Some spaces take your breath away.
Perhaps it’s rare and fantastic objects, piled haphazardly in tottering piles; perhaps it’s the architecture of the space itself, a contained mess of elegant lines or conflicting shapes, arching ever upwards.
As I sit upon a hellishly hard wooden bench in the depths of Kew Gardens, a combination of two things continue to hold me in a state of slight confusion and wonderment; they hit a person as soon as they enter the room.
the space is entirely barren. A high ceiling hangs above an intricately tiled floor, beautiful detailing adorn the arches and railings encircling the room; yet nothing can detract from the fact that this space is essentially a cold and empty box of a building, filled only with 2 pew like benches and a dusty display case holding an even dustier world map.
We have established that the room is empty, cold and seemingly devoid of life; but nothing could be further from the truth. The room is teeming with captured vitality, spilling into the eyes from every available direction; paintings flow over every ounce of wall space, a puzzle of vibrant colours and fluid lines, encased in heavy gold edged frames.
large golden letters adorn the only empty wall space, wending around the room:
‘CHILI- JAMAICA- AMERICA- CEYLON – INDIA – SINGAPORE – BORNEO – JAPAN – JAVA – NEW ZEALAND – AUSTRALIA’ the words read, mapping out the illustrious travels of the woman whose work covers every available surface.
‘Welcome to the Marianne North Gallery’ -a small sign welcomes visitors- ‘no photos allowed.’
No photos? This proves to be a blessing in disguise. There is possibly too much to photograph, too much to see, too many details to permanently capture.
Marianne North’s work is vibrant, full of life and feeling. It is scientific, as all botanical work should be, however only in the loosest of terms; scientific in its detail, in it’s botanical subject matter and in it’s observational quality.
848 works span the walls, depicting an impossible array of landscapes, flora and fauna, painted with the attentive detail of someone who really knows what they’re doing.
848 works spanning a globe’s worth of travel, and a lifetime of exploration on the part of Marianne North.
Despite their realism and accuracy, North’s work is still alive with the careless fluidity and expression of a painter on the move- she painted in situ, from observation and from the barest hint of memory (perhaps as can be seen in a very confused study of two koalas from her time in Australia!).
North painted works of art in a multitude previously unimagined, all encompassed within 14 years of solo travel
between 1871 and 1885. Not only was North painting high quality works, in huge quantities, whilst travelling solo, but she was doing so as a female in the Victorian era.
Not only should she be recognised as a pioneer in artistic terms, but also as an
icon for that particular brand of human that admires true artistry, botany and a healthy dose of feminism- so, me, to be honest.
Go to the Marianne North Gallery and stand in the centre of that room.
Gaze at the tiled floor, the wooden panelling complete with 246 individual panels of timber collected on Norths travels; admire the work stretching from floor to ceiling, the hours and hours of liquid creativity fusing with structure and form- see how one woman captured fragments of time on paper, beautiful fragments of immeasurable realness.
And have your breath taken away.