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Women shone as botanical and natural history artists in the Nineteenth Century. In fact, many of the plant and butterfly books written by male naturalists were illustrated by female artists, who were often scientists in their own right. Marianne North was one such talented botanical artist who enlarged our knowledge greatly, especially of the tropical vascular flora.

Born to the nobility (she was a descendent of a Baron and a Baronet), she was a privileged daughter of Fredrick North, an M.P. from Hastings, her place of birth, and Janet Marjoribanks, daughter of the Baronet Marjoribanks, also an M.P. When her mother died in 1855 she traveled extensively with her father.  Upon his death in 1869, she decided to pursue her interest in painting exotic flora and set off on her own.  She never married.

Beginning in 1870, she visited the United States and Canada, but soon was on to Jamaica and Brazil, spending long periods in the Brazilian forest. In 1875 she traveled to Tenerife, followed by two years in California, and tropical Asia, spending 1878 in India. She contracted to set up a gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and her offer was accepted gladly by Sir Joseph Hooker. Her paintings, unlike those of many female botanical artists, were in oils, rather than watercolor.  Because of the humid conditions under which she worked this medium preserved well and the paintings are as vibrant today as when they were painted.

Charles Darwin suggested that she should travel to Australia and following that advice she traveled there and to Tasmania and New Zealand to paint the floras. The Kew gallery was opened in 1882 with 832 of her paintings and she initiated a new wing after her later visit to South Africa. From 1884-1885 she worked in the Seychelles and in Chile. She died in Gloucestershire in late August, 1890.

Her legacy is on display at Kew and she had several plants named after her, including the remarkable vine pitcher plant, Nepenthes northiana. Her pioneer work was much appreciated by the botanical scientists of the day and her paintings still are an important resource for world flora.

It is ironic that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are now being threatened by cuts in funding just at a time when our knowledge of the earth's biota is most important (see: My only connection with Kew is that our foster daughter spent a summer there assisting in a study of the DNA of orchids. It was a great opportunity and prepared her for work in the sciences. I will always be grateful to Kew for this.  

Internet Sources:

Marianne North: The Flower Huntress

Marianne North Gallery

Marianne North

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Apr 19, 2014 at 07:27 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and SciTech.

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