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David Nash explores Kew's collections

As part of his residency in Kew Gardens, David Nash has had the chance to explore some priceless scientific collections and take a closer look at trees.
Photo of an aboriginal passport
An aboriginal 'passport' - one of the artefacts that has inspired artist David Nash

Delving into the Economic Botany Collection

Kew's Economic Botany Collection contains around 85,000 historic plant artefacts including herbal medicines, food and fibres. The collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world and the huge variety of objects range from paper to weapons and clothing to medicines. Nash met with the collection’s curator, Mark Nesbitt, to discover more about woods he works with.


A photo of a devil scarer
A devil-scarer, said to have been swung to keep evil spirits away.

Inspired by aboriginal artefacts

Kew's Economic Botany Collection is especially rich in indigenous artefacts. Nash was particularly drawn to two Australian aboriginal objects: an aboriginal ‘passport’ and a devil-scarer. The wood passport, otherwise known as a marben, is labelled; ‘Passport of the Mandajugana tribe (Hill Country) to the gnalluma (?) tribe; living between Yule and Sherlock Rivers.’ It is from Western Australia and is heavy and tactile, with zig-zag lines marked into the eucalyptus wood. It would have been carried by someone who was moving into the territories of another tribe. The devil-scarer, also called a cora or boonangharry, is also from Western Australia and is made from eucalyptus. The name ‘devil-scarer’ is probably based on a Victorian understanding of aboriginal spirituality; this slender object would have been swung to keep evil spirits away.


photo of a cork bowler hat
A cork hat, made from the bark of cork oak trees, which can regenerate their spongy bark and be harmlessly stripped of it every ten years.

A bowler hat made from cork

Another object that has interested Nash is a bowler hat, made from the bark of a cork oak tree. This came from and was manufactured in Coimbra in Portugal. Cork's elasticity combined with its near-impermeability makes it suitable as a material for bottle stoppers. Perhaps this, plus its light-weight nature, made the designer think to construct a hat. Nash saw this on display in Kew Gardens when he visited at the age of 17; it reminded him of the bowler hats which often featured in René Magritte’s work. He found it intriguing, and says that the idea of cork as a material to make with lingered with him over the years. He recently went to see cork trees being harvested in Portugal, where he sourced some cork bark for his sculptures now in Kew Gardens.


photo of a magnified section of red oak wood
A magnified cross section of the wood of red oak, Quercus rubra, which has been stained to show up the features.

Down the microscope

Nash spent some time looking at slides of different woods that he is interested in; seeing them down the microscope inspired some new drawing and sculpture works. This photograph shows a magnified cross section of the wood of red oak, Quercus rubra. The empty circles are the vessels which transport water; these are large in oak. Oak is described as ring porous because the vessels are much wider at the start of the growing season in spring when the tree is growing fast and needs to move water quickly up the tree. In this photograph you can see part of a growth ring where the earlywood vessels formed in the spring are much larger than the latewood vessels formed later in the growing season.


a photo of red rings by david nash
Nash’s interpretation of wood anatomy, explored in the macro-scale.

How scientists use the collection

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew holds one of the largest collections of microscope slides of plant material in the world. These are used as detailed references for the study of plant anatomy and for identification when only fragments of a plant are available. Scientists such as Peter Gasson, who showed Nash the collection, may be contacted by archaeologists, antique dealers, palaeontologists or even the police force or border agency.


a photo of black rings by David Nash
David Nash finds the oval forms of plant cells aesthetically pleasing, especially as a colour experience. During his residency at Kew, he has made both red and black works inspired by this.

Where to see new work at Kew

You will be able to see Oval Rings on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art from October 13th. The cork bowler hat with be shown alongside Nash’s drawings of Portuguese cork oak trees and a Small Cork Dome sculpture. The Aboriginal artefacts and 'inspired by' works will also be on display.

To find out more about David Nash at Kew, including further details about the works on display, visit the dedicated website.

You can also buy your tickets now and plan your day in advance.

Plan your day...

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