Marianne North

Whenever I mention working on a British-born female naturalist, people think of Marianne North (1830-1890) who travelled the world and painted its flora and part of its fauna in oil. She painted flowers in their habitat on all the continents and wrote travel journals that her sister posthumously edited and published under Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the autobiography of Marianne North. North exhibited her paintings in a London gallery in 1879 and had the idea of showing them at Kew. She wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, asking whether he would agree to display her life’s work if she donated a gallery. The gallery was soon built in a mix of classical and colonial styles. North spent a year arranging her paintings inside the building and the Marianne North Gallery opened to the public in 1882. After the gallery was opened, North had to go to Africa as it was the only continent missing. She arrived at the Cape in late 1882, as her Recollections shows. She met Roland Trimen in Cape Town who showed her around in the South African Museum and mentioned his friend Mary Elizabeth Barber. North recorded that ever since arriving at the Cape people mentioned Barber ‘the great authority on all sots of natural history’ (p. 247). She thus hoped to make her acquaintance. By the end of the year, she arrived in Grahamstown where she stayed at local surgeon William Guybon Atherstone’s. He was Barber’s husband’s cousin and informed her of North’s arrival. One day, Barber visited North in the railway hotel where she was staying. Mary brought some of her watercolours to show North and two evil smelling stapelias for her to paint. They attracted so many flies that she had to dispose of them (p. 247-248).


Art Store, History Museum, Albany Museum complex, Grahamstown, Barber’s painting 31 Diadema missipus

North seems to have copied the butterflies and caterpillars as a comparison of painting 31 to North’s Buphane toxicara and other Flowers of Grahamstown (painting 395) shows:


North did of course not mention how she painted, but belittled Barber’s technique as old-fashioned, saying her paintings were ‘stippled on white paper with a line of neutral tint round the edges to raise them (done much in the way old Anne North did her flowers in the year I was born)’ (p. 247).

North’s painting is now part of the 833 paintings depicting more than 900 plant species at the Marianne North Gallery. It was restored and conserved as part of a two-year conservation project (2008-2010). It is seen by thousands of people at the gallery every year and by even more online, while Barber’s is stored at the Art Store of the History Museum of the Albany Musem complex in Grahamstown, South Africa, where I as a researcher could see it upon request. Her economic capital made North enter collective memory and history, while Barber has almost fallen into oblivion. High time I change this with this blog entry and for the time being a low-quality photograph I took in Grahamstown in 2012.