Plant artefacts - Art & Design
It may surprise you that Kew’s collections are one of the richest resources in London for the history of design in the nineteenth century. This was a period when manufacturers experimented with natural materials such as rubber, gutta-percha and paper, often with advice from Kew’s botanists.
Rubber tile by Charles Macintosh (1851)
Part of Sir William Hooker’s vision in founding the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew was that the displays would inspire craftsmen and manufacturers to use plant raw materials.
Rubber in design
Manufacturers often gave specimens of their products for display at Kew; one of the largest donations was of rubber products made at Charles Macintosh’s factory.
The rubber tile (Hevea brasiliensis) pictured above was made by Charles Macintosh, displayed at the Great Exhibition and given to Kew in 1853.
Kew also received important donations from other collections and exhibitions. When the East India Company’s museum closed in the 1880s, its collections were divided between the Victoria & Albert Museum and Kew. As a result, Kew’s collections are rich in Indian artefacts including textiles and wood carvings.
Kew also received large donations from the series of World’s Fairs held in London and Paris between 1851 (the Crystal Palace) and the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. An example is this ebony book cover from India.
It can be hard to draw the line between art and craft. Many of the indigenous artefacts cared for at Kew have a striking beauty in their simplicity of line and ingenuity of construction. Utilitarian tools such this cassava grater from the Amazon have a complexity of decoration well beyond that required by use.
The swollen starch-rich roots of cassava (Manihot esculenta) are an important staple food for 750 million people in the tropics, but are, in raw form, highly poisonous. The tubers contain cyanogenic glycosides which break down to release toxic cyanide when crushed or chewed. Cyanide poisoning is very rare in Amazonia, where traditional detoxification removes up to 99% of the cyanogens. The roots are first grated, leading the cell walls to break down and the cyanogenic glycosides to be converted to deadly hydrogen cyanide. The resulting wet pulp is packed into a long woven tube known as a tipití. When the tipití is stretched, the pulp is compressed and the toxic sap of the roots runs out. The pulp is now sweet and can be dried and pounded before being made into bread.
The Japanese papers and lacquer also perfectly illustrate the sophistication and quality achieved by ancient craft traditions.
Today, Kew’s artefact collection is being rediscovered by a new generation of artists, designers and historians. Recent visitors have included fashion students to see the world textiles; makers and conservators of Japanese lacquer; and historians of topics as diverse as wax flowers, Chinese pith paintings, rubber and Japanese paper.
This exquisite sun umbrella is made from the bark of a species of Broussonetia . It is just one example of the many beautiful and diverse paper objects from Japan in the Parkes collection at Kew. Sir Harry Parks was serving as British Minister in Tokyo when trade networks with Japan opened. In 1869, Prime Minister William Gladstone requested a report on the paper-making industry in Japan.
Parkes sent his report, along with over 400 specimens of paper and paper products to England in 1871, where it was divided between Kew and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Economic Botany Collection houses Kew's share of this impressive collection.
2. Japanese lacquerware
By giving a donation today you can help us look after our treasures and collections of national importance. Over two and a half centuries, Kew’s passion for art and architecture and pursuit of knowledge about plants and the natural world has endowed us with an extraordinary legacy - our unparalleled collection of botanical resources and historical treasures. Find out more about where your money goes.
Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
18 Apr 2012
A floral spectacular is in bloom in front of the Orangery at Kew Gardens to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic Games.
13 Mar 2012
Filmed over the course of a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Kingdom of Plants 3D provides a fascinating new look at plant life using stunning 3D time-lapse filming techniques. Own your personal copy today following the DVD and Blu-ray release.