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.