an artist you should know: Marianne North





I happened upon Marianne North by chance one summer in high school on vacation with my mother in a rented beach house in Sea Isle City, NJ. There were a number of books left behind by other renters, and one was A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North, written by North herself, chronicling her life from her birth in Hastings, England in 1830, her world travels, and the end of her life in 1890, as recorded by her sister, Catherine.

Originally intending to be a singer, North's voice failed and so she turned to painting plant life of the world. She traveled with her father until his death in 1869, and then took a world tour, recording the flora of the areas in paintings. In 1871-72, she lived in a hut in the Brazilian rain forest and painted. By 1878, she had been to the Americas, the Caribbean, India (where she cataloged plants sacred in Indian literature and religion) and Japan, and several places in the South Pacific. She contributed significantly to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (The North Gallery, as her area is called, is in the east section of the garden, not the north one). In addition, several species of plants are named in her honor.

A Vision of Eden is quite long and detailed, and I have to admit I haven't read it in its entirety, but the images were so lovely I, um, had to steal it from the beach house. North's style is somewhat strange; her only formal training came from "a Dutch lady" who evidently gave her private lessons, which North describes as giving her "the few ideas I possess of arrangement and colour [sic] and grouping." And there is something slightly unschooled-seeming in her work, but North is talented enough that the work appears fresh and youthful while still retaining an intelligence about the subject, instead of being naive and purely decorative. The bright, saturated colors, the strong, ambiguous light source, and the uniform crispness of her subjects gives the paintings a slightly eerie, otherworldly quality which somehow reminds me of the work of Italian Surrealist painter De Chirico. Her body of work includes detailed close-ups of plants and animals, as well as broader landscapes and buildings. Although they are, in some ways, simply recordings of the natural world in a time before photography, and certainly color photography, they are also deliberate and dreamlike compositions that speak not only to the exploration of the natural world, but of Marianne North's unique vision of that world.

The paintings lack formal titles, and are instead referenced, in the book, by caption. I abridged them and updated some of the place names. Anyway, top to bottom: View of Mt. Kinchinjunga, Darjeeling, India; the "quicksilver mountain," Tegoro, Malaysia; an old red cedar, Manchester, MA; rubber trees in Sri Lanka.