Saturday, December 9, 2023 | 09:08 WIB

Marianne North, 19th century botanical artist – her travels and paintings. Part II: Travels in Java

Foliage and Flowers of the Burmese Thaw-Ka or Soka, painted in Singapore (Amherstia nobilis). Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – Kew Gardens is probably the most famous botanical garden in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Begun in 1759 it has over 50,000 plants. Although there are botanical gardens like the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh which was established in 1679 or Oxford Botanic Gardens which was founded in 1621, that are older than Kew Gardens, Kew houses the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. It also has one of the largest herbariums in the world with over 8.5 million preserved plant and fungal specimens. Its library contains more than 750,000 books and 175,000 prints and drawings of plants and internationally important botanical research is conducted there.

No, there is no Rafflesia Arnoldii amongst the plants growing at Kew Gardens. For that one still has to go to the Bogor Botanical Gardens or the jungles of Sumatra (when in bloom). It is also found in Malaysia, Southern Philippines and Thailand. However, Kew does have the Amorphophallus titanium amongst its botanical collections. This species was first brought to Europe from the rainforests of Sumatra by Odoardo Beccari in 1877. In 1891 a seedling raised in the Botanic Gardens at Florence was sent by Dr Beccari to the director of Kew, Sir Joseph Hooker.

Views from the Bridge at Buitenzorg (Bogor), Java. Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By comparison the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Java, which are the oldest botanical gardens in Southeast Asia, were formally established in 1817 by the botanist who became its first director, Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt. However, the origins of the gardens are far older. According to the Batutulis inscription stone of 1533, Prabu Siliwangi (1474-1513) the most famous ruler of the Hindu Sunda Kingdom established a man-made forest or samida in the area where the Bogor Botanical Gardens are now. The forest was created to protect the seeds of rare trees. Centuries later during the British interregnum when Sir Stamford Raffles became Lieutenant Governor of Java, he lived at the palace in Bogor and had what are now the Bogor Botanical Gardens landscaped along the lines of an English garden. The Bogor Batanical Gardens are now run by LIPI (lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia) or the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. They cover 87 hectares of land and have over 13,983 species of plants.

A Borneo Crinum (lily). Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the site of Kew Gardens began its existence as the exotic garden at Kew Park which belonged to Henry, Lord Capell of Tewkesbury. It functioned as a pleasure garden. Later, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1719–72) inherited the grounds from her husband Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707–51) after his untimely death in 1751. The Prince’s former friend and former prime minister of  Britain, John Stuart, the Earl of Bute (1713–92), advised Princess Augusta to have ‘a garden containing all the plants on Earth’ which she endeavored to accomplish. It was then that the gardens began to become a true botanical garden, and 1752 is given as the official foundation year of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 1840, the gardens were formally opened to the public as a national botanical garden and under its director, Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) it increased in size and collections were built up in Kew’s library and herbarium. Sir William Hooker’s son Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker became director of the gardens in 1865. He continued building up its collections and further extended its grounds. Today Kew consists of 121 hectares of grounds. Sir Joseph was involved in a great controversy with the cabinet minister who had authority over the gardens, and who wanted Kew’s role to be limited to that of a pleasure park. Fortunately, for Britain and the world, Hooker’s insistence on the scientific function of Kew prevailed – a topic that many botanic gardens all over the world have had to contend with.

Marianne North (1830–1890) by Sir William John Newton, 1854. Photo credit: Sir William John Newton (1785–1869), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1970s Kew Gardens has had a connection to Indonesia. It has helped to document plant diversity in Indonesia with various Indonesian partners including LIPI (the Indonesian National Institute of Science), the Herbarium Bogoriense, Kebon Raya Bogor (the Indonesian Botanical Gardens in Bogor), the West Papua Provincial government and with Universitas Bangka Belitung. Indonesian Papua is the only Asian area where Kew identifies conservation priorities via its Tropical Important Plants Areas (TIPAs) because the island of Papua still has 75% of its forests intact – something very important for climate change mitigation.

There is also a collaboration between Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and the Botanic-Gardens-Indonesian Institute of Sciences to establish a new seed bank at Kebun Raya Bogor. Millenium Seed Bank is the world’s largest collection of seeds from wild plants and has over 2,4 billion seeds. It is part of the world’s insurance policy against the extinction of common, rare or endangered useful plants and is an important part of preventing food scarcity in the face of climate change as well as in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change itself.

Portrait of Marinne North at her easel in 1886. Photo credit: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Marianne North Gallery was constructed during the directorship of Sir Joseph Hooker and is the only gallery in the United Kingdom that permanently displays the paintings of a woman artist. It is a pavilion that houses 832 of her botanical paintings from all over the world including Indonesia. The walls of the rooms are covered in her paintings from the ceilings to the floors. Unlike most scientific botanical illustrations at the time, they were painted in oils and included the environmental settings where the plants grew. Her paintings were created at a time when compared to now, very little was known about the many species of plants existing worldwide. It is another little gem to be found in Kew Gardens and truly, well-worth a visit.

In Part I of this series it was explained that Marianne North was a Victorian lady of independent fortune whose great passions were plants, painting and travel and that she visited more than 15 different countries during the course of her life and painted plants found there which are now on display at the Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens. Four new species of plants discovered and painted by Marianne North were later, named after her. Her name surfaced in the news again recently, when a new species growing in the Matang Forest of Sarawak (Borneo) was discovered through one of her botanical paintings, and named after her by a botanical illustrator from China named Tianyi Yu.

View of the Salak Volcano, Java, as seen from Buitenzorg or Bogor. Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What may also be of interest to Indonesian readers, is that in 1876, Marianne North not only visited and painted plants in Singapore and Borneo, but afterwards also visited Java which she described as her ‘next treat that year’. Here too, she painted the flora and natural landscape. Visiting Java with its lavish plants and nature in fact proved to be her best treat of all.  She described Java with its luxuriant forests, lakes filled with the sacred lotus, vast plains of rice, indigo, maize, tapioca, tea and tobacco, its impressive volcanoes, its extraordinary houses made of woven rattan and bamboo, often set on stilts, in her diary and letters. North also wrote that the Javanese were a handsome people and she liked enormously their brightly coloured textiles and the umbrellas that they carried to shade them from the sun. Her conclusion was that ‘Java surpassed Brazil, Jamaica and Sarawak all put together’.

We can of course, only agree with her penetrating sense of observation and excellent taste. Nevertheless, travelling in Java in 1876 was a great adventure, especially for a woman globetrotting on her own. She visited places such as Batavia, Bogor, Bandung, Garut, Surabaya, Tosari, Borobodur and Prambanan, the Dieng Plateau, Malang, Tosari and more. Her modes of travel were of course, far more strenuous and challenging than those of today. At times she was fortunate enough to be able to travel by steamer or train, but mostly it was by horse or small bamboo rafts across rivers pulled along with lines, at times she had to be carried in a litter and often she had to walk.

View near Garoet, Java, Wild Bananas and Coffee Bushes in Front. Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common

North must have used De Grote Postweg or the Great Postroad during her travels in Java. It was the first road built across Java connecting Anyer in West Java to Panarukan in East Java. The road was built in 1808 at the time of the Napoleonic Wars during the French interregnum. Herman Willem Daendels (1808–1811) who was governor-general of the Dutch East Indies at the time built the road on the instructions of Napoleon’s brother, Louis Bonaparte who was the king of the Netherlands at the time. It was a military road constructed to facilitate military transport as part of the defense of Java. La Grande Route as Daendels referred to it, was built with great cruelty using forced labour and some sources estimate that as many as 12,000 Indonesian farmers died building the road.

North frequently describes in her letters and diary how she was transported by post carriage ‘with four horses which went full gallop and were changed every three to four miles without a moment’s loss of time (as well as their coachman and groom…) through an almost continuous avenue of tamarind trees, which met overhead, shading the long straight road deliciously. This was mended and swept smooth as a carpet, the bullock-carts and heavy traffic being forced to go on a parallel road outside the trees.’

Fruit of the Tamarind and Flowers and Fruit of the Papaw in Java Photo credit: Marianne North; POWO (2021). “Plants of the World Online. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; 31 07 2021.”, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The pulp of the tamarind bean pod is an essential ingredient of Worcestershire sauce and her description was almost certainly of the great Postroad with its posts for changing horses at three to four mile points along the road, allowing what was then considered great speed for travelers. She also describes travelling sometimes with great Javanese officials in their grand carriages pulled by horses which went like the wind always seeming to be ‘trying to catch some phantom train’. Nevertheless, when travelling from Malang to Surabaya she preferred to travel 50 miles by country cart for only 15 guelders rather than use the post carriage which would have cost 85 guelders, as she would see more of the countryside. She wrote, ‘I enjoy going slowly and stopping to rest often, when I can sketch the people in the little wayside places…’

A view of Mount Papandayang with a Jak fruit tree in the foreground Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, she stayed in relative luxury in grand houses or comfortably in hotels or with middle class Dutch people, but at times she spent the night in one of the houses of bamboo matting that she so admired – and roughed it. She was often forced to walk or ride horses for hours on end when the roads were not possible for carriages and she describes Javanese ponies of having ‘a habit of resisting their riders getting on their backs, and showing fight at first, but are excellent and untirable once they get started’.

View from the Artist’s Window at Buitenzorg, Java – Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout it all she seems to have kept her sense of humour writing for example how she got out of Semarang so quickly ‘before the mosquitoes even knew I was in it’. Everyone was always interested in gathering around to see what she was painting. Once a small group of Chinese children gathered extremely closely around her and one little boy stared so hard at what she was doing that she ‘calmly raised her paint brush a little and put a dab of blue at the end of his nose, and the applause in the street below was uproarious’. In Bogor she stayed at a hotel very close to the Bogor Botanical Gardens. From her hotel window she describes happily watching little children dressed with only a banana leaf on their heads and old men having such fun flying kites that their grey beards were thrown up in the air and their respectable headdress falling off their heads.

The ficus benjamina or banyan tree on the green in Malang as painted by Marianne North. Photo credit: Credit ‘RBG Kew’

And the nature and plants entranced her. She describes the banyan trees with their great aerial roots always found in the village or town greens and how there was an elephant tied near it at the green in front to the Surakarta palace. She describes the nature around Djampang as ‘the most glorious scenery – deep dells full of ferns of endless variety, anthurium leaves nearly a yard long, and higher than myself; then endless plantations of coffee trees…” North described the avenue of tall kenari trees and statues of Budha at the foot of the Borobodur and the teak plantations that one still sees today in the distance. She admired the Borobodur but also the scenery around it and wrote, “From the top terraces was the finest view I ever saw: a vast plain covered with the richest cultivation-rice, indigo, corn, tapioca, tea  and tobacco, with one giant cotton tree rising above everything else, and groves of coconuts dotted all over it, underneath which the great population hid their neat little villages of  small thatched baskets. Three magnificent volcanoes arose out of it, with grand sweeping curves and angles, beside many other ragged-edged mountains. Every turn gave one fresh pictures; and if Borobodur were not there, I should still think it one of the finest landscapes I ever saw.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The Sacred Lotus or Pudma Photo credit: Marianne North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about Marianne North by the same writer in:
Part I:


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