Woods of the World
Among the 85,000 specimens in the Economic Botany Collection are over 30,000 woods. This is the largest wood collection in Britain (what would be called a xylotheque in continental Europe), and is heavily used by Kew's wood anatomist, Dr Peter Gasson, and many visitors to the wood anatomy laboratory. Biochemists are also increasingly interested in the chemicals inside wood. Sometimes these two approaches come together, as in a recent project to find biochemical and anatomical markers for Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) so that international trade can be monitored.
It's also become clear that the wood samples are also a tremendous historical resource. Adam Bowett is a well-known expert on antique furniture, and on the mahogany trade. From 2007 to 2009, with a grant from the British Academy, Adam broadened his research to look at the use of all woods by furniture makers in Britain, up to 1900. He has used a wide range of sources, including customs records, workshop inventories, furniture itself, and the Kew woods. The project has thrown up some real challenges, because wood traders and furniture makers have always used common names. The same wood can have more than one name, and one name can apply to several different woods. The project has involved matching up common names to unambiguous botanical (Latin) names, using careful microscopic analysis of furniture woods. There are countless examples of furniture woods identified on the basis of their superficial appearance, that turn out to be something very different when properly identified.
Adam spent many hours browsing the Victorian woods at Kew. Many of these were sent to London for international exhibitions, so they give an insight into which woods were entering trade. They also bear both the common name and the botanical name, so the two can be matched up. There are any number of fascinating woods discussed in the book: snakewood, she-oak, mountain cabbage, lacewood and many more. 149 Kew wood samples have been photographed for the book, which also features hundreds of pieces of furniture.
Travelling desk made in Sydney, Australia, in 1805. Commissioned by the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer, for his brother Franz. It is constructed of Eucalyptus, veneered in she-oak. She-oak (Casuarina sp.) is entirely unrelated to the true oak (Quercus spp.), but is so-named because the prominent medullary rays recall the figure of European oak. (Ref: EBC 37818)
A compelling story
Woods in British furniture-making 1400-1900 is much more readable than one might expect of such a massive book. That's because the story of wood is interwoven with Britain's colourful history as a maritime nation. As Britain's colonies expanded, new woods became available, such as mahogany from Jamaica, but the timber trade was always at the mercy of war and deforestation. As one wood disappeared, it would be replaced by others until much of the world's forests were devastated. It is a compelling story, told with an eye for interesting details. This is not a cheap book, but is exceptional value for its size (huge), pictures (full-colour throughout), and handsome design.
Ebony (Diospyros ebenum) ink stand from Sri Lanka, sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1855. EBC 37739.
Adam is not the only historian to have used the woods collection; Caroline Cornish has used the woods – especially those from India – as the basis of her PhD thesis on the history of the Kew museums. All this work has opened my eyes to the interest of what was a backwater of the collection – one of the great benefits of hosting visiting researchers.
Wood has been very much in the news at Kew, with David Nash's massive sculptures present in the Gardens for much of 2012-13. There are two talks on wood, to mark the exhibition. Peter Gasson will talk about trees and wood anatomy on 22 November 2012, and I will be giving a talk about wooden objects in the Economic Botany Collection on 22 January 2013. Although it is not a Kew event, I am also looking forward to the Wizardry in Wood event, to be held at Carpenters' Hall, 17-20 October 2012. Some of the older exhibits there look very much like what we have at Kew.
- Details of the book Woods in British Furniture-Making 1400-1900
- Talk on Indian woods and Kew, by Caroline Cornish
- Talks at Kew
- Online catalogue for the Economic Botany Collection