A photograph of Marianne North at her easel, by Aldham & Aldham, engraved by T. Bailey, 1883 © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D42434).

Decorated initial P

ainting en plein air had become popular during the nineteenth century, and flower-painting was considered a suitably feminine pursuit. But this glimpse of the demurely dressed Marianne North at her easel, apparently in solitude amongst exotic flora, is still surprising. Women were not expected to travel great distances, largely on their own, in order to paint uncommon varieties of plants in plains and valleys, on mountain-sides and even in jungles. However, after her father died in 1870, that is exactly what North set out to do. She spent the last decades of her life making "a pictorial record of the tropical and exotic plants of the world. Often alone and in danger," as Lionel Lambourne says, she produced and brought back from all corners of the globe "brilliantly coloured paintings of unknown species, which were admired by figures as various as Swinburne and Charles Darwin" (325).

If North's painting expeditions were unconventional, so were her works — instead of being drawn on paper, and heightened only with the delicate tones of watercolours, hers were painted on board, in vibrant oils. North employed a palette of "cobalt blue, lead white and the red dye madder," avoiding the darkest tones, and instead using "blue, green or orange to tone down strong colours" (McHale). The compositions themselves singled her out from other flower-painters: the flowers were generally shown as they grew, "in their landscapes, or growing by roads and temples. Sometimes she includes animals, or people, .... This can be read as being true to nature: but it is true to nature in a completely different way to traditional botanical illustration, with its privileging of scientific accuracy and detail in the depiction of a single specimen" (Payne 15).

Pendulous Sparaxis and Long-Tailed Finch in Van Staaden's Kloof. Marianne North (1830-1890). c. 1882.

Analysis of the paintings has revealed that North experimented with her compositions on paper before embarking on the oil versions, and also adapted or painted over some of her original designs. Her work, like that of any artist, was a process, and a challenge. Some of the challenges that she set herself were unusual, though. In Japan, for example, she visited Minō, near Osaka, a valley that rises up to a waterfall at its head, and is famed for the glorious autumn colours of its maples. Here she "spent a vast quantity of madder and carmine in trying to imitate what could not be imitated" (1: 218). Winter mornings in Delhi were "almost too cold" for her to hold her brush, and she wandered among the spectacular ruins near the Qtb Minar instead (2: 44). On her visit to Gumbara in Australia, a wallaby proved too curious and friendly to keep at "a sufficient distance to sketch" (2: 121).

North may never have written specifically about her techniques or style as an artist (see Huxley 13), but her art was far from unthinking. While gathering her strength at home between long forays in the Indian sub-continent and Australia, she came up with the idea of housing all her flower-paintings in a purpose-built gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The project was carried out for her in 1879 by another great traveller — the architectural historian, James Fergusson. Her decision to leave most of her life's work on public display speaks for itself: as intended, the numerous vibrant paintings, in all their range of subjects, can still be seen today — presented not at all as a coldly scientific record, but as a source of both education and inspiration.

Her work was also more varied than is generally supposed. In landscape, particularly, she was concerned as much with effect as with detail, something especially apparent in her fifty or so views of India now lodged with the British Library. Nor did her development as an artist stop with the early maturing of her skills and her adoption of oils. While her oeuvre is remarkably consistent, a looser style appears in some of her landscape paintings, especially the later ones painted in Australia. These views are sometimes reminiscent of the landscapes of her friend, Edward Lear, and Anthony Huxley may be mistaken in seeing these less detailed compositions as merely indicative of haste (13). — Jacqueline Banerjee

Background Material

Biographical Material



Huxley, Anthony. Introduction. A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 9-13.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Lyons, Nancy. "Marianne North in India: travels of a pioneering Victorian artist." Art UK. Web. 27 August 2023.

Middleton, Dorothy. Victorian Lady Travellers. New York: Dutton, 1965.

North, Marianne. Recollections of a Happy Life: being the autobiography of Marianne North. Vol. I. London and New York, Macmillan, 1893. Internet Archive, from a copy of a book in the Wellcome Library. Web. 26 August 2023.

North, Marianne. Recollections of a Happy Life: being the autobiography of Marianne North. Vol. II. London and New York, Macmillan, 1893. Internet Archive, from a copy of a book in the Wellcome Library. Web. 26 August 2023.

Payne, Michelle. Marianne North: A Very Intrepid Painter. Richmond: Kew Publishing, 2011.

Last modified 27 December 2001