“ ‘That’s how the light gets in’. Savour that! At a stroke, weakness becomes strength…”*

*Howard Jacobson, writing on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ in The Independent.

From Historic England entry:

“Whereas increasing numbers of endowed public galleries were built in the later C19, this gallery was one of only a few purpose-built galleries of this date that was built by a private individual to house their own specific collection, standing alongside The Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight (listed Grade II). Moreover the Marianne North Gallery is one of only two to be created, and indeed, donated by an artist for the display of their own life-work, the other being the Watts Gallery at Compton, in Surrey, (listed Grade II*). Although externally the building might resemble a colonial governor’s house (see picture above), the interior form of the gallery drew on Fergusson’s understanding of the Greek temple, providing an enclosed naturally-lit space, with walls freed from windows. It differed from the trend towards top-lit galleries that was favoured by the mid-C19, while the close-hanging of the paintings, which was common practice in the C18 and for temporary exhibitions, was considered unusual and unsophisticated by this date. This method of picture hanging with frames abutting directly with each other, which was the device and labour of the artist herself, is a very rare surviving example of this layout, certainly not used in any other public gallery, although it is seen in some country house print-rooms. By 1885 electric lighting has been installed – an early example of its use in a gallery.

When first built the main gallery accommodated some 620 paintings; shortly afterwards it was extended eastwards, increasing the capacity to 848 paintings; Marianne North continued to travel after it had been completed, augmenting her collection. The gallery is reached through a porch or narthex which, Marianne North suggested, would give space for umbrellas and ladies’ clogs and for the custodian, while the verandah provided shelter from the elements. A scheme to provide refreshments for the weary walker was deemed inappropriate for the botanic garden and was never realised.

In 2010-11 the Gallery was restored in keeping with the original intention, colour scheme and finishes, that reinstated the full richness of the architectural setting and confirmed how very much the building and its picture-display depend on each other for their full effect. It is subject of a Conservation Management Plan (2011) which provides a detailed history, description and analysis of the building and its contents.

Marianne North (1830-1890) daughter of Frederick North, Liberal MP for Hastings, was brought up in a cultured and well-connected family. Typical of a young lady of her standing, she was an accomplished musician and artist, learning first the art of watercolour painting and later painting in oils. After the death of her mother she became the constant companion of her father until his death in 1869. Together they travelled widely in Europe and to the Middle East, while she also took an interest in the botanical collections at Chiswick and Kew Gardens, where Sir William Hooker introduced her to newly discovered exotic flora from the tropics.

She set off on her first independent journey in 1871, travelling to the east coast of North America and Jamaica. The following year she went to Brazil, and in 1875 to Tenerife, Canada and the west coast of the USA from where she travelled to Japan. After a brief stay, curtailed by illness, she moved on to the East Indies and Sri Lanka where she stayed with the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Undaunted, in 1876 she visited Sarawak, Java and Singapore, and in 1877 Sri Lanka and India. While in England in 1879 she was invited to meet Charles Darwin; each had a mutual respect for their achievements. In 1880 she set off once more, encompassing Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, visiting Honolulu en route to the USA. Ill health was taking its toll, but she continued to travel until 1884, completing journeys to South Africa, the Seychelles, Chile and Jamaica.

She finally retired to Alderley, Gloucestershire, where she took great pleasure in creating the garden and writing her memoirs, Recollections of a Happy Life, living there until her death on 30 August 1890. Her paintings, which unusually for work done in the field are executed in oil on paper, form a unique collection of botanical records that depict plants in their natural habitat, often in a setting of buildings and people, or grouped as a still-life.

Aside from her achievement in setting up the gallery, for her journeys Marianne North stands alongside other pioneering women of the C19 and early C20, inspiring women travellers such as Freya Stark.

James Fergusson (1808-1886) who is principally known as an architectural theorist and writer was born in Ayr, south-west Scotland, the son of a military doctor. After schooling in London he went into business, and acquired a considerable fortune in the indigo trade in India, allowing him to retire at an early age. He too was a keen traveller, visiting and writing on the rock-cut temples of India and the ancient architecture of Hindustan. He is best known for the Illustrated Handbook of Architecture, published in 1855 and for his influential History of Modern Styles of Architecture (1862) which culminated in the four volumes of A History of Architecture in All Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1865-7) that became an accepted manual for students. A classicist by inclination, who held strongly expressed views against the C19 gothic revival, he had the highest regard for the architecture of ancient Greece.

While he considered himself better suited as an architectural historian rather than a practitioner, he applied his observations to the few buildings that he did design. In this vein the clerestory lighting at the Marianne North Gallery was informed by his understanding, expressed in The Parthenon: an Essay on the mode by which light was introduced into Greek and Roman Temples (1883), that all Grecian Doric peristyle temples were naturally ‘lighted by opaions or clerestories’. Although it is not known whether he or Marianne North decided on the deep polychromatic colours of the interior of the gallery, he was both knowledgeable and expressed firm opinions on the richly coloured decoration of the Parthenon and of the palaces at Nineveh and Persepolis. At a time when informed antiquarian research, based on observation and archaeology was increasingly available, he was strongly influenced by the work of Owen Jones (1809-1874) whose acclaimed work, The Grammar of Ornament, was published in 1856 and whom he encountered while General Manager of the Crystal Palace Company from 1856-58, and for which he designed the Nineveh Court.

Although principally known as a potter and ceramicist, Conrad Dressler (1856-1940) was also a noted sculptural portraitist and was the artist of the marble bust of Marianne North within the gallery. After training at the Royal College of Art and in Paris, he became a member of the Art Workers Guild and was influenced by the work of William de Morgan who in turn was inspired by Owen Jones’ publications on the art of the Near and Middle East. He was co-founder of the short-lived, progressive Della Robbia Pottery in Birkenhead before moving to Marlow where he established the Medmenham Pottery, producing architectural ceramics.”

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