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Her World

In an Age of Corsets, Botanic Artist Planted Seeds of Freedom in Travel

July 29, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Marianne North, an English botanic artist born in 1830, once commented that she preferred vegetables to the settled domestic life.

But what she clearly preferred most of all was travel. From 1869, when her beloved father died, to 1884, when she went to Chile on her last trip, she roamed the world, usually on her own, by steamer, railroad, oxcart and canoe, painting flowering plants in their natural habitats and amassing a collection of pictures that has been on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, since 1882.

Although she died in 1890 within sniffing distance of the common primroses and cowslips she cultivated in her own Gloucestershire garden, my path crossed hers in May on a trip to the Seychelles, a group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

In 1883, North went to the Seychelles, where she visited little Praslin, the second largest island in the chain and "the most perfect situation I was ever in." At the age of 53, she climbed on a pile of boulders to paint the exotic coco de mer , a tall palm with a gigantic nut, endemic to the Seychelles.

I saw the palms of Praslin too, and since reading North's three-volume memoir, "Recollections of a Happy Life," I have revisited in my mind other places we both saw, from poetically lovely Lake Pichola in the Indian city of Udaipur to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where I grew up. (North was there in 1881 and met Henry Shaw, the garden's founder.)

And then there are the places North knew that I've only dreamed of visiting: Brazil, Borneo, South Africa. But North has been guiding my imaginary travels, which can be nearly as satisfying as real ones, especially when your companion is a dauntless Victorian.

North was not the only Victorian woman who traveled abroad. The age of corsets and railroads unleashed a handful of exceptional women travelers, including such world adventurers as Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley, most of them unmarried women with wanderlust who reached some corners of the globe that were untouched by male explorers. The English Royal Geographical Society first admitted women in 1892, but rescinded the decision the next year and kept it that way until 1913. North never was admitted. But if she had been a man she would have gained entry to the society, says Evelyn Kaye of Boulder, Colo., who is writing a biography of North.

Chief among North's accomplishments were her oil paintings of flowers from around the world and the gallery at Kew Gardens where 832 of them are still arranged, by continent, chockablock on the walls. She not only engaged the architect, hung the pictures and decorated the lintels, but she also paid for the North Gallery, which opened in 1882.

The gallery was taking shape when English naturalist Charles Darwin advised her to add samples from Australia. Later she realized she had nothing from Africa, so in 1882 she went there, too, despite rheumatism and increasing deafness. On these and other trips, she discovered four species of plants and painted a new genus of tree in the Seychelles, formally named Northea seychellana in her honor.

Such achievements established her reputation as a distinguished amateur scientist. But the way North traveled impresses me more. She stayed in hotels and with acquaintances when possible, carrying letters of introduction from the director of Kew Gardens and her noble pedigree, which gave her access to English consular residences all over the world. Laura Ponsonby, author of "Marianne North at Kew Gardens" (Webb and Bower, 1990), says North was an expert networker who ventured into the bush with friends of friends and even with strangers for months at a time.

When North's search for flowering specimens took her off the beaten path, she bedded down in barns or by campfires and never flinched when, for instance, a servant on Borneo sliced leeches off her legs with a long sword. Her skin grew suntanned and rough and her wardrobe shabby, raising the eyebrows of prim Victorian friends.

North, who never married, inherited money from her father and kept it for her travels. As Susan Morgan says in her introduction to a 1993 American edition of "Recollections of a Happy Life" (University of Virginia Press), "North had no practical incentives to marry," because marriage would most likely have forced her to cede control of her inheritance. More than that, though, North never yearned for wedlock, which she called "a terrible experiment ... for a man especially; as a woman is something like your cat," lacking ideas and passions of her own.

Morgan sees North more as "one of the boys" than as an early feminist. She points out a strain of ugly but common Victorian bigotry in "Recollections of a Happy Life." The autobiography includes unsavory passages about contented Brazilian slaves and the "41/2-foot-high" Japanese governor of Kyoto. (North also saw shortcomings in her own countrymen, who seemed to her intent on despoiling the natural world. After meeting a sportsman from Ireland headed to Egypt in search of something to shoot, she wrote, "What a killing race the British are!")

The next time I'm in England, I'll make a point of visiting the North Gallery at Kew Gardens, a shrine to a self-proclaimed "old vagabond" dedicated to capturing beauty on canvas and banishing botanical misconceptions, like the one commonly held in her day "that cocoa was made from the coconut."

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