Library, Art and Archives blog
Welcome to Kew's Library Art and Archives blog. Here you will find information about Kew's collections, services and fascinating work which is taking place within the section and also meet the Library, Art and Archive staff who will provide regular updates with news from projects they are involved in, treasures they have discovered and exciting new developments planned for the future. Donate now - Help Kew look after its art and heritage
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As I'm sure you've noticed, Kew is celebrating Incredible Edibles this summer. With edibles on our minds, I thought it would be a great opportunity to blog about some of the extraordinary esculents we've encountered while digitising the Directors' Correspondence [DC] collection.
I couldn't resist starting with the most peculiar pineapple I've ever seen...
Photograph of the 'hen and chickens' pineapple, sent to Kew in a letter from Leonard Wray Jr., from Malaysia 1892 [archive ref: DC 165/275]
The photograph of this fantastic fruit was sent to Kew in 1892 by Leonard Wray Jr., the first curator of the Perak Museum – Malaysia's oldest museum. Mr Wray sent many fruit specimens back to Kew, including specimens of 'the hen and chickens pines' shown above, which, as you can see from the photograph, he quite rightly described as "a most splendid variety for show purposes".
Mr Paul And His Yams
Another photograph, this time of various varieties of Jaffna Yams, came to light in a letter from a Mr Isaac Paul of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] in 1893. Mr Paul forwarded a case containing 15 varieties of yams and enclosed a photograph of them with himself and his family.
Isaac Paul (back row on the right) with his father-in-law and family and the 15 varieties of Jaffna Yams he sent to Kew [archive ref: DC 163/194]
In his letter, Paul provides descriptions of the yams and the literal translations of their local names e.g. "Royal yam", "Blood yam", "Fruit yam", "Ship yam" "Temple-cake yam". Paul was keen for the yams to be identified scientifically at Kew. Unfortunately, a note on the letter, written by a member of Kew's staff, explains: "we have no means of fitting the yams received to these descriptions".
Devine And Intoxicating Plant Products
It is clear from the correspondence received by the Directors of Kew in the 19th and early 20th Century, that they were keen to receive information about any plant or plant product new to science - particularly anything that might be exploited for economic gain. Many edible plants and plant products were, therefore, described in the letters, some more appealing than others!
Sir Mountstuart Elphinestone Grant Duff, writing from Madras [Chennai] while he was Governor there in 1885, speaks very highly of Buchanania, which he believed would be a boon to any country in which it would grow: "Its kernels, when roasted, are delightful, but, when devilled, are divine!" [archive ref: 157/387].
In our recently digitised North America correspondence, we found a letter from William Fraser Tolmie [archive ref: DC 195/245] who sent back a number of plant specimens collected from the Pacific Northwest. These included young leaf stalks of what he believed to be Heracleum, used as an esculent by the "Indians" from the Columbia [river] as far North as Stikine; and a Convolvulus from Vancouver used by the "natives" as an article of food and by "the Canadians" as a substitute for coffee.
Walton Haydon, writing from Moose Factory, Canada in 1883, collected a number of plants used as drugs by the First Nations [archive ref: DC 195/247]. One drink in particular, brewed from berries, sugar and scraped mountain ash root, he describes as: 'very intoxicating indeed, but to me very nasty".
The Best Way to Cook Pumpkin!
Within the DC archive we have even uncovered a simple recipe for pumpkin.
Extract of a letter from Emmanuel Bonavia describing how best to cook pumpkin [archive ref: DC 154/134]
In a letter from Etawah, India, 1886, Emmanuel Bonavia described the best way to cook pumpkin: "remove skin & seeds – cut it in cubes an inch each way & stew it very very gently in its own juice, with butter, chopped onion pepper & salt – if too dry add a little stock or gravy or even water." According to Bonavia: "C.[Cucurbita] moschata is delicious cooked in this way – otherwise pumpkin is very tasteless". Must give this a try in October!
Kew's Incredibles festival is, of course, all about edible plants, but I couldn't resist ending with a couple of quotes from the famous plant hunter David Douglas, who, on a trip to the Galapagos in 1825, resorted to sampling some reptilian refections:
"there is a large species of tortoise from 200 to 250lb weight - excellent eating - something like veal. In addition to them we found a large sort of yellow lizard from 2 ½ to 3 ½ feet long which makes very fine soup!!" [archive ref: 62/71c].
Writing about a visit to Juan Fernandez, which he describes as "the famous residence of the hero Robinson Crusoe", Douglas explained that he:
"sowed a large collection of Garden seeds, and useful grasses with some pips and other fruit seeds...expressing a wish they may prosper and add to the comfort of the 2nd ed. of Robinson Crusoe should one appear".
He may have been game enough to try eating turtle and lizard, but for one who left such a great botanical legacy, it is nice to know that he preferred the edible productions of plants!
- Helen -
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The man who saved Kew Gardens
John Lindley (1799-1865) has been described as the man who saved Kew Gardens. He was part of an 1837 committee commissioned by the government to examine Kew and report their findings on the future of the gardens. The death of both Joseph Banks and George III in 1820 started Kew’s decline and the committee was required to review the garden's purpose, either as serving the Royal Household, the public or as a place for science.
John Lindley (1799-1865)
There was unease about Kew’s condition and status: the hothouses were overcrowded and needed repair, the lake was muddy, and the garden buildings were shabby. The review came at a time when other gardens such as Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh were flourishing. The botanic garden at Kew, which covered 15 acres at the time, had a small arboretum and unlabelled plants which had no noteworthy arrangement.
In March 1838, Lindley presented his report. He recommended that the gardens be retained for the nation and as a centre of botanical science in England, equipped with a herbarium and library. The government did not accept the findings but the matter was successfully raised in Parliament in the spring of 1840. As a result, the grounds (apart from 20 acres around the Queen’s cottage) were transferred to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests and William Jackson Hooker was appointed the first Director in July 1841. Lindley’s legacy continues at Kew: his orchid herbarium is held here which holds over 7,000 specimens; and his correspondence is collected in the Library.
Rosa cinnamomea by John Lindley
Lindley the artist
As well as publishing books, notably with Francis Bauer, Lindley also illustrated his own monographs. In 1820 Lindley published ‘Rosarum monographica; or a botanical history of Roses’ where he illustrated 18 of the 19 plates. The book, with an illustration of Rosa cinnamomea by Lindley, is on display as part of the Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
Lindley’s great grandson, Rory McEwen, was a botanical artist painting from the late 1950s to early 1980s and the exhibition features his botanical work as well as showcasing his talents for sculpture, poetry and music. McEwen painted many flower species, including roses, and was greatly influenced by the old master painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté. In the early 1950s McEwen’s brother in law purchased two portfolios of 52 original watercolour paintings on vellum by Redouté and McEwen discovered them during his time studying at Cambridge. This gave him the unique opportunity to study the originals rather than published engravings.
Rose 1970 by Rory McEwen
McEwen’s early paintings of roses, dating from 1953, had a simple style but, as he continued to paint, Redouté’s influence was reflected in his work. McEwen’s attention to detail, simplicity of specimen, elegance of line and surface modeling could all have been inspired by the work of Redouté.
Rose ‘William Lobb’ 1976-78 by Rory McEwen
Visit the exhibition
John Lindley’s influence and legacy at Kew is still evident today. His recommendations in the report started to create the gardens which we see today and his work is still held in a variety of Kew’s collections. In addition, his work as a botanical artist is noteworthy, not only in the context of the genre, but within his own family, as Rory McEwen, his great grandson, was one of the most notable botanical artists of the twentieth century.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality is on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until 22 September 2013.
- Joanne -
- Visit the Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
- Find out more about the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
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Friends and colleagues of the artist Lucy Smith were recently delighted to learn that she had won second prize in the Margaret Flockton award for botanical illustration – in fact, the third time she has received the second prize in this prestigious award. Lucy’s winning illustration of the rare Madagascan grass Lecomtella madagscariensis was prepared for Kew grass specialist Dr. Vorontsova. I was lucky enough to catch up with Lucy, during a recent break in her work in the Herbarium at Kew, and learn a little more about her approach to illustration.
Lucy at her desk (Image: © RBG, Kew)
Lucy is one of a number of highly skilled freelance botanical illustrators working at Kew to produce line drawings for scientific plant publications. Lucy is much in awe of her colleagues, and praises the Flockton award for bringing together the work of international artists. Its emphasis on accurate depiction of plant characters, technical and artistic merit, composition, and reproducibility all serve to highlight the rigorous requirements demanded of a scientific line drawing.
A section of Lucy’s award-winning Lecomtella illustration (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
Production of line drawings is driven by two main purposes: to contribute to floras of existing plants, and to document new species. Lucy says that she feels a great responsibility to ensure that all her line work is correct, as her illustration will be used to identify the plant it describes. Artists tend to work from dried specimens or specimens stored in spirit for line drawings, but use a live specimen when illustrating in colour. Lucy is adept at both line and colour work and describes how useful it is to produce these two works in tandem in order to inform each other.
Most illustrators specialise in illustrating one or a small number of plant families and Lucy first came to Kew to illustrate palms, an area in which she continues to focus her work. She shows me some examples of dried palm specimens – their leaves folded in half or thirds for storage. These specimens are too brittle to unfold and so the artist re-imagines the specimen by measuring each part of the palm leaf and then uses this information to draw it to a smaller scale in its entirety
Examples of dried palm specimens folded for storage (Image: © RBG, Kew)
Lucy shows me her meticulously kept sketchbooks where she works out her initial drawings and layout. She uses a camera lucida attached to a microscope to draw some of the most minute specimens. I get to try this out with some tiny grass seeds and soon realise how long it must take to master this technique – it is very hard to look down the microscope and draw the outline of the specimen without looking at my hand and the pencil! After making initial sketches Lucy will then consult with the botanist for whom she is illustrating in order to determine which parts of the plant should be included and to get approval of the accuracy of her work. Once the elements of the drawing have been decided she then lays them out on the page in a logical order with the main specimen in the middle and details such as habit, vegetative details, and illustrations of flower and fruit carefully placed around it. She then inks over the top of her pencil work with a very fine pen using fine stippling to mould form. Lucy’s illustrations are aesthetically beautiful but she emphasises that they are science led and that the main consideration is accuracy and care to include enough information without cluttering the drawing with unnecessary detail. It is to her credit that she is able to create both a scientifically accurate illustration and visually stunning work.
A working drawing by Lucy (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
Lucy’s enthusiasm for her work is palpable and she describes her excitement at bearing witness to some of the first instances of the naming of a new species by Kew botanists. She recalls the recently identified palm Tahina spectabilis of which she made illustrations – the first specimen was dissected in front of her eyes for her to draw with the added pressure that it was the only material from this plant available at the time.
A section of an illustration of Calamus eximus by Lucy (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
I look forward to seeing more work by Lucy and her colleagues and, as well as continuing to appreciate the line work for its scientific and artistic value, I will remember to consider the painstaking process and careful technique that has been invested in one of these incredibly detailed works.
More information on Lucy’s work can be found on her website: www.lucytsmith.com
- Julia -
- Learn more about the Margaret Flockton Award
- Discover Kew's Illustrations collections
- Find out more about the work of Kew's Illustrations Team
- Discover the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew
- Read more posts from the Library, Art & Archives blog
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains letters written to Kew from many botanic gardens all over the world. They have origins as arenas to show off the natural plant splendours of tropical colonies, as experimental gardens trialling plants with potential economic value, as physic gardens dedicated to medicinal plants and as learning spaces attached to universities and herbaria . Missouri Botanical Garden was founded, it seems, purely as an act of philanthropy by a man who had made his fortune in St Louis and wanted to give his adopted city the gift of a garden.
Henry Shaw, Founder
His name was Henry Shaw and in 1856 he wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker - a complete stranger addressing the Director of the foremost Botanic Garden in the world (Kew of course!), seeking advice on his plans for a botanic garden in Missouri.
Founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Henry Shaw (1800-1889)
Writing to Kew
In his letter to Hooker Shaw announces himself modestly as, "a proprietor of some land in the vicinity of St Louis". In fact he was one of the largest landowners in the city and had made enough money to retire by 1840, at the age of just 40. The freedom afforded by such wealth allowed Shaw to travel and develop his enthusiasm for botany. We know he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew during his travels and that, along with the Glasgow Botanic Garden and the gardens at Chatsworth, they were a great source of inspiration.
When Shaw returned to St Louis in 1851 he began work on transforming some of his own land into a garden. Five years later he wrote to Kew for advice and outlined what his planned garden would look like.
Extract of a letter from Henry Shaw to Kew Director Sir William Jackson Hooker, dated 1856.
Plans for a Garden
Shaw writes that the garden is to be 18 to 20 acres in area and surrounded by a wall. It will include an arboretum for such fruit trees as will stand the Missouri climate: apples, pears and peaches. Also plant houses, the building of which Shaw will superintend himself. The letter also shows that he is already determined the garden should be of scientific value rather than purely a pleasure park. He plans to build a museum and lecture hall and has consulted with the principals of nearby medical schools. This approach no doubt pleased Kew's staunch man of science, William Hooker. The advice Shaw wanted from Hooker was botanical: what plants should he populate his fledgling botanical garden with? The answering letter may lie in Missouri's own archive and is perhaps still evident in some of the garden's planting.
Plan of Henry's Shaw's public garden
Shaw's letter is fascinating to me as an insight into the humble and rather heart-warming beginnings of one of the world's great botanical institutions. It is also particularly nice as he sent plans of the position and layout of the garden with his letter (and I love a nice old map).
Map showing the location of Shaw's public garden, 1856.
Shaw's Garden Legacy
Shaw opened his botanical garden to the public in 1859. Since then it has quadrupled in size and is a renowned centre of science, but is still apparently known affectionately as "Shaw's Garden" and Shaw himself is also remembered in a mausoleum within the garden.
- Missouri Botanical Garden
- Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive is online at Jstor Global Plants and Shaw's letter and garden plans will be available to view there soon.
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project.
- If you want to know more about the origins of Missouri Botanical Garden, check out this illustrated history from their archive.
- For more on the life of Henry Shaw, including how he made his fortune, go to his Wikipedia entry.
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This month sees the launch of JSTOR Global Plants (formerly JSTOR Plant Science) a community-contributed dataset featuring more than 2 million high resolution plant type specimen images as well as reference works, drawings, paintings, photographs and archive materials related to plants and the history of botany.
The database is the product of an ongoing collaboration between more than 270 herbaria worldwide and one of the primary source highlights is Kew's very own Directors' Correspondence collection (DC) which provides an amazing variety of explorers' correspondence, predominantly from the 1830s to the 1920s.
Detail of a map of the area around Lake Shirwa, Mozambique c.1860, from John Kirk, chief assistant to David Livingstone on the second Zambesi Expedition, part of RBG Kew's Directors' Correspondence Collection. [Archives ref DC 60/153]
Users can search original letters and documents from the DC collection from Africa (c.7600 letters), Latin America (c.7400 letters), and Asia (c.9400 letters). We are currently working hard to add the North American DC collection. For a taste of the kind of items available check out our previous Library, Art & Archives blog posts.
JSTOR Global Plants is a subscription site; access is available through terminals in Kew's Library Reading Room. Non-subscribers are able to search, view metadata, view thumbnail images and comment. We hope you enjoy browsing this amazing collection!
- For all the latest news from the DC project follows us on twitter @kewDC.
- For questions about access and participation fees for JSTOR Global Plants, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Read our blog post about celebrating David Livingstone's Bicentenary at Kew.
- Contact the Archives team at email@example.com.
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Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains many millions of items within its collections. Find out about the diverse teams who look after these collections and make them accessible.
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Suffragettes at Kew: Fascinating stuff. Love the old headlines. . by: Neil
History of art in the Directors' Correspondence: the painting of an iconic Kew image: Hooker is my favourite Fellow, He was a lab bench man and it is fitting that he should also be celeb ... by: Brian S. Hartley FRS
Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.: Hi Judy, thanks for your lovely comment supporting the work of the project. Your great grandfather w ... by: Virginia, RBG Kew archive
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