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Kew's Library celebrates the Olympics

Fiona Ainsworth
29 August 2012
A special Olympic-themed display has just been completed in the Library Reading Room.

Visitors to the Library, Art & Archives’ Reading Room can enjoy the displays in the windows of the Wolfson Rare Books Room. At the moment we have an Olympic-themed display, with three plates from the monumental Flora Graeca, showing the olive (Olea europaea), the laurel (Laurus nobilis) and a view of the Acropolis and city of Athens as it was in the late 18th century. 

Flora Graeca

Flora Graeca is one of the most significant botanical works ever produced: ten volumes in total which took 34 years to publish, it was the most expensive Flora ever produced, due to the many wonderful illustrations by artist extraordinaire Ferdinand Bauer. He accompanied Oxford botanist John Sibthorp on an expedition to mainland Greece between 1786 and 1787. Bauer was both highly accomplished and practical: he used a colour chart with numbers for different colours and letters for shading. To minimise the amount of paper he would have to transport around Greece, he made sketches of two or three species per page, using both sides of the paper. He covered his sketches in numbers and letters based on the colour chart, in a painting-by-numbers style, so that a botanically accurate painting could be made afterwards – sometimes many years later.


The first window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing a late 18th century view of the Acropolis and city of Athens in Sibthorp's Flora Graeca, and Masumi Yamanaka's painting which uses plants to interpret the Olympic rings

The plates on display from Flora Graeca have been chosen for their symbolic value: olive branches were used to make the victory crowns and laurel was one of the plants used in garlands of honour. The Olympic Games have their origins in ancient Greek religious festivals, where the symbolic use of plants was a common feature. 

Olympic rings

To continue the Olympic theme, we also have Kew’s latest staff photo, taken on 30 May this year, with staff standing inside the giant floral representation of the Olympic rings currently on show outside the Orangery. To complete our display, we are thrilled to show a recent painting by artist Masumi Yamanaka, showing her interpretation of the Olympic rings. Masumi has formed the five rings from five plants, chosen for their symbolic meaning and colour: olive (Olea europaea), laurel (Laurus nobilis), poppy (Papaver), lemon (Citrus limon) and Muscari, the black, green, red, yellow and blue rings respectively. Masumi took fewer than 48 hours to produce this lovely picture.

The second window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing the olive and laurel plates from Flora Graeca and also the staff photo taken inside the giant Olympic rings at Kew

To visit the Reading Room and see the display, please contact us by email ( or telephone (020 8332 5414); we are open Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm.

- Fiona -


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