Mon 21 May 2018
8:00 pm - 9:45 pm
Duke Street Church
Photos by Mary Pollard
More than 100 people attended our ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING in May 2018 , which was followed by a talk by Jack Andrews: PAINTING PLANTS WITH A PASSION, Jack, who initiated the project, told us the story behind the recent BBC Four documentary, The Remarkable Miss North, presented by Emilia Fox, about Marianne North, one of the most prolific botanical artists of the Victorian age. Unbound by social convention, this Victorian rebel embarked on a project that changed the face of botanical research. She dedicated her life to painting the world’s plants in the wildest of places; an artistic legacy that remains as mesmerising today as it was in 1882 when her gallery opened at Kew Gardens.
Jack Andrews MBE, who has lived in Richmond and Kew since 1988, followed a career in advertising and broadcasting and qualified as a volunteer guide at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1992. In 2002 he was awarded MBE for services to the arts. He gave up guiding in 2012 to produce and promote the Marianne North film.
John Foley reports on Jack Andrews’ talk
She had missed her train. But instead of fuming in impatience on the smoky railway
platform the middle-aged Victorian lady composed herself, and wrote a letter: to Sir
Joseph Hooker, then Director of Kew Gardens. If she paid the cost of construction of a
suitable gallery, would the Gardens accept as a gift her collection of oil paintings? As Jack
Andrews explained in his captivating talk, this was no ordinary collection. The year was
1879 and the lady was Marianne North, returned to England after a series of remarkable
globe-trotting journeys and aware that her large accumulation of oil paintings was of
public interest, as well as being of artistic merit, and botanic and scientific value.
Marianne North, still little known to many, was one of the most adventurous and creative
of Victorians. She was born in 1830 to an upper-middle-class family in Hastings, her father
a long-serving MP, her parents well connected socially and friendly with such luminaries
as Charles Darwin and Edward Lear. Marianne was educated privately, but hated school
despite showing early artistic and musical talent. Unable to take up singing professionally
she took to painting in watercolour and on an early visit to Kew was fascinated by the rich
colours of tropical plants: she longed to see more. She was devoted to her father (also a
keen botanist), the ‘idol of her life’, and accompanied him on his travels, painting plants
and landscapes. When he died in 1869 she was inconsolable.
But the loss of her father changed the course of Marianne’s life. With the money inherited
from his estate she was now financially well off. Unmarried and without dependants she
was now free to travel and to indulge her growing passion for oil painting and her quest
to discover and paint exotic new plants and foreign landscapes.
This she did for the rest of her life, travelling over the seas on clippers, over land on steam
trains, on horseback, on rickshaws, or as often as not on foot, and mostly alone, too, as like
many artistic people she preferred to work in solitude and rebuffed well-meaning people
who tried to accompany her. Although well connected and able to stay with members of
British society abroad, from Canada to California, Australia to Brazil, Japan to South
Africa, Singapore to India, Borneo to Chile, she often trekked and climbed into the most
inhospitable and unexplored regions, at times working and sleeping in jungle and
mountain shacks. (On her travels in Ceylon she met another Victorian adventurer, the
remarkable pioneer of photography Julia Margaret Cameron, whose portrait photograph
of Marianne survives, an image for posterity of this extraordinary lady.)
Inevitably she became ill on several occasions, and severely damaged health shortened her
life: she died in 1890 aged 59. But by then she could be satisfied that her paintings
(eventually totalling over 830) were recognised by the specialists at Kew as being of
significant scientific value. At least one genus of plant was credited to her as a new
discovery and four new species were named in her honour; her work received public
acclaim – and a letter of thanks and appreciation from none other than Queen Victoria.
The paintings have been recently cleaned and the gallery restored (by Donald Insall
Associates) and also made the the subject of an excellent TV documentary of which Jack
Andrews was Executive Producer: The Remarkable Miss North, presented by Emilia Fox. To round off his talk Jack related the background story to the making of this film, the unexpected initial offer of generous financial assistance coming from Mr and Mrs Thomas C. Sheffield, Jr. of Chicago, whom he met in his capacity as a volunteer guide
Jack kindly donated to our bookstall some copies of the DVD of his TV documentary about Marianne North. If you were unable to buy one, you may like to know that they are now back in stock at Kew Gardens’ bookshop and can also be ordered online at shop.kew.org/kewbooksonline