Gardens

The value of paying attention

'Two Australian shrubs, with Sydney Harbour below' by Marianne North

Marianne North painted this bottlebrush in 1880 from the foreshore near Nielsen Park. Simply add the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, thickets of buildings, a few maxi yachts and a ferry to update the view. Miss North was in Sydney at the instigation of Charles Darwin, who had insisted that her life’s work would not be complete until she had visited Australia. Her life’s work was painting exotic flora, which she did in oil, on paper, mostly outdoors.

Marianne North at work

Here’s Miss North in typical work mode.

Miss North was one of a few feisty English lady travellers of the late 19th century, a self-titled ‘globe trotteress’, who once retorted to a gentleman startled by her independence that when travelling a sense of humour was much more useful than a man.

She started her mission in her 40s, after her father left her money, connections and an absence of responsibilities. By the late 1870s she’d spent the best part of a decade travelling and painting and offered Joseph Hooker, director of Kew Gardens, her collection of almost 800 paintings as well as a fine new building in which to show them. Hooker accepted and the building was underway when Miss North received her command from Darwin. So she hitched a ride with the Rajah and Ranee of Sarawak, and arrived in Brisbane in 1880, from where she made her way south to Sydney.

Not mad for the city, which she described as featuring ‘random and fungus-like growths of ugly buildings’, she loved the harbour, the Botanic Gardens, the wildflowers and the moist rainforest gullies of the Illawarra escarpment.

The Marianne North Gallery was finally opened in 1882 to much fanfare. (Some said Queen Victoria would have given her a knighthood, if only she’d been a man.) Following years of conservator work on the paintings the gallery is once again a highlight at Kew. The 832 works are hung in the salon manner, following Miss North’s instructions, so that the effect is more like dense wallpaper than a gallery, with each black-framed painting abutting a neighbour.

Marianne North Gallery, Kew

As you can see the effect is kind of dizzying, but wonderful. You want to study every one.

To appreciate the works you need to do as Miss North did when painting them: shut out distractions and focus intently. Captured in what looks like a simple nature study is the detailed observation of a plant: its foliage, front and back; flowers in bud and full flower; seeds or fruit; and often in the distance a view of the plant showing its growth habit. Though her works don’t look like traditional botanical illustration they are botanically accurate enough to have helped botanists name four new species, which reference her in their names.

Northia seychellana by Marianne North

This is Northia seychallana, named after Miss North. It shows her usual approach – a bold composition but botanically accurate showing the front and back of the foliage, the flowers, fruit,and even a pollinator.

In our time of multiple distractions and the myth of the multi-tasker, Marianne North offers plenty of inspiration for garden lovers about the value of paying close attention and the satisfactions of getting to know plants. Add her gallery to your must-see list for 2016.

It’s time to

Garden books
The annual RBG Friends book sale is on May 27-28. If your shelves are bulging with excess books on horticulture, garden design, environment, cooking and craft, donate them to the cause. Details: 9231 8182.

Grow fast
Impatient and unconfident food gardeners can now order up a pack of ‘speedlings’ from heirloom seed supplier, Diggers. ‘Broccoli Green Sprouting’ is a cut-and-come again broccoli providing up to three-months harvest, nine weeks after planting. A 5-pack of seedlings is $9.95. diggers.com.au

Tame the fig
Cut climbing fig, Ficus pumila, flat against the wall to keep growth neat and leaves small.

Garden books
The annual RBG Friends book sale is on May 27-28. If your shelves are bulging with excess books on horticulture, garden design, environment, cooking and craft, donate them to the cause. Details: 9231 8182.

 

 

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