Turning Loss and Loneliness into Wonder: How the Victorian Visionary Marianne North Revolutionized Art and Science with Her Botanical Paintings
A vibrant foray into “a perfect world of wonders” fueled by the bittersweet dimension of life.
By Maria Popova
Marianne North (October 24, 1830–August 30, 1890) was twenty-six and had just lost her mother to a long tortuous illness when her father took her to an oasis of wonder in the heart of London — Kew Gardens, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: a lush affirmation of life bustling with life-forms beyond the wildest imagination. In the majestic half-acre glass-and-iron palm house full of tropical plants, Marianne found a portal to another world. She fell under the spell of the exotic red Amherstia nobilis — “one of the grandest flowers in existence,” which made her “long to see the tropics,” she would recall a lifetime later, having obeyed the siren song of that longing and made of it a revolution.
Over the next three decades, Marianne North would defy the central conventions of her era — an era in which women were expected to marry, were neither permitted nor practically able to travel alone, had access to no formal education in either art or science, and were excluded from scientific and artistic societies. She would go on to traverse the world, painting the living world she saw. Enduring storms and snakes, typhus and broken bones, unimaginable heat and long stretches without access to clean drinking water, she visited Egypt and South Africa, Borneo and Sicily, India and California, Chile and Australia, immortalizing nearly a thousand plants — plants the vast majority of our species had never seen and would never see with their own eyes, plants new to most botanists, and even some plants never before seen.
She painted unlike any other botanical artist of her time. Rather than isolated specimens rendered in pencil or watercolor, her plants came alive in oil amid the integrated context of their native ecosystems. In an era before photography was a portable instrument of science, the precision of her paintings and their transportive power twined to make for a revolution in both botany and fine art. Enchanted by her work, Francis Galton and Charles Darwin came to see her as a peer and soon became close friends.
Marianne’s first great creative love was not art but music — she trained to be a vocalist, but when her sonorous contralto voice broke and broke her dreams along with it, she found an alternate portal to beauty in painting, widened with wonder by her passion for plants. Her father, who never remarried, was the great champion and comrade of her calling. At their home in Hastings, he built three small greenhouses and populated them with exotic plants that sang to the young Marianne’s imagination as she tended to them alongside her father. “He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life,” she would later recall, “and apart from him, I had little pleasure and no secrets.” She vowed never to leave his side.
After her sister married, father and daughter set out to travel Europe and the Middle East together, sharing a lively and generous curiosity in how other cultures live and what other lands are lush with. Taken with this “never-ending series of wonders,” Marianne captured what she saw in delicate and detailed watercolors.
In 1868, a new vista of the imagination burst open when Marianne, almost entirely self-taught, received her first lesson in oil painting from one of Australia’s most esteemed artists. She found it wildly addictive — “a vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” It was also a revelation for botanical art, because oil preserves pigment perfectly, whereas the traditionally used watercolor fades and yellows with time.
But only a year after this creative awakening, Marianne was struck by the greatest loss of her life — her father went to sleep and never again awoke. She was overcome by a profound existential loneliness, feeling as though she had been left entirely alone in the world. She would never cease grieving him. “I have no love to give you or anyone — it is all gone with him,” she would tell a suitor years later.
Just like her contemporary Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology while turning his personal tragedy into transcendent art for science, Marianne leaned on the only consolation she knew — nature’s steadfast beauty and the fragile, tenacious wonder of plants. She left Hastings forever and set out to visit all the lands that had enraptured her imagination ever since that long-ago visit to Kew Gardens with her father. She never married — wonder became her primary relationship.
She traveled to America first, determined to capture its “natural abundant luxuriance,” and was awed by the redwoods of California, making an impassioned and prescient plea to save them from destruction. Epochs ahead of the modern environmental movement, a century before Rachel Carson cautioned that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Marianne North sorrowed to see the quarrying and chemicalizing of nature:
It broke one’s heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries.
On Christmas Eve 1871, she arrived in Jamaica — the portal into the tropics of her dreams. She found herself wonder-smitten by the majestic palms — some of Earth’s most ancient tree species, and some of the most otherworldly. She also found herself “alone and friendless.” But everywhere she went, Marianne seemed to attract kindness and sympathy with the sincerity of her pursuit — almost immediately “a young Cuban engineer appeared from the moon or elsewhere,” helped her with her boat, and shepherded her to her next destination, where she was met with more friendliness from strangers. Even so, her days were mostly solitary, but filled with wonder. “I was in a state of ecstasy and hardly knew what to paint first,” she wrote in her diaries, collected in Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, Botanical Artist (public library).
For a year, she lived in hut in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, painting incessantly amid “all these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable.” Assaulted by armies of Earth’s most bloodthirsty ticks, she found them “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading in that quiet forest-nook” — a life that was for her “a series of wonders and endless beauties,” to be savored and celebrated in paint.
In Java, she found “a perfect world of wonders.” Her passionate curiosity and amiable humor were always at her side:
The lycopodiums were in great beauty there, particularly those tinted with metallic blue or copper colour; and there were great
metallic arums with leaves two feet long, graceful trees over the streams with scarlet bark all hanging in tatters, and such huge black apes! One of these watched and followed us a long while, seeming to be as curious about us as we were about him. When we stopped he stopped, staring with all his might at us from behind some branch or tree-trunk; but I had the best of that game, for I possessed an opera-glass and he didn’t, so could not probably realise the whole of our white ugliness.
Everywhere she went, she walked for hours into the wilderness, often without companions. “Every day’s ramble showed me fresh wonders,” she wrote in what may be the single best summation of her life, and of any life well lived.
When Marianne finally returned to England after many years of rambles, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker — the founding father of geographical botany, Darwin’s closest friend, and the longtime director of Kew Gardens — and offered to donate her paintings, by then numbering several hundred and featuring plants wholly alien to European eyes. Hooker heartily agreed and a dedicated gallery for her work was built at Kew Gardens, which Marianne herself funded and helped design.
With her health failing, Marianne began composing an account of her extraordinary life, entrusting the manuscript to Hooker, by then her oldest friend. It was posthumously published as Recollections of a Happy Life (public library | public domain).
Today, several exotic plant species bear her name — including Nepenthes northiana (the tropical pitcher plant that was her greatest botanical infatuation), Areca northiana (a palm), Crinum northianum (also known as Seashore Lily or Asiatic Poison Lily), Kniphofia northiae (the vibrant red-hot poker beloved by gardeners), and Chassalia northiana (a blue-berried tropical plant only named in 2021) — as well as the entire genus Northia, containing some of Earth’s most ravishing flowering plants and so named by Hooker himself.
To this day, the North Gallery at Kew Gardens remains the only permanent solo exhibition by a woman in Great Britain.
Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, and this sensuous botanical art inspired by the scandalous scientific poetry of Darwin’s grandfather, which popularized the Linnaean classification system of nature, then savor the wondrous work of North’s marine counterpart — the scientific artist Else Bostelmann, who brought the submarine wonderland to human eyes.
Published January 23, 2023