Visit The Marianne North Gallery - Victorian Flower Painter at Kew Gardens

by KathleenDuffy

A restored gallery at Kew Gardens is now permanently devoted to the stunning botanical illustrations of intrepid Victorian traveller and artist, Marianne North

If you visit the amazing Kew Gardens don't forget to call in at The Marianne North Gallery.

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, now refurbished with a Lottery Heritage grant, is not a new concept, but was the brainchild of Marianne North herself.

The Marianne North Gallery first opened in 1882 with family friend and Director of Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker, writing the first official guide to the Gallery. A year later, after a prolific visit to South Africa, another room was added on to the Gallery.

Now, splendidly restored, it is a beautiful addition to your day out at Kew!

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew

See Hundreds of Paintings by this great Victorian Female Botanical Artist!
The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens
The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens

After tirelessly travelling the world and painting plants, not only did Marianne North commission and pay for the architect James Ferguson to design the building, but she also supervised its construction and the hanging of her 823 paintings.

In addition, she painted the interior frieze and decorations around the door and ensured that the walls were lined with 246 different types of wooden boards from the wood she collected on her extensive journeying.

Marianne North's Early Life

She was inspired by her parents, particularly her father.

Marianne North was born on October 24th 1830, in Hastings. She came from the British landed aristocracy; her father, Frederick North, was MP for Hastings and her mother had inherited a substantial property in Lancashire on the death of her first husband.

The family therefore owned three estates and a town house in London. They divided their time not only between these homes, but also travelled extensively on the continent. In addition, they had a rich social and intellectual life.

Nepenthes northiana by Marianne North
Nepenthes northiana by Marianne North

Marianne was twenty-four when her mother died and, as the eldest, she took over the running of the household. Once her siblings had left home she devoted herself entirely to her father, accompanying him on trips to Europe, Turkey and Syria.

On these trips, both father and daughter eagerly collected plant species which they painted.

A Sand-Binding Plant of Tropical Shores by Marianne North
A Sand-Binding Plant of Tropical Shor...
Foliage and Fruit of Sterculia parviflora by Marianne North
Foliage and Fruit of Sterculia parvif...

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Marianne North Travels the Globe

When in 1869 Frederick North died, Marianne North was devastated. He had been her inspiration, encouraging her to paint and draw and introducing her to prominent men of science.

She was thirty-nine years of age and, according to her autobiography, Recollections of a happy life, she was not the slightest bit interested in finding a husband. 

Marianne North in Ceylon photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron
Marianne North in Ceylon photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

She immediately took herself off on her painting travels, first to Italy and then on to America and Canada. She also travelled to Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.

Brazilian Climbing Shrub and Humming Birds
Brazilian Climbing Shrub and Humming ...
Foliage, Flowers and Seed-Vessels of Cotton and Fruit of Star Apple, Jamaica
Foliage, Flowers and Seed-Vessels of ...

Her reputation as a botanical illustrator and collector grew and amongst many of her famous friends and admirers who paid homage, Edward Lear, the painter and poet, wrote that North was “a great draughtswoman and botanist, and …altogetheraciously clever and delightful”. [1]

You can see a slide show of Marianne North's paintings by following this link to the BBC website.

Marianne North and British Colonialism

As noted by Susan Morgan [2], Marianne North was unmoved by the indigenous peoples she encountered on her travels, even approving of slavery. To this extent she carried with her the mindset of the typical British Victorian imperialist.

Marianne North painting a Tamil boy
Marianne North painting a Tamil boy

At the same time, Morgan illustrates how North’s ancestral ties to British colonialism and to botany itself resulted in her own dehumanisation, with particular reference to North’s attitude to black Brazilian women and their children.

In an age of British expansion and colonialism, samples of botanical life in far-flung lands were studied not just out of curiosity but from a potential commercial viewpoint.


It may be that serving colonial scientific interests and carrying with her the ideological mindset of many British travellers abroad were factors which contributed to Marianne North’s acceptance by her male peers.

Olearia argophylla by Marianne North
Olearia argophylla by Marianne North

Marianne North as Pioneer Botanist and Painter

Marianne North was one of a handful of single, financially independent Victorian women who could have stayed at home and played the role of ‘Angel in the House’. Instead, they travelled the globe, often alone.

Oil painting of Padmini's Palace in Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan by Marianne North
Oil painting of Padmini's Palace in Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan by Marianne North

Her  motivations for travel were purely to seek out and paint the native flora and fauna of the various countries she visited. Some of the plants she painted were new to science, and as a result one genus and four species were named in her honour.

Aged 55, Marianne North came home for good. She settled in Gloucestershire, designed a beautiful garden, saw her Kew Gardens Gallery through to fruition and wrote her extensive biography. She died on August 30th 1890.

That she achieved her single-minded, painterly and scientific ambitions with breathtaking results is evident to any visitor who walks through the doors of the refurbished Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens.


Further Information:

For more information about The Marianne North Gallery at Kew, why not visit their website. It will give more details about this beautiful space, as well as opening times, etc.  You can find their website here.




  • [1] Quoted by Dea Birkett, “A Victorian Painter of Exotic Flora”, New York Times November 22nd, 1992 and cited in “Introduction” by Susan Morgan to Recollections of a happy life: being the autobiography of Marianne North by Marianne North (The University Press of Virginia, 1993).
  • [2] Morgan, op.cit
  • [3] "Marianne and Kew" article on Kew Gardens’ Marianne North Gallery website.

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Updated: 06/03/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 10/07/2013

Yes that gallery is beautiful. I think I might take myself off to Kew there this autumn - never been at this time of the year.

KathleenDuffy on 06/06/2013

There's always something surprising to find about any subject I guess! Even Neruda appreciated the humble vegetable! Lovely post, thanks Tolovaj! :)

Tolovaj on 06/06/2013

Looks like very unusual but still exciting possibility to spend few interesting hours. I have just read few similarly surprising poems by Neruda. Who would think poetry about vegetables can be so exciting? I hope I'll get a chance to see work of Ms North's work one day!

KathleenDuffy on 06/06/2013

Yes - she was pretty special, and she had a wonderfully fulfilling life. Thanks for your post!

jptanabe on 06/06/2013

What an amazing lady, and such beautiful paintings too!

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