October 24, 2016
My jaw dropped as I came into this gallery — less from the individual images than the installation of these paintings that Marianne North herself arranged. The gallery, while quintessentially Victorian, is the unique vision of an unusual artist.
In the 19th Century Marianne North traveled around the world, painting landscapes and depicting plants in their natural habitat. In 1880 she made arrangements with Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, to build a gallery for her paintings in the botanical gardens. Both Hooker and North had connections with Charles Darwin, and were interested in both the scientific and the aesthetic value of plants. She spent a year whole arranging the paintings in the building that she paid for herself.
The walls of the galleries are covered with paintings on over every inch. They galleries are organized by continent and by region, and the bottom of each wall is covered by wainscoting featuring wood samples from the area depicted. Each of these panels is from a different species of tree, and each is labeled. Above that, the paintings are mounted, about 6 deep. I say mounted, because they are attached to the walls, not hung. The paintings vary in size and proportions, and Marianne has organized them into pleasing arrangements. Often she will group several pictures with the same dimensions and of the same area into a single frame, with just a single gold leafed bar between them. Every painting is numbered and descriptive labels are mounted just above the wainscotting. There is balcony along the top of main gallery, where additional, larger scale paintings are hung. Even the panels in the gallery doors have paintings set into them. The overall affect is as beautiful as it is overwhelming. After a few minutes, I was drawn in to look at individual paintings. I picked out landscapes of places I know well, both in the US and elsewhere, and looked at exotic plants from around the world. In some cases she recorded wilderness that has disappeared in the years since. Some of the plants she painted were so rare that she was the first to document them.
In these galleries I could feel Marianne North’s excitement and passion for the plant world, as well as getting a sense of her unique esthetic and unusual life story.
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