So I haven’t blogged for way too long, and yesterday I had a day I’d really like to share, and definitely like to document, for me, if not for anyone else!
Back in December, when I was busy getting a life in NY, I ate breakfast perusing a series (ok, a couple, breakfast isn’t exactly a time-consuming meal) of documentaries about female artists. The BBC iPlayer has a constant supply of art programmes, and I had happened to download a programme called Kew’s Forgotten Queen. I had no idea what it was about and I certainly wasn’t prepared to be quite so bowled over.
Kew Gardens went on my list of places to visit, and when, a couple of weeks ago my friend (and art teacher) and I compiled a list of ‘things we must see’, this was at the top.
An early start and we were at Kew Gardens by 10:30, the promise of a beautiful day was still elusive, but we were on a mission, so no bother.
First stop the Marianne North Gallery (Kew’s Forgotten Queen).
You know how places get linked in your brain (at least they do in mine… if I hear a particular song, or Radio show, in a specific place, I will always think of that song when I return to that place… know what I mean?).
Well, I was right back in my (my…I wish!) flat in Brooklyn where I had seen the documentary, that same sense of adventure, the excitement of learning something new, the anticipation of something special.
In 1879 (aged 49) Marianne North wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, director of Kew, asking if she could give ‘one thousand, or even two’ to build a gallery to display her paintings. She said that as an old lady (yes…49!) she often needed to rest her legs when in the Gardens, and a cup of tea would always be welcome. She suggested that she would pay for a cottage to be built next to the gallery for a worker to live in, he would look after the gallery and his wife could make coffee and tea and biscuits ‘that’s all’ for the visitors. On her death, she would leave all the paintings to Kew.
He accepted and the Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882, housing 833 of her paintings.
The cottage was built, but the tea and coffee never happened, despite her taking it to parliament! In defiance, and with a good sense of humour, she painted tea plants around one door and coffee around another.
I hadn’t really felt it on watching the documentary, but on arriving at the gallery and reading the above-described letter, I was suddenly quite struck by the magnitude of this. Imagine how much you would have to pay nowadays to have a gallery built, somewhere so prestigious. Imagine just having that money to spend…
There is no doubt Marianne North lived a VERY privileged life, and I was forced to question myself as to how I felt about this.
She never had to work, she had enough money to travel the world for 15 years, she had letters of introduction with her which meant that she resided in the palaces of the countries she visited.
She had art lessons with the very best teachers (the same teacher as Queen Victoria) and artists, and she had all the time and space to paint literally thousands of paintings.
I wonder how many of us could become as good as her under these circumstances? What are the bases for my feelings? Jealousy? Envy? Injustice? Inequality?
The guide in the gallery didn’t settle this unrest in me when he told us about the Suffragettes attacks on Kew (I wasn’t sure of his tone and politely reminded him of the huge sacrifices they made for women, and how we are still fighting for equality).
The Tea Pavilion was burnt down and the Orchid House broke into, many plants were ripped out of the ground and all the labels were removed (is it awful that this makes me smile?!).
Just looking at how these stories are recorded now, on Kew’s Website I get the underlying feeling that the reporting of the incidents is not without bias. A letter from the Director of New York Botanical Garden, to Kew’s Director, says “I caught sight of the enclosed press notice of damage to your collections the other day and hope nothing important was destroyed. Queer way to get the vote!”.
The Suffragettes Website, however, reports that the two women caught nearby were sentenced at the Old Bailey for 18 months. They both went on hunger strike, one released after becoming seriously ill following being force-fed by prison authorities, the other after a 32-day hunger strike she had managed to hide from the guards. These sacrifices are not to be overlooked.
All food for thought and I was in sudden and unexpected fear of not enjoying the exhibition.
However, the gallery is quite overwhelming.
The artwork is like nothing I know elsewhere. All painted in oils, the pictures are arranged by country, taking you on an all-encompassing tour of the world. The precision, the intense colour, not to mention the incredible beauty of the plants and flowers she painted. The vistas are so clearly 3D, almost illusion-like. The pictures are framed and hung with no wall space to be seen between them. This creates such a feeling of passion and unbroken dedication to her mission to, not only see these plants she had first seen in Kew Gardens as a child, but to paint them in their natural habitat, and to bring them back to share with, yes the botanical scientists, but as importantly, the public.
She may have been privileged, but she was also immensely talented and her instincts were generous. She didn’t just want people to see her work, she wanted to build somewhere they could stop and recuperate, take time to rest, and enjoy a small piece of the rest of the world. She was so right about the cup of tea! Even Parliament was wrong about that, but why do I say that as if it’s a surprise?
The pictures are deep, vivid, and have helped scientists and botanists to learn about many plants they didn’t even know existed. There are 3 species and one genus named in her honour, Nepenthes Northiana, Crinum Northianum, Kniphofia Northiae and Northia Seychellana, all plants she found that were new to western scientific knowledge. It is not common to have a plant named after you (although a dear friend has a Clematis named Rebecca in her garden, my parents a rose by the same name), but these would tend to be professional people. Marianne was not a professional scientist, nor even recognized as a botanical artist (due to her painting the plants in situ, rather than on a plain background), so this is an incredible accolade for her to have received.
There is so much more I could tell you about her, but with fear of you nodding off, I also highly recommend the newly refurbished Temperate House. The fragrance of the Rose Garden is dreamy, I challenge anyone to think they’ve been surrounded by quite so many blooming flowers at once, but do get there soon while they are still in flower. And the cream tea in The Botanical is a perfect way to end the day.
If you were to google Marianne North one of the first images you would see would be her painting of a Nepenthes Pitcher Plant. On writing the above, while sitting at my usual table in Guats Up, the brilliant coffee bar (my new office, rent paid in buying coffee, great wifi, big window, plenty of space for guests/meetings!), I happened to look up and, for the first time, register the pot plant opposite me. The Nepenthes Pitcher Plant. I’d never seen one before but recognized it immediately, the very plant Marianne North travelled to Borneo to paint in its natural habitat. Could that just be a coincidence?
See the full documentary here: Victorian Rebel: Marianne North