Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

1 Nov 2015

Borneon Correspondance: Reassurance from Darwin

Darwin on Travel: "It appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries, the excitement in the novelty of objects, and the chance of success stimulates him to increased activity." Voyage of the Beagle 1839

Darwin on Rainforests: "Among the scenes which are impressed on my mind, none exceed the sublimity of the primeval forests, undefaced by the hands of man, Temples filled with the varied productions of the god of nature. No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the breath of his body." Voyage of the Beagle 1839

Marianne North and the Kaleidoscope Cabin

Tucked in a back corner of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is a building easy to overlook given its magisterial surroundings. The squat red brick building would entice the inquiring visitor in other areas, but when competing with pagodas and palm houses, you could almost be forgiven for passing it by. But woe behold those who leave this gem behind.
Flor Imperiale, Coral Snake and Spider, Brazil (1873)
Entering the central space of the gallery is to be bombarded with shapes and colours, ever changing as you explore the space. The symetrical lines framing them barely containing the images, which explode from the 833 paintings within. Botanic paintings of the highest order, but made more visceral through the positioning of the plants within their habitats. This counters the more traditional framing of leaves, fruit and flower on a clean and clinical white sheet. As your eye moves from one to another, slowly you realise that you are travelling the world, from the Americas to Asia, Africa to Australasia. The experience here is unlike that found in any other gallery, a curation of the life work of a single artist. Who was this intrepid explorer, climbing the slopes of Javan volcanoes, hacking through Brazilian jungle? The more that is revealed, the more remarkable.

Foliage and Fruit of Sterculia parviflora (1870)
It is 1869, and Marianne North is charged to ward on her moribund father, Frederick North MP, Deputy General and Justice of Peace. For the past 15 years, she has not left his side, not for marriage nor career, instead acting as confidante to her widowed father. The upper crust of Victorian society may have suited many, but the stifling conformity seemed to have bridled Marianne so that once her fathers inevitable passing releaved her of her services, she packed her oils and easels and seemingly never looked back. At 40 years old, an amateur artist, Marianne boarded the steamer to Boston, and never stopped travelling, and painting. Shunning invitations to dinner at the ambassadors, avoiding expat society companions for travel, instead preferring the company of the lush vegetation and vistas her journeys presented her.

Papyrus or Paper Reed Growing in the Ciane, Sicily (1870)
The fever and devotion to her task of documenting the hallucinatory fruits and flowers, meant that she captured forms and colours unlike anything found in imperial and increasingly industrial Albion. Her paintings quickly made her a darling of London artistic circles, whilst her tales of travel at a time when women were still to be found incapacitated by corsets fascinated the public. But her ability to capture the finer details of far flung forests meant that soon scientists sought out her services. No less that Darwin requested she travel to document the flora of Australia and New Zealand, which she did in spite of increasing ill health.
Flowers of a West Australian Shrub and Kangaroo Feet (1880)
Her legacy remains in the Marianne North Gallery, built at her request and expense and opened in 1882. The remaining collection captures the Victorian spirit of collection and curation, the walls struggling to contain so much art and adventure. To visit today is to bask in botanic beauty, and to consider with awe the accomplishments of an artist against the odds.

Pictures taken from wikiart