But this month, I want to write about someone who also travelled the world searching for exotic new plants - but in order to paint them, rather than to collect them.
|Marianne North at work|
She was called Marianne North, and what she did would be remarkable if she had been doing it today - but she did it in the Victorian Age, which makes her even more extraordinary. The conventional image of Victorian women is that they sat at home looking demure, painting water colours and occasionally swooning on a sofa. But they certainly weren't all like that. There were some women who not only broke the mould but utterly smashed it - by climbing the Alps, by writing great novels - and by exploring dangerous corners of the world: women such as Lady Hester Stanhope, Gertrude Bell and Isabella Bird.
Marianne North belongs in their company. She was born in 1830 into a comfortably well-off (and well-bred) family - her father was the Liberal MP for Hastings. Her first passion was for singing, but with a background like hers, a career in music wasn't an option. So then she turned to flower painting. Her sisters married, but Marianne thought marriage was a terrible idea, which turned women into 'a sort of upper servant', and she avoided it. Instead, when her mother died in 1855, she took to travelling with her father, who was also interested in botany. Then when he died some 15 years later, she, at the age of 40, determined to continue her travels, exploring far-flung corners of the world and painting the plants and flowers she found there. She usually travelled alone, finding companions a distraction and an annoyance, and she lived simply - it wasn't a case, obviously, of hopping on a plane and staying in a nice hotel: travelling was difficult, but she did it anyway.
|Morning glory climber in South Africa|
She wasn't formally trained, so maybe this is why her paintings are so unlike conventional botanical illustrations, in which the plant is shown against a white background. Marianne shows her flowers in context, where they grew - though she clearly took some liberties in order to show a beautiful view or an interesting insect: she didn't simply paint what she saw. Also, she didn't use water colours, she used oils, so her paintings are dense with brilliant colour - full of drama and absolutely wonderful.
In 1879 she offered her paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens. She designed a special building for them, and decreed how they were to be hung: close together, and grouped according to geographical area. However, she lost one fight. She wanted visitors to be served tea or coffee (so sensible!) but Sir Joseph huffed and puffed and said he was running a scientific institution, not a cafe. But she had the last word - she painted a tea plant and a coffee plant above the entrance.
|The gallery at Kew|
I think I first heard about Marianne North when I went to Kew Gardens when I was researching Jack Fortune, though for some reason I didn't go to the gallery then - I probably didn't know about her till I'd been to the shop, where I bought a pack of reproductions of her paintings. I was enchanted by their boldness and brilliance, and one of them showed a view of the Himalayas through a framework of foliage, which was in my mind as I wrote about my characters' first sighting of the mountain which plays a pivotal part in the book:
Then, between two houses, Jack saw something that stopped him in his tracks. In the distance he could see immense mountains with snow glistening on their peaks. “Look, Uncle!” he breathed.
His uncle stood still. He didn’t say a word, and Jack glanced at him. He was gazing at the distant peaks with a look of the most desperate longing on his face. Jack suddenly saw just how much his uncle wanted – no, needed – to reach them. On impulse, he touched his arm, and said seriously, “It’ll be all right, Uncle Edmund. We will get there. I promise you we will.”
His uncle looked surprised. Then he smiled sadly. “I hope so, Jack,” he said. “Oh, I do hope so!”