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State of Wonder

by | Finding a sanctuary

Where do you retreat to when you need time out?

On a grey and windy afternoon, I escape to one of my sanctuaries.

I step away from my worries, out of time, and dive into a whole different world. A story told by a lady who, in the nineteenth century, embarked on an exploration of the flora of far-away countries. Sounds slightly random, but humour me…

This extraordinary woman brought back hundreds of oil paintings of the plants, which she went to track down across four continents. Upon returning to Britain, she funded the building of a gallery in Kew Gardens, where she could share her experience with the public.

The lady in question is one of my heroines, Marianne North – an independent, resilient woman with a lust for life. After the loss of her beloved father, she embarked on a series of trips across the world and found her way to the most remote and hazardous places, in search of exotic plants. Not exactly your average Grand Tour with a chaperone in tow.

The intensity of her experience is tangible in the overwhelming sense of awe, which takes you over when you step into the gallery. It feels like walking straight into an interactive documentary, where Marianne North guides you from one painting to the next. And each little artwork draws you into a world of its own. You can sense Marianne North’s urge to share. It is a though she were taking you by the hand and saying, “You HAVE TO see this!”

Marianne North was a pioneer; she rejected the tradition of botanical illustration of her time. She had no interest in isolating subjects, but instead performed the work of an author, of a storyteller by staging the plants in their natural environment, creating such depth that looking at her work feels like diving into a different world.

Marianne North reminds me of the modern natural history filmmakers, who will take huge risks to bring to light the hidden, extraordinary things which remind viewers of how incredible our world is. To create a sense of wonder. There’s a real generosity in her work and I feel deeply moved when I’m in her gallery.

I’ve often wondered if art might sometimes be considered to be an expression of love from the artist to the beholder. As a teenager, I remember finding huge comfort in gazing at a painting by Van Gogh. That particular spot in the museum became one of my sanctuaries: it felt as though I was in the presence of someone who understood a part of me I was battling with, and that he’d put his finger on the turmoil in my mind. With his sinuous lines, he declared that there was nothing wrong with seeing reality differently; that it was, in fact, a source of great beauty and strength.

I don’t know if art touches us so deeply because of the awe we feel at the beauty or sheer mastery of an artwork. Or if it’s the feeling that someone recognises the deep emotions we can’t express, or carries us to an imaginary place where we feel good.

Whatever it is, if I enter the Marianne North gallery feeling a bit lonely and frustrated by some problem or another, I leave the place feeling optimistic and understood. What magic has happened? Is that what one calls a state of wonder?
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of our daily life off our souls.”- Picasso Click To Tweet
I’d love to hear from you! Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts or email me at charlotte(at)

  • Do you have place which you consider to be a sanctuary? A place which creates a sense of awe and wonder?
  • What would you do if you had the means and the time to pursue a dream?

If you’ve enjoyed this article and know anyone who could benefit from reading this, I’d be really grateful if you shared it with them.

Thank you for reading!


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