Intrepid Women at Kew Garden #AmWriting

When I stepped from the London Underground’s platform into the District of Kew, I knew I’d made the right choice to spurn museums for the outdoors. Blue sky was brush-stroked with clouds, the city’s noontime bustle was behind me, and the Kew Royal Botanic Garden lay ahead.

I’d arrived in time for one o’clock tea, so I relaxed at The Botanical to sketch out my must-see sites. I sipped peppermint tea and savored two seared scallops with arugula, and caramelised onion and pea purées. Each taste painted my palete bitter, salty, and sweet, layering until forming a complete composition.

Still, I finished my meal quickly, wanting to explore the fire-bright wood garden just beyond the pond; wanting to see Wolfgang Buttress’s The Hive, an artistic exploration of our honeybees. I wandered slowly, snapping photographs. The fresh air mixed with the fragrant maple scent of flowering Escallonia illinita, native to South America.

I explored the geometric metal hive from below and climbed to the top to watch the lights flicker off and on, mimicking a hive’s complex communication system. From the top of the structure I noticed the trees and gardens were swarming with workers. I worked my way down and asked a groundskeeper about the activity.

“Some crews are removing the Christmas decorations, but our responsibility is cleaning the bulb beds, to get them ready for the spring,” answered Maija, tugging dried fronts from the ground.

For each question I asked, Maija responded with one of her own. Soon she discovered I was taking a travel writing class and that I was supposed to be a museum today, but didn’t want to leave.

“We have an art galleries here,” she said. “Have you heard of Marianne North? She was a Victorian woman who began painting in her forties. From 1871 until 1885, she traveled six continents, painting more than 1,000 plants.”

I’m constantly taking photos of insects, plants, and flowers. Maija saw I was eager to learn about North, who at mid-life was bold enough to travel a male-dominated world to explore her passion for nature. The groundskeeper warned me the gallery would close early.

As I hurried away, I watched people leave the pavement and walk through the grass, shortening the distance to their destinations. I followed. The grass in front of me was worn creating a “desire path”. These are paths that people choose to follow, flouting prescribed routes. It seemed fitting that Kew Garden, keeper of the plucky North’s collection did not discourage these off-road jaunts.

I pushed open the door of the Marianne North Gallery revealing two small wood-paneled rooms with tile floors of geometric russet, black and tan. Oil paintings were in floor-to-ceiling columns, wall-to-wall rows, orderly and efficient, color and composition, insects, birds, mountains, and flora. There was Niagara Falls, not yet dominated by high-rise buildings and neon lights. There was Hindu jasmine, South African water lilies, and Java’s slender walking stick. There were hundreds of paintings, each placed by North, herself. The bottom foot of the walls was paneled with wood she’d carried back from far-off countries.

I asked Rosemary, a gallery volunteer if people often return. “Again and again,” she said. “I’ve worked here two years, and I still find paintings I haven’t seen.”  Marianne North had minimal training. She only began painting after her father’s death.

I left Kew Royal Botanic Garden, pleased to have discovered Marianne North, that audacious forty year-old artist, who dared to create her own path of desire.

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About Barbara Rath

Enjoy reading, writing, hiking, hangin' with family, friends and my dogs, watching soccer (Go Breakers), baseball, football. Favorite foods are coffee, chocolate, and artichokes. Always thinking of new stuff to do and then not doing it.
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4 Responses to Intrepid Women at Kew Garden #AmWriting

  1. Pam Kelly says:

    Sorry, that was bringing “back” a painting…

    • Barbara Rath says:

      Thank you, Pam. This is the piece I’ve decided to try to expand into my final essay for class. If when I’m writing, I see something in your comment that I’d like to quote, may I?

      • Pam Kelly says:

        Of course! Besides, I was just repeating something I’d read on Wikipedia about this audacious and inspired woman. Whew!

  2. Pam Kelly says:

    Love your description of the “desire paths” at Kew. When we were there we missed North’s paintings, but now I feel that I have seen them, too! Sounds like a quirky but very special museum. Of course, that prompted me to “google” her and I discovered that although she began painting flowers at age 25, she did her most intrepid traveling abroad to paint them after her father’s death when she was 39. And intrepid she was, including when in 1872 she “spent a year in Brazil, where she did much of her work at a hut in the depths of a forest.” Just imagine! Pretty courageous for her age, not to mention the age in which she was living! And she knew Darwin, traveling to New Zealand at his suggestion and bringing pack a painting she gave to him! Thanks for sharing this amazing “desire path” so I could broaden my own horizons.

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