The intrepid botanical artist, Marianne North, traversed the globe alone for 15 years in the late 19th-century. Her eponymous gallery at London's Kew Gardens is rife with inspiration for lovers of art and nature. Art historian Hannah Kroes explores North’s fascinating career, and the quiet beauty of botanical illustrations - a key inspiration for Cabana's new Botanica Collection.



The beautiful palm houses at London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew © Hannah Kroes 


Stepping into the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens in London is astonishing: 832 paintings of vibrant plant life cover the walls from floor to ceiling, a "gigantic botanical postage-stamp album", according to critic Wilfred Blunt. The paintings are organised by region, and in a few steps it is possible to traverse from Jamaica to Japan.

It becomes even more remarkable when one considers that each work was painted en plein air by an intrepid Victorian artist, Marianne North, as she travelled solo around the world for 15 years in the late 19th-century.

This dauntless lifestyle was first inspired by North’s visit to Kew Gardens in 1856, when she was 26 years old. A fantastical world of plant life was opened up to Marianne when her father, Frederick North, brought her to the Palm House, which housed many of the first specimens of global plants to be brought to England.

This experience lit a hunger in Marianne to visit the tropics and capture the splendour and variety of the natural world first-hand. After grieving the loss of her father in 1869, North decided to set off on her travels around the world, eventually visiting 16 countries between 1871-1885. Having never married, North was able to embrace the freedom afforded to her through her inheritance, and travelled alone to the far reaches of the British Empire, bringing along her easel and oil paints.

North’s style of painting was unique in both form and technique. Rebelling against the Victorian norms of botanical illustration, in which plants would be placed on suitably neutral backgrounds to be admired as specimens, North embraced the context of the plants she pictured by recording them in situ. She had no formal training as a painter, and had an unusual technique with her oil paints, which involved painting directly onto the paper and mixing tones on the surface.


World Monuments Fund x Cabana, Botanica Collection photographed in the surroundings that inspired it: Kew Gardens © Christopher Horwood 


Almost all of her works were made from observation in the outdoors, making the detail of her small paintings all the more incredible. In a time before color photography, it is easy to see how these paintings offered a fascinating glimpse into the natural world that enthralled her fellow Victorians.

North returned to England for a time in 1879 to exhibit her paintings in Kensington. Later that year, she asked Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew, if she could build a gallery dedicated to her artwork on the grounds. He agreed, and in 1882 the Marianne North Gallery was completed at North’s expense.

The gallery is humble in size but feels opulent with the kaleidoscopic effect of her vivid paintings paired with wood samples she collected on her travels, Victorian tiles, and floral borders painted onto the door frames. North envisioned the gallery as a place that would delight and educate visitors about nature, and wished for it to provide free tea and coffee as part of its hospitality.

Kew denied this request, and in response North cheekily painted floral borders of tea and coffee plants around the door jambs inside the gallery. These engaging details still accomplish what North intended to do 142 years ago: visitors step into the gallery, often without expectation, and gasp with wonder at the botanic world brought before them, just as vibrant as the gardens outside.

"My sister was no botanist in the technical sense of the term," Catherine Symonds, Marianne’s sister, said. "Her feeling for plants in their beautiful living personality was more like that which we all have for human friends."

The Marianne North Gallery joins many other lesser-known corners of Kew Gardens in celebrating art and heritage. While filled with beauty from the natural world, the architecture and design of Kew is equally ripe for inspiration. The painted borders in the North Gallery seem to be in dialogue with the hand-painted floral design, which decorates the picnic room of Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. 

This charming green room has a trellis design created by Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of George III and Charlotte. Elsewhere, the iron and glass architecture of the Palm House and Waterlily House was innovative in the 19th century and frames the wonders of the tropics with decorative wrought iron balustrades and spiral staircases.

The Shirley Sherwood Gallery, which opened in 2008, sought to further revive botanical art by presenting Dr. Sherwood’s collection and collaborating with contemporary artists to display modern takes on art and nature. Dale Chihuly, Rebecca Louise Law, and Marc Quinn (currently on display) are a few of the artists who have filled the gallery space, as well as the grounds of Kew Gardens, with art.

Marianne North brought art and nature together in Kew Gardens, a tradition which has grown more vibrant in the decades since. The gallery has cemented her legacy as a maverick artist, devotee of nature, and a Victorian woman unafraid to break the mould. Kew’s display of her artwork has been by far the longest-running permanent exhibition of a female artist’s work in the UK.


World Monuments Fund x Cabana, Botanica Collection photographed in the surroundings that inspired it: Kew Gardens © Christopher Horwood 


Hannah Kroes is a London-based art historian and travel writer |

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