A female artist who first picked up an oil brush at age 40 then went on to travel the world to paint exotic plants is the focus of one of Kew Gardens' biggest restoration projects.

The Victorian artist Marianne North even paid to build the gallery in Kew Gardens in 1882 to hang her 832 paintings. She painted in mud and rainstorms in 10 countries, carrying her brushes and papers through some of the most hazardous areas of the world.

Now, with the paper of the famous collection of botanic suffering from attack by acids, and her gallery becoming damp and decayed, Kew is asking for help in raising s1.8million to restore the famous artist's inheritance.

Chief conservator Jonathan Farley was taking down the last of the great swathes of paintings when we asked him about the heroic artist of all those years ago.

"She was the daughter of a wealthy MP, never married and so kept her fortune and used it to set out one day from her home in Kensington and fill her days with painting places and plants in a very brave way," said the curator.

"In those days women just didn't do that - getting out to the most hostile places, finding a flower or plant to paint and just getting down to it.

"Back in London between her trips she'd write up her diaries and tell her friends all about these amazing adventures."

Marianne recorded how when she was in Brazil a team of mules that were in her party started sinking into the most terrible mud. She was put on the shoulders of a man to carry her instead.

"She remarked that her weight wasn't a light one, and as she sat on his shoulders the man promptly sank," says one report of her journeys.

The accuracy of Marianne's oils still amazes Kew's own specialist teams. Many of the views she painted are a perfect record of how countryside - now covered with skyscrapers - looked in all its green vegetation in her day.

"She must have been quite tough, but you get the feeling she liked a good joke," said Mr Farley. "She certainly wasn't a harridan, and I reckon she had a lot of charm."

Marianne showed how tough she was in countries ranging from Japan to Australia, Brazil to Jamaica, India and Ceylon. On one occasion she set to land, crabs invaded her bedroom, and she had them cooked and served up for supper.

Mr Farley said: "When she later had this gallery built and named after her she had a decided view of how it should all look, with its pictures all butted up against each other, and it has served Kew Gardens very well for more than 100 years."

Now damp and ventilation problems are affecting the art works.

"When I started to take the paintings down for the renovations they were just as she's hung them.

"The backs haven't been seen for more than 100 years, and on one there's a wonderful description of the movements and appearance of a sloth.

"She painted tremendous flowers on surroundings to all the doorways here, and of course we're going to save everything and restore the place and the art work so that it's there for hundreds of years more."

Click here to see our picture gallery of some of her paintings.


Part of the money-raising effort is to offer her paintings up for 'adoption' from prices ranging from s1,000 downward. Any takers will get their name recorded with the painting, be able to see the restoration in action and be given a perfect reproduction of the artwork. Details of the 'Adopt a Painting' scheme are at www.kew.org/mng or call 020 8332 3249.