Economic Botany blog
Follow Mark's blog and discover Kew's historic plant artefact collection. This fascinating global collection includes around 85,000 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.
Among the many unexpected treasures in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection are 111 sheets and 17 objects made from Japanese paper (known in Japan as washi). These were collected between 1869-70 by Sir Harry Parkes, British Minister to Japan, at the request of William Gladstone, British Prime Minister. This was not a frivolous request: the advent of wider literacy had led to serious paper shortages in Europe, hence Kew's interest in papers from other regions.
Hair ornaments made from paper
Parkes sent the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Word reached Kew of its arrival and the director, Sir Joseph Hooker, requested material for Kew. The three-dimensional objects – hats, clothes, boxes, a telescope – were exhibited in Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, but the paper sheets were rolled into glass jars and remained invisible (and protected from light and pollution) for over a century.
The Parkes collection, now divided between Kew and the V&A, was rediscovered by the book designer Hans Schmoller. In the story well told in his handsome book Mr Gladstone’s washi (1984), Schmoller was visiting paper makers’ workshops in Japan and was shown a tattered photocopy of Parkes’s Report, printed by Parliament to accompany the paper samples. This led him to the portion preserved in the V&A stores, and then to Kew. The rediscovery of such a large and well-preserved collection of historical washi caused much excitement, and led to a major loan exhibition visiting Kyoto and Tokyo in 1994.
It has been my ambition to exhibit the papers in Britain since I first saw them a decade ago. As well as the fascinating story of their collecting, they are artefacts of great and subtle beauty. The karakami, thin paper used on sliding partitions, are decorated with natural pigments such as indigo blue, and materials such as mica. The gikakuji and kinkarakawakami (paper treated to look like leather) are sumptuous, with dark colours, high relief and gilding, and the objects such as hats and slippers are simply unexpected in western culture. All these repay hours of close viewing.
Paper hat from the Parkes collection
A series of three fortunate events has led to this hoped for exhibition. Firstly, Nancy Casserley, a History of Design MA student at the Royal College of Art, completed a brilliant dissertation on the reception (lukewarm!) accorded to washi in Britain. As part of her project, the papers were photographed and fully catalogued for the first time. Next, the “Washi: The Soul of Japan committee”, based in Kyoto, issued a 12 volume set of 800 Japanese papers representing the current state of paper making in Japan (which we have just acquired for the Kew Library). This comes at a timely moment when hand paper making is both highly valued in Japan, but under threat from modernisation. The third happy event was that a good friend, at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures in Norwich, became aware of both collections, and saw how 19th and 21st century washi side-by-side could make a fascinating exhibition. Through support from the Sainsbury Institute, Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) and many Japanese colleagues and institutions, the exhibition Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper has come to be, and will run at The Gallery at NUA from 12 March – 20 April 2013.
Recent paper from the "Washi: Soul of Japan" collection
What's on in Norwich
Exhibiting coloured papers presents some challenges, particularly as they are very sensitive to light. Over 100 pieces of washi are on show, and this exhibition is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. I would warmly urge readers to make the journey to Norwich. There is a lot to see, as the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA) has also organised three exhibitions of paper art, inspired by washi, held in nearby galleries at the same time, the "Art and Soul of Paper". There is also an extensive programme of talks and workshops on washi old and new, including an all-day conference and private view of the exhibitions on Saturday 16 March. Nancy Casserley is curator of the exhibition and author of the associated book to be published by Kew, Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper, which will be launched in London on 19 March – a highly satisfactory outcome from a MA dissertation!
- Mark -
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Working in wax
Kew's Economic Botany Collection recently hosted two visitors from the Victoria & Albert Museum – Amy Mechowski, assistant curator of sculpture, and Fiona Jordan, ceramics and glass conservator. Their visit was a reminder of the breadth of the Collection, which contains much to interest the art historian.
Like many natural history museums, Kew has many botanical models. Unlike the famous glass Blaschka models at Harvard University, ours are made of wax or plaster. They were made for display in the Kew Museum of Economic Botany, as visual aids in the days before colour photography or interactive displays. They must have introduced a welcome note of colour to the sooty gloom of a Victorian winter.
Among the collections are 25 wax models of orchids, which were moved to the Herbarium following the closure of the old museum building. They have recently been conserved by Annette Townsend and Vicky Purewal at the National Museum of Wales, an exceptionally delicate task, and are looking superb. They were commissioned by Kew in 1905 from Mrs Edith Delta Blackman (1866-1941), at a cost of around four pounds and four shillings each.
Wax model of Vanda coerulea, blue vanda, recently conserved at the National Museum of Wales. Note the subtlety of the detailed colours and markings.
Objets d'Art 2006/37.2 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
We have many models in the Economic Botany Collection, including wax models of plant embryos, made by the Ziegler studio in the 1860s, 200 plaster apples and pears from New Zealand, and a splendid set of six models of fruits and flowers, commissioned from Mrs Mintorn in 1899 at a cost of £17.
Mintorn wax model of peaches, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69752 (Photo: Andrew McRobb)
The Mintorn models are strikingly realistic, even down to the fuzz on the peaches, and surface marks on the apples.
Mintorn wax model of apples, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69754 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
Rafflesia arnoldii – the 'corpse flower'
After examining these models, we walked over to the Plants+People exhibition in Museum No. 1. Here two models are on display, a Mintorn model of hops, and this magnificent life-size model of Rafflesia arnoldii, a rare plant of the rainforests of Sumatra. This is the largest individual flower of any plant, and is known for emitting the smell of tainted beef, which attracts its pollinators.
Wax model of Rafflesia, on public display in the Plants+People exhibition at Kew.
(Photo: Amy Mechowski)
The plant was introduced to western botanists by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Joseph Arnold, whose Malay servant found it growing near the Manna River on 19 May, 1818. Named by Robert Brown after Raffles and Arnold, the plant caused a sensation in the botanical salons of Europe. Three life-size wax models, each about 3 feet across, were made in 1825 for Raffles, the Linnean Society, and the Royal Horticultural Society. The model shown above was acquired from the Royal Horticultural Society by Kew in 1855, and is believed to be the only one that survives.
With the aid of a torch, we took a close look at all the models, confirming that several of the Mintorn models, and the Rafflesia, are in need of conservation. Typical symptoms are cracked or broken-off wax, and ties cutting into the wax.
Wax on display
So why were we visited by the V&A? Amy Mechowski has just curated a small (but fascinating) display in the V&A's Sculpture Gallery (room 111), tracing the development of women sculptors in Britain. Wax plays an important part in this story, as modelling in wax was seen as a suitable occupation for ladies.
The contents of a wax modelling kit made by Mintorn.
Part of the Victoria & Albert Museum display Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling. V&A W.185 to AAA-1923 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
Wax was also an affordable material. The exhibition includes wax flowers, a complete kit for making flowers, and beautiful examples of portraits, and arts and craft work. We had hoped to lend some of the Mintorn flowers to the exhibition, but they would not have fitted within the shallow cabinets.
Wax flowers were not just an object of hobby and display; they were also an important industry. Queen Victoria loved wax flowers, and 10,000 wax roses were made for her wedding in 1840. However, I suspect that few wax flowers have survived in museums: as well as being very fragile, they would have been deeply out of fashion for much of the 20th century. One of the virtues of Kew's collections is that they have resisted some of the turns of fashion of the last century, and are therefore rich in this kind of object.
One of the great joys of curating such a diverse collection is that every visitor knows more about their specialism than I do, and thus one learns from every visitor. This well-spent morning left me with two objectives. The first, drawing on Fiona's observations of our models' condition, is to think about raising funds so they can have the same conservation treatment as the wax orchids. The second, drawing on Amy's art historical comments, is to find a postgraduate student (or several) of the history of science, or design, or museums, to work on our models. This is still a largely untilled field, and thus a good one for aspiring scholars.
Noltie, H.J. (2009) Raffles' Ark Redrawn. London: British Library. (on the wax model of Rafflesia)
Lechtreck, H.-J. (2003). A history of some fruit models in wax and other materials: scientific teaching aids and courtly table decorations. Archives of Natural History 30: 299-316.
Shteir, A.B. (2007) Fac-Similes of Nature: Victorian Wax Flower Modelling. Victorian Literature and Culture 35: 649–661.
Victoria & Albert Museum display (to 9 March 2013) Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling
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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
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As postgraduates studying at the Centre for Textile Conservation (CTC), at the University of Glasgow, we have learned to document and preserve a range of historical and cultural textiles from all over the world. Some might question why textile conservation students would be interested in a voluntary placement at Kew Gardens. In fact, there was a long-running relationship between Kew's Economic Botany Collection and the CTC's predecessor, the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC). From 1994 to 2009 TCC students, based at Hampton Court and Winchester, worked on over 100 textiles held in Kew's collections. After the 2009 closure of the TCC, it reopened as the CTC in Glasgow in 2011.
Earlier this year Mark Nesbitt of Kew visited the CTC to renew the relationship. At his inspiring talk, we were delighted to hear of the variety of textiles and organic-based costumes housed in the Economic Botany Collection (EBC) at Kew. We decided to visit Kew for a short placement, during which we were able to volunteer our time and conservation-training, while also being able to explore the gardens and the EBC.
An inspiring collection
On arrival it was exciting to see a recently acquired collection of indigo-dyed textiles donated to Kew by Jenny Balfour-Paul, gathered from her worldwide travels over the last 20 years. Jenny is the leading expert on indigo, well-known both for her books (Indigo in the Arab World 1997; and Indigo 1998, new edition 2011) and for her public outreach through talks, films (she is a consulting scholar for Blue Alchemy) and exhibitions. The collection consists of over 200 items, including raw dyes, tools and indigo-dyed textiles, and is now available on the EBC catalogue (search on <Balfour-Paul>). Jenny has also given 50 books on dyes to Kew's Library, making what was already a good collection on plant dyes into an outstanding one, with many rarities.
Indigo-dyed textile from Pau, Indonesia, woven by Hanna Dewa and collected by Jenny Balfour-Paul. Ref: EBC 91931
Indigo is not just made from indigo...
The dye known as 'indigo' can be obtained from a wide range of plants, including indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) in India, woad (Isatis tinctoria) in Europe, Persicaria tinctoria and Strobilanthes cusia in China and Japan, and Philenoptera cyanescens in west Africa. All these and more are represented in Jenny's collection.
Indigo-dyed padded jacket, collected in Guizhou, China, by Jenny Balfour-Paul, 1993. Dyed with Strobilanthes cusia. Ref: EBC 91934
Caring for the collection
Our job was to work through the 70 or so textiles in the Balfour-Paul collection, deciding how they could best be stored, and then to pack them in acid-free tissue paper and boxes. This exercise proved to be more thought-provoking than expected, due to the range of object sizes and materials, and the limitations on storage space. It was a rewarding project to work on, as we were able to examine some beautiful textile pieces close-up.
Jenny and Stella pack up an Indigo-dyed ikat from Savu, Indonesia. Ref: EBC 91932
For us as textile conservators this collection offers information on dyes, printing techniques, and construction and decoration from a vast range of cultures. It is also of great interest to a variety of other people – from those exploring their heritage to experts in this subject. This generous donation by Jenny Balfour-Paul will surely have a long legacy, inspiring further craft, and research on this beautiful and historic dye.
Mark asked us to choose a favourite piece – difficult from so many, but we settled on this one from Nigeria:
Resist-stitched textile from Nigeria, dyed with indigo. Collected by Jenny Balfour-Paul. Ref: EBC 91908
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Kew, and look forward to being part of the on-going relationship between Kew and the CTC.
- Jenny and Stella -
- Centre for Textile Conservation, Glasgow University
- Indigo: Egyptian mummies to blue jeans
- More about indigo at Plant Cultures
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The Economic Botany Collection at Kew has long-standing collaborations with several object conservation programmes – at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, the Textile Conservation Centre in Glasgow, and Camberwell College of Arts, London. Over the last few years Camberwell undergraduates have tackled some very challenging projects for Kew, such as Emily Brennan’s work on a Jamaican lacebark bonnet in 2010. In 2012 we were lucky enough to have three students working on Kew objects, so I went with my camera to their annual degree show, to see what they had achieved.
Xiao Yi Gu undertook the daunting task of conserving 12 Chinese paintings on ‘rice paper’. This isn’t true paper, as it is not made from pulp. Instead, thin sheets are cut from the cylindrical pith of the rice paper plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer. I’ve written elsewhere (opens as PDF) about the extraordinary skill required to cut such thin sheets, using a heavy but razor-sharp iron blade. Pith sheets were originally used for making artificial flowers, but in the early 19th century a thriving trade in souvenir paintings developed.
Xiao Yi Gu holds a model mount for the pith paintings.
This set shows the cultivation, harvest and manufacture of rice paper, and was given to Kew by a Hong Kong merchant in 1850. At the time Kew’s Director, Sir William Hooker, was trying to establish the identity of the rice paper plant. In fact the paintings are almost wholly misleading – the artist had obviously never seen the plant – but they remain a fascinating and beautiful artwork. However, the corners of the paintings had broken off, and there were splits in the main body of the paintings. Xiao Yi treated them by gently humidifying the pith, to make it more flexible, then mending the splits with Japanese paper and starch.
Left: split in pith, before repair. Right: after repair, the split is almost invisible
To ensure that the paintings are accessible to visitors, but protected from future damage, sturdy card mounts have been made, with a conservation-grade acrylic window to allow viewing of the paintings.
Shield from the Amazon
Cristina Rico Liria did her placement at Kew and spotted her object then. This shield was collected by Richard Spruce in about 1850, from the Rio Uaupes region of the Amazonian rain forest. It’s been on my conservation hotlist for some time as it did not have a proper box, its purpose – truly defensive or ceremonial? – was unclear, and the faded decoration on the surface was hard to read.
Cristina shows the shield, now safely housed in a special base.
Cristina was able to find out more about the cultural context of the shield. It was probably made by the Desana people, in the Tukano linguistic family. This type of shield is not made any more, but was used in the past during Tukano ceremonies. Examination under UV light revealed complex painted decorations that are otherwise invisible. Although the shield is in good condition, it was poorly packed. The specially-padded mount visible in the photo ensures that the weight of the shield is evenly distributed. Close examination did find some loose strands, which were reinforced to ensure they do not unravel any further. This is an excellent example of a project involving a great deal of research that has really enhanced our understanding of the object.
In contrast, Kayleigh Saunders (another placement student at Kew) took on a project involving an object in poor condition that needed a great deal of treatment. This small cradle – a model or toy – was sent from Canada to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. It was probably made by the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada and has the name “Ellen Peters” – perhaps the maker – penciled on the bottom.
Kayliegh Saunders and the restored Canadian cradle
Its construction is complex: a substructure of birch bark, covered in fabric on the interior with porcupine quills on the exterior, and glass beads threaded around the edge. Changes in humidity had caused the bark to return to its original curvature, breaking apart the joints of the cradle, and the quills and beads were very fragile.
Kayleigh humidifies the cradle inside a sealed container
Kayleigh used methanol vapour in a sealed container to soften and reshape the bark. The quills and inner lining were repaired with Japanese tissue, while the glass beads were resewn back onto the edges. This very painstaking work was completed by cleaning the surface, removing some heavy deposits from the old Brentford Gasworks that sat across the river from Kew until the 1950s. Now, as well as being structurally sound, this precious piece of Canadian First Nations heritage also looks as beautiful as it did when first exhibited.
Looking to the future
My visit to the private view of this year’s degree show at Camberwell was a bittersweet occasion, as the undergraduate conservation programme will close in 2013. I look forward to future collaborations with Camberwell’s thriving paper and book conservation MA programme, but will miss the enthusiasm and ability of the undergraduates there who have done such great work on Kew’s collections.
- Economic Botany Collection
- Conservation at Camberwell
- The story of rice paper
- Canadian artefacts at Kew
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About Mark Nesbitt
Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.
At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.
Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.
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