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Our mysterious treasure from Japan is restored

Mark Nesbitt
29 March 2010
Blog team: 
Kew's Economic Botany Collection recently restored 26 decorative wood panels made in Japan in 1874. Find out more about the condition that we found them in and the process of conservation that followed.

Spring has finally arrived at Kew. The sheets of colourful bulbs are a welcome reminder that we'll soon see the Japanese cherries flowering in the Gardens.

This year, we also have our own spring display of flowers and fruits in the Economic Botany Collection. This follows the return of our Japanese xylarium (that's an old term for a wood collection) from conservation.

The panels in our collection are an intriguing combination of Japanese art and craft and a western approach to plant anatomy and botanical names. It includes 26 wooden panels, each made from the wood and bark of a different tree species and painted with the foliage, fruits and flowers of that species. The example below is made of pear wood (Pyrus communis).

The history and condition of our Japanese panels

Most items in Kew's Economic Botany Collection are very well documented, but so far we have not been able to find out exactly when these panels arrived at Kew. From talking to some longer serving members of staff at Kew, we know that the panels were in the collection by 1970. I think it was most likely that they arrived at Kew shortly after the second world war, when the Economic Botany Collection was less well-documented.

When they arrived, the Japanese panels were covered in a thick layer of grey dust. This suggested to me that they had been stored at an inner-city location, perhaps a university, before they arrived at Kew. The panels were also very shaky, perhaps because they were made from fresh and unseasoned wood. The image below depicts the condition of two of our panels, before conservation:

  • pear (compare to the 'after' picture above)
  • chinese soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi) - notice the splits in the wood and how the bark has fallen off part of the panel.

Thanks to a generous donor, each panel in Kew's collection was sent away to receive vital conservation work. There are only a few workshops in the UK with the skills and tools needed to handle the mix of wood, paper and paint that makes up these historical artefacts. We sent our panels to Plowden & Smithbased in Wandsworth. This company is well-known for the restoration work they did at Windsor Castle, following the fire of 1992.

The process of conservation

To remove the unsightly splits in the wood, the panels were taken apart and rebuilt using brass screws that will not corrode. The wide slots used for the screws, allow for the natural movement of the wood over time. The tempera paint proved too fragile to clean, but the wood grain and paper labels were cleaned with smoke sponges.

The photos below show the back of the soapberry panel after repair, and the front, after cleaning. We considered replacing the missing bark with a coloured wash, but decided this would be too great an intervention for such a historic object.

A new lease of life

Following conservation, our Japanese panels glow with colour. They are also in a good enough condition to study and carry out further research. Thanks to research by Walter Lack and Hideaki Ohba (PDF), we know for instance that the panels were made for Chikusai Kata, an illustrator at the botanic garden in Tokyo in 1874. But we still don't know how they came to Britain.

There are two other collections of Japanese panels like ours. The first of these includes 152 panels and is located at the Botanical Museum in Berlin. The second is a set of 10 panels owned by a private collector in Britain. Because all three sets contain duplicate species, it is not likely that they were part of one set, that was later broken up.

There is also an untold story about the place of the panels in the establishment of western botany in Japan around the 1870s. This crucial historical period saw the opening up of links between Japan and the West after nearly three centuries of self-imposed isolation. Japanese scientists were quick to engage with western botany, as developed at institutions like Kew.

- Mark Nesbitt -

Discover more...

Collections research

  • Article - Die Xylothek des Chikusai Kato (The xylotheque of Chikusai Kato), by Lack, H. W. & Ohba, H (1998), Willdenowia 28: 263-7 - German language article (PDF)
  • Article - Plant Illustration on Wood Blocks – A Magnificent Japanese Xylotheque of the Early Meiji Period, by H. W. Lack (2004), Curtis's Botanical Magazine 16(2): 124-34 -  Subscription required (PDF)  


6 May 2010
Hi Lucy We don't have any display space for them at the moment, but the panels can be viewed by appointment with me at the Economic Botany Collection's store. Mark
Abuse Reported. Comment will be reviewed and removed if necessary.
1 May 2010
When will the panels be exhibited at Kew?
Abuse Reported. Comment will be reviewed and removed if necessary.

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