of this publication.

All photographs are strictly © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Banner: Victoria regia (Victoria amazonia) Chile.

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