Fearless World Traveler

Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist

Book Description

Sci­en­tist. Artist. Rule-break­er. In 1882, Mar­i­anne North showed the gray city of Lon­don paint­ings of jaw-drop­ping green­ery like they’d nev­er seen before.

As a self-taught artist and sci­en­tist, Mar­i­anne North sub­vert­ed Vic­to­ri­an gen­der roles and advanced the field of botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion. Her tech­nique of paint­ing spec­i­mens in their nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment was ground­break­ing. The leg­endary Charles Dar­win was among her many sup­port­ers.

This biog­ra­phy chron­i­cles North’s life, from her restric­tive child­hood to her wild world trav­els to the open­ing of the Mar­i­anne North Gallery at Kew Gar­dens to her death in 1890. The North gallery at Kew Gar­dens remains open to the pub­lic today.

Bec­ca Stadt­lander’s award-win­ning lush, ver­dant art­work pairs won­der­ful­ly with the nat­ur­al themes.

Awards and Recognition

Junior Library Guild Gold Stan­dard Selection

Resources

Edu­ca­tor Guide from Hol­i­day House

Hear me read Fear­less World Trav­el­er on Hol­i­day House Star Sto­ry­time.

Q&A with Lau­rie Lawlor,” Book Q&As with Deb­o­rah Kalb, 14 May 2021

Reviews and Comments

“This is a splen­did account of Mar­i­anne North, who was born in Eng­land in 1830. Options for women in that time peri­od were neg­li­gi­ble. Her inter­ests were music, draw­ing, paint­ing, and explor­ing the nat­ur­al world. Going to soirees and prepar­ing her­self for run­ning a house­hold bored her to tears. After her moth­er died, North did end up run­ning her father’s house­hold as a duti­ful daugh­ter would but con­tin­ued her study of botany and record­ed spec­i­mens in her paint­ings. It was when her father died that she was final­ly able to do what it was she want­ed, trekking all over the world and record­ing botan­i­cal and wildlife exam­ples. North’s paint­ings and her con­tri­bu­tion to the botan­i­cal and nat­ur­al sci­ences of the time were extra­or­di­nary (her paint­ings are the only images left of some extinct ani­mals and plants), as was her deter­mi­na­tion to pur­sue goals that most women at the time could not. The illus­tra­tions are beau­ti­ful­ly done, with atten­tion and care car­ry­ing the spir­it of North’s paint­ings through­out. Back mat­ter is includ­ed. This book would pair well with Bar­bara Cooney’s Eleanor, cov­er­ing anoth­er inde­pen­dent and coura­geous woman who gave back to the world. ­VERDICT A must for all libraries. This is an impec­ca­bly attuned ­biog­ra­phy of a woman who broke the rules to the ben­e­fit of all.” (Joan Kindig, James ­Madi­son Univ., Har­rison­burg, VA, for School Library Jour­nal, starred review)

“As a teenag­er, Mar­i­anne North (1830–1890) acquired a love of music, art, and espe­cial­ly botany (all things that her wealthy Vic­to­ri­an par­ents dis­ap­proved of), teach­ing her­self about plants from books and obser­va­tion. At the age of forty, after the death of her wid­owed father, North was final­ly free to pur­sue her pas­sions. Ini­tial trips to paint plants in North Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean inspired her to go from “a trav­el­er who paint­ed” to “a painter who trav­eled,” vis­it­ing fif­teen countries—and cre­at­ing copi­ous art there—over the next four­teen years. In this fas­ci­nat­ing and detailed account of North’s life, Lawlor cov­ers the dif­fi­cult trav­el­ing con­di­tions and accom­mo­da­tions North often encoun­tered: even though “trav­el­ing along was frowned upon for ‘unpro­tect­ed ladies,’” she remained unde­terred. A few years before her death, North con­vinced the direc­tor of Lon­don’s Kew Gar­dens to let her build the Mar­i­anne North Gallery to house her col­lec­tion, of which 832 paint­ings are still view­able today. Grouped by geo­graph­ic regions, they form an “aston­ish­ing” mur­al-like dis­play, cap­tured by Stadt­lander (On Wings of Words, rev. 5/20) on an impres­sive spread. An append­ed note about North’s work cogent­ly char­ac­ter­izes her work.” (The Horn Book)

“In this cap­ti­vat­ing pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, Lawlor tells how Mar­i­anne North (1830–1890), born into great wealth in Eng­land, faced a total lack of sup­port for her inter­ests in music, art, and botany: ‘Marianne’s moth­er said she was wast­ing her time.’ Trapped into a care­tak­ing role until her father’s death, she final­ly found free­dom at age 40. She began to trav­el the world alone, paint­ing the pic­tures of flow­ers and plants that fill her name­sake gallery in London’s Kew Gar­dens. Lawlor’s nar­ra­tive of North’s astound­ing jour­neys on steamships, camels, and canoes weaves in direct quotes that cap­ture her irre­press­ible spirit—‘Did I not paint?… And wan­der and won­der at every­thing?’ Stadtlander’s vibrant water­col­or and ink illus­tra­tions cap­ture details—gimlet-eyed croc­o­diles, pat­terned car­pet bags, a crab scut­tling over a paint-smeared palette, ‘maraud­ing crows’ steal­ing ‘glit­ter­ing tubes of paint’—that con­jure the rich pecu­liar­i­ties of North’s intre­pid and priv­i­leged life. (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly)

“Mar­i­anne North (1830–1890) was born into a wealthy fam­i­ly and, as a sci­ence-mind­ed young woman, chafed at the con­straints of corset and cul­ture. She was 40 before she was able to pur­sue her ambi­tion to find and paint rare and exot­ic plants. Over some 14 years, North ‘trekked solo twice around the world,’ trav­el­ing by means of every­thing from ox carts to dugout canoes. She paint­ed plants and insects not in the aus­tere style of most botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion of her era but in situ, using dense oils, to show plants and their real sur­round­ings. In the beau­ti­ful end­pa­pers here, chil­dren can glimpse a few repro­duc­tions of North’s paint­ings, more than 800 of which are hang­ing in a gallery named for her in London’s Kew Gar­dens.” (Wall Street Jour­nal, July 3–4, 2021)

Behind the Book

I’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by how new envi­ron­ments are explored. What hap­pens when dis­cov­er­ies are brought back to the larg­er world to be shared—as new sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, art­work, and writ­ing? While I’ve inves­ti­gat­ed and writ­ten about explor­ers rang­ing from Cap­tain James Cook and Daniel Boone to pho­tog­ra­phers William Hen­ry Jack­son and Edward S. Cur­tis, I’ve always been intrigued by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of telling the sto­ry of an active, deter­mined woman artist and scientist.

This remark­able indi­vid­ual turned out to be Mar­i­anne North. Not only did she buck the restric­tions for women in Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, she made amaz­ing botan­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies and shared first-hand warn­ings about endan­gered species long before glob­al warm­ing dev­as­ta­tion became appar­ent. Paint­ing was her pass­port to the world.

My first glimpse of North came through her art­work. I stum­bled upon her amaz­ing paint­ings in a book about botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion. Who cre­at­ed these vivid, col­or­ful plants sur­round­ed by such life­like insects, rep­tiles, and birds that you could almost hear the buzzing, slith­er­ing, and singing? While her con­tem­po­raries were cre­at­ing wan water­col­or spec­i­mens in the com­fort of their stu­dios, North at age forty left home and went to the trop­ics to hunt and cap­ture in bril­liant oils the rarest of rare plants. She depict­ed each in their home environments. 

Adven­ture and art and science—a per­fect com­bi­na­tion! I became even more enthralled when I read her let­ters to friends and rela­tions describ­ing her solo, round-the-world trips that involved every­thing from rid­ing ele­phants and shoot­ing rapids to climb­ing moun­tains on horse­back and trekking through jun­gles on foot. 

I hope one day in a post-pan­dem­ic times to vis­it Kew Gar­dens, where her one-woman show is still on dis­play. Until then, we can wan­der the gallery dig­i­tal­ly to be inspired by her sta­mi­na and vision.

Fearless World Traveler

writ­ten by Lau­rie Lawlor
illus­trat­ed by Bec­ca Stadt­lander
Hol­i­day House, 2021

Buy the Book 

Horn Book review of Fearless World Traveler
Reviewed in The Horn Book,
Sep­tem­ber-Octo­ber 2021