Thursday, November 12, 2009

Marianne North Gallery reopens at Kew Gardens

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens has been restored to good order and reopened last month after a two year conservation project costing £3.7 million.

Inside the Gallery after the restoration work
copyright RBG Kew

The purpose-built Gallery is the only gallery in the UK where all the work on display was produced by one female artist.

Marianne North was an intrepid Victorian botanical artist who travelled to 17 countries around the world in search of rare, exotic and beautiful plants.
Her travels started in the USA, from where she went to Canada, the Caribbean, Brazil, Japan, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. - all in Victororian dress(!) - with brief returns to the UK in between her various journies.
Kew Gardens - two women and two galleries for botanical art
Marianne North painting
copyright RBG Kew

She documented over 900 plant species and the gallery contains 833 vivid paintings in her unique style. Her paintings are important to plant science and conservation because they provide a unique snapshot of the world’s flora and fauna over 100 years ago. She documented species and areas of the natural world which are now threatened.

In 1882, she donated her life’s work and a gallery to Kew Gardens on condition it always housed her work.

This is a video which pans around the gallery to give you a sense of just how much work it contains and how it is hung! The paintings are hung frame to frame completely covering the wall - in the manner of the original hanging scheme.

Restoration works - the gallery

The Gallery required major works so that it could remain open to the public. In particular the roof needed replacing and the building weather proofing.

Exterior of the restored Gallery
copyright RBG Kew

Maintaining the artwork in the best possible condition also meant that the Gallery was in dire need of environmental controls over temperature and damp to help prevent the growth of mould. I certainly remember what it used to be like inside the gallery and the atmosphere inside now is completely different.

You can read about the restoration works on the Kew website.

Restoration works - the artworks

When I visited I was amazed at the state of the artwork and thought it must have been cleaned. However I understand all the works currently on display at the moment are in fact high quality facsimile prints of the original artwork.

That's becauseall the oil paintings on paper are being restored to good condition in the state-of-the-art Marianne North Conservation Studio, based in RBG Kew’s Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives. At the moment about 10 paintings a week are being treated and they are not due to complete the work until July 2010. During 2010, the prints are going to be gradually replaced by the conserved paintings.

Treatments have ranged from removing the acidic backing board which Marianne North stuck on to every oil painting to give them more rigidity, to working with a microscope to gather, re-position and stick down tiny flakes of paint, which have come loose due to distortion of the paper supports caused by fluctuating humidity levels.

Cleaning the surface of the painting with saliva
copyright RBG Kew

Let this be a warning to everybody who fails to use archival backing boards for their work! ;)

I found out from Kew that the process of removing the boards is uncovering the process of the way Marianne North worked

  • Various inscriptions have been found on the backs of the boards and paintings, some giving personal anecdotes on the scenes depicted and others noting the botanical names of the plants featured. These colourful descriptions have been preserved, and documented, and will go on display in the Gallery.
  • Beneath the view of ‘Chilean Palms in the Valley of Salto’ the team discovered a completely unknown sketch of the landscape which is inscribed with annotations pointing the different colours and shades of the landscape. Words such as ‘bluish’ and ‘light grey’ can be clearly read, suggesting that Marianne North was planning on painting the image away from the actual scene.
Male Pawpaw with Flowers and Imperfect Fruit,
The hidden painting is very similar to this one
but a different composition
copyright RBG Kew
  • Finally paper conservator, Rachael Smith, on her very first day working on the project, found the most exciting discovery so far - a hidden painting, unseen for over 120 years since Marianne North covered it with its backing board. It took Rachel 16 painstaking hours to uncover half of the image – a pace much slower than normal as the painting was never varnished, leaving the paint layers very fragile.
Kew was fortunate to receive a Heritage Lottery Fund grant (£1.7million) to help with the enormous costs of this major restoration project (£3.7million) but Kew then has raise the rest of the money.

One of the ways they are doing this is by asking people to "adopt a painting" and you can read how to sponsor a painting on the Kew website

Many thanks to Kew Gardens for the photographs and images used in this post.

Other recent blog posts about Kew:
Other blogs posts about the gallery: Kew Gardens - two women and two galleries for botanical art

Making a Mark reviews...... Travels with a Sketchbook in.......


  1. I was so interested to read this post. I discovered Marianne North's work many years ago on a visit to Kew and early on in my journey as a painter. Her work and life had an enormous influence on me and I gained a lot from reading her book. The gallery was always stunning and I would love to visit Kew again next year to see the restored paintings. Thank you for blogging about this amazing woman.

  2. I visited her gallery my first trip to Kew and was wowed by her work. I'm sorry it was closed when I was there last year. Probably if and when I ever get back there, the originals will all be back up. Thank you for the post... I'm glad to find out that all of her work on line.


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