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Library display celebrates digitisation landmark

9 November 2012
To mark the completion of the latest phase of the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Project, a display has been prepared in Kew's Library Reading Room to showcase the collection. The display includes 19th and 20th century letters from botanists, travellers and directors of botanic gardens across Asia, as well as photos, illustrations and plant products they sent to Kew with their letters.

Letters and more on display

We have just finished digitising the volumes containing 19th and 20th century letters from Asia, and visitors to Kew's Library can now see some of our favourites on display in the Reading Room. The collection highlights the important role Kew played in the development of the British Empire and in global exploration and scientific investigation. It is also a resource that compliments many of Kew's other collections. For this display we have reunited letters with some of the items they describe or were originally sent with: items which became part of Kew's Economic Botany Collection, specimens which are now preserved in the Herbarium, and publications, photos and drawings from the Library, Art and Archives collection.

For example, along with letters from the Royal Botanic Garden Calcutta describing the devastation wrought by a cyclone in 1864, visitors can now see photographs of the destruction – avenues of denuded trees and the enormous roots of a baobab torn out of the ground. We also have photos of the Calcutta garden in a more splendid state along with guidebooks that paint, in flowery Victorian language, a picture of the gardens as they were over 100 years ago.

A large proportion of the Asian Directors' Correspondence comes from voracious letter writers on the Indian sub-continent. Calcutta director Nathaniel Wallich wrote well over 150 letters to Kew, many of which were complaints about the preparation of his publication 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores'. Luckily the result was worth all Wallich's suffering – at least in our opinion. You can see Wallich's book for yourselves as part of our display and make your own judgement. 


Kew's Asian correspondents

In our choice of epistles to feature we have tried to represent every part of Asia covered in the collection, from Charles Ford in Hong Kong to Charles Telfair in Mauritius.


Charles Ford

The display showcases the letters of Charles Ford who was the first director of the Hong Kong Botanic Garden and an economic botany enthusiast, who wrote about the subject and sent many practical and ornamental economic botany artefacts to Kew.



Top: Letters from Charles Ford on display with a natural plant washing sponge, tools used for harvesting Chinese cinnamon, an illustration of Chinese cinnamon dating to 1656, and an ornate carved picture frame. 

Bottom: Detail of the carved picture frame.


One of Charles Ford's contributions to Kew's Economic Botany Collection was an ornate frame made of Pai-cha wood (Euonymus maackii), and produced in the renowned carving centre of Ningbo. To find out how the craftsman achieved such detail you can read the letter Ford sent describing the process, now on display alongside the frame and hosted digitally on JSTOR Plant Science.


Henry Nicholas Ridley

Representing Malaysia and Singapore is Henry Nicholas Ridley. As well as being a long-serving director at the Singapore Botanic Garden, Ridley travelled throughout Malaysia. You can see one of his expedition photo albums on display, as well as letters concerning his outspoken protest against deforestation, and material relating to his pioneering work in establishing the rubber plantation industry.


Ridley at the tapping of one of the first rubber trees introduced at Singapore


John George Champion

Champion represents Kew's correspondents who were not trained botanists but for whom botany and plant hunting was a passionate hobby. Champion was a soldier stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). One of the letters tells us that he was known as 'the Lion of the Punjab' but the letters paint a picture of a gentle man who desperately wanted to achieve in the field of botany and who wrote to his sister 'I thank God I have never yet had occasion to slay anyone with my own hand, although I have been target enough, and have only escaped through God's will.'

Champion was also an amateur illustrator and included many illustrations of plants with his letters to Kew's then director Sir William Hooker.


Illustration of an Anonaceae by J G Champion, sent with a letter from Sri Lanka to Kew


Charles Telfair

The historic geographical filing of the Directors' Correspondence places Mauritius, somewhat unusually, in the Asia section of the collection. Charles Telfair was an important figure in establishing the study of natural history in Mauritius. Among the correspondence on display are some of his letters relating to Cerbera tanghin the plant used in the 'Tanghin ordeal', once employed in Madagascar as a trial for those suspected of witchcraft, or persons accused of committing crimes. You can find out more about the Tanghin ordeal by visiting us in the Library to see the display or by checking out our previous blog on the subject.

Come visit us

These are just some examples of the letters and complimentary materials on display in the Reading Room, which is open to visitors, by appointment, between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Do come along to visit.




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