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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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 email@example.com.
- Read our blog post about celebrating David Livingstone's Bicentenary at Kew.
- Contact the Archives team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Amongst the several million original items in Kew’s Archives is a series of 44 letters between Charles Darwin and his mentor, Professor John Henslow, which document Darwin’s travels on HMS Beagle. Written between 1831 and 1837 these fascinating letters show Darwin’s theories developing as he collected specimens and reported his findings back to Cambridge. The tone of the letters is very amiable giving an interesting and moving insight into Darwin’s experiences, an example being his excited reaction to being told he had been accepted on the expedition by Captain Fitzroy - ‘Gloria in excelsis is the most moderate beginning I can think of’!
Surface cleaning a letter
The letters were presented for conservation loose, having previously been taken out of their poor quality nineteenth century binding. Although the paper was a good quality, often large tears and losses were evident especially around the edges and wax seals. Various types of repairs had been added to the letters, and the paper tabs used to stitch the letters into the binding were still adhered to the letters, often obscuring the text. The main problem, however, was the degrading ink which was evident on all of the letters. Darwin had used iron gall ink – an ink which was used extensively throughout the nineteenth century but one which can, due to its components, ‘corrode’ the paper in and around the ink line.
Ink and paper loss due to ink corrosion.
Losses, as well as 'haloing' and 'strikethrough' of the ink were evident on the letters so stabilisation of the ink needed to take place in order for the writing to remain legible and to minimise further degradation of the paper support.
Absorption of UV light indicates the presence of iron gall ink. The visible presence of writing on the reverse side, during UV light investigation, indicates a risk of future ‘strikethrough’ of ink, if left in its current state.
All of the letters needed surface cleaning, and previous repairs and tabs had to be removed prior to treatment of the ink. After slow humidification to minimise movement and stress in the paper, the letters were immersed into a water bath and then into an aqueous solution of calcium ammonium phytate. Deacidification then took place in aqueous calcium bicarbonate and the letters were subsequently re-sized with gelatin. This procedure stabilised the ink and allowed for the necessary repairs to the letters to be adhered. Losses were infilled using a toned Japanese paper and tears were repaired so that all the writing was legible.
A batch of letters in the first bath of cold water
The letters were re-housed in a specially designed folder which allows for each letter to be viewed without the risk of any further damage. This was a fascinating project which allowed me to investigate the best way to preserve these important letters for the future whilst respecting their unique history. Thank you to the several generous individuals who made the conservation of these letters possible.
Letters in the leather bound folder after treatment
- Eleanor Hasler -
- Read the content of these letters in The Darwin Correspondence Project
- Kew's collection of letters written by Charles Darwin
- Find out more about the history of iron gall ink and ink corrosion
- The relationship between Darwin and Henslow
- The HMS Beagle Project Blog
- More information about Charles Darwin and John Stevens Henslow
- The Library, Art and Archives collections
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We are all very excited to introduce our new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art detailing the life and work of Rory McEwen, a talented artist, botanical illustrator and musician. Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality, will exhibit work from the 1950s up to the late 1980s detailing his aptitude for botanical illustration, music and poetry with works loaned from his family and from other private collectors.
Radcliffe Square by Rory McEwen
The new exhibition is accompanied by a display from Dr Shirley Sherwood’s collection which looks at how Rory McEwen has influenced a new generation of botanical artists. Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection has been curated by Dr Shirley Sherwood and will feature work from artists such as Kate Nessler, Annie Farrer, Pandora Sellars and Celia Hegadüs who were all influenced by Rory McEwen in some way. Their work will be displayed next to some of McEwen’s own paintings which are also in the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
Courgette Tendrils II by Annie Farrer from the Shirley Sherwood Collection
McEwen himself was influenced by great botanical painters of the past, most notably Pierre-Joseph Redouté who was painting at the turn of the nineteenth century. McEwen saw Redouté’s ‘Roses’ in person when he was twenty years old as he knew Wilfred Blunt while Blunt was writing his book 'The Art of Botanical Illustration'. McEwen’s works blend art and science together as they are botanically accurate along with being artistic. While taking influence from old masters such as Redouté, McEwen was also affected by contemporary art movements. McEwen worked on vellum, a traditional material. He liked the smoothness of the surface and using very small strokes of dry watercolour he created botanically accurate depictions but simultaneously he was aware of the whole canvas perhaps taking inspiration from Minimalism, and the importance of negative space, making the subject matter look like it’s floating surrounded by bare vellum.
Gingko Leaf East 61st Street New York by Rory McEwen from the Shirley Sherwood Collection
Another aspect of McEwen’s botanical illustration career that sets him aside was his custom of recording imperfections in his natural subject matter. He painted objects such as fallen leaves, which would normally be discarded, and recorded what he saw accurately to create ‘plant portraits’, making the subject matter individual. His depictions of plants were never too stylized or formal but retained the botanical accuracy required for the art form while being interjected with artistic influences of the twentieth century. McEwen’s artwork developed and changed throughout the course of his career. He altered his subject matter and compositions, experimented with collage and sculpture, and continued to take influence from many diverse sources. We hope you’ll come and visit the exhibition to find out more about the life and work of Rory McEwen.
Rory McEwen with his Auricula paintings
The book to accompany this exhibition is available in hardback or paperback from the Kew online shop.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality is on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art from 11 May to 22 September 2013. Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection will be on display until January 2014. The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is open daily from 9.30am, please contact the gallery on 0208 332 3622 for any enquiries.
- The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
- Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality
- Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection
- Buy 'Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality' from the Kew online shop
- About Dr Shirley Sherwood
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TRADING CONSEQUENCES is a Digging into Data project that analyses how automatic text mining of large quantities of historical text can assist environmental historians in their work of researching the effects of 19th century trade in the British Empire. The text mining technology recognises mentions of commodities, locations, diseases, disasters and dates in historical text. It also enriches this information, for example, by geo-referencing the extracted locations and identifying which commodity mentions are related to which location mentions. When the mined information is visualised in different ways we are able to provide interesting views of historical collections which so far only tend to be accessible by historians through key word search.
System architecture of TRADING CONSEQUENCES
Using Kew's Data
One of the collections we are processing in TRADING CONSEQUENCES is the Directors’ Correspondence Collection from the Archives at Kew Gardens. It contains hand-written, scientific letters and memoranda received by Kew’s Directors and senior staff from the 1840s to 1928, as well as correspondence received by Sir William Jackson Hooker prior to 1841. It provides first hand accounts and observations on botany, ethnobotany, history, natural history, science and politics around the world. In Trading Consequences, we are working with letters specifically relevant to Africa, Asia and Latin America. We are not processing the letters themselves but the meta data attached to each document: particularly a written summary of the content of each piece of correspondence.
This collection contains meta files for more than 24,000 letters and is accessible via JSTOR Global Plants. Other historical text collections, which we process in TRADING CONSEQUENCES include the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers from ProQuest, the Early Canadiana Online data archive, Adam Matthew’s Confidential Print collections, a sub-part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection from JSTOR, and a number of books relevant to trading in the 19th century.
The text mining is developed by computer scientists at the School of Informatics at the University at Edinburgh. We first convert the meta information from Excel into an in-house XML format, thus creating one XML file per letter. We treat the title and description of each letter as textual information and retain all other information, including creator (i.e. the author of the letter) and date of creation (i.e. when the letter was written) as meta information. Each file is then processed by a series of steps. At first the stream of text is automatically split into its words and sentences. Then several syntactic processing steps are carried out, for example to determine the lexical category of each word (noun for cinnamon, verb for imported, preposition for through, adjective for fresh etc.) or to determine the canonical form of each word (e.g. export for exported or exports). Subsequently, we extract all commodity, location, date, disease and disaster mentions from the text. This is done in various ways, depending on the type of entity mention. In the case of commodities, we use a manually created commodity ontology and combine it with an automated bootstrapping techniques to identify other commodity mentions in the text. We also geo-reference each extracted location mention with an adapted version of Edinburgh Geoparser by linking them with a latitude and longitude. Finally, we extract commodity-location relations whenever a commodity is associated in some way with a location. All this information is stored in the Trading Consequences database.
Visualising the data
The database allows us to query for all commodities that were associated with different locations as mentioned in the historical collections analysed. We can also search for a particular commodity with respect to dates or locations, or for all commodities mentioned in relation to a specific location. For the following analysis, we extracted all commodities mentioned in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection and identified a subset of frequently mentioned ones (rubber, palm, coffee, cotton, bamboo, Liberian coffee). For each commodity in this subset, we extracted all commodity-location relations along with the year of publication date of the letter they occur in and the latitude and longitude for each location. The result is a list of “year,commodity,location[lat,long]” triples which can be visualised on a timeline or map. We identified 360 triples for rubber, 276 for coffee, 176 for palm, 164 for cotton, 63 for Liberian coffee and 51 for bamboo. A further step counts the identical triples, allowing us to display the more frequent occurrences with larger symbols.
The following video shows all locations each of the six commodities is associated with in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection over time. The yellow dots represent all locations mentioned in this collection over time, irrespective of whether they are related to any commodity. These yellow dots provide an interesting mapping of the British Empire during the 19th century and show how the reach of Kew Gardens expanded well beyond the formal empire. Look at the particular interest in South America during the first few decades as an example. We know economic botanists helped identify and transfer numerous South American plants, such as cinchona and rubber, so they could be grown on British plantations in places like Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Visualising locations from 24,000 letters, however, provides new insights into the scale of this project. (It will look best if you expand the video)
The second video focuses in on coffee and Liberian coffee. When coffee rust disease started to spread between coffee growing regions in the world during the second half of the 19th century, economic botanists worked to find alternative crops. In this video we see the letters mentioning Liberian coffee appear frequently after 1873, after the identification of this alternative type of coffee. While this example only confirms the history of coffee production we already know, it does demonstrate the potential of using text mining to explore large collections of documents.
In the near future historians and interested members of the public will be able to explore the TRADING CONSEQUENCES database through a dynamic visualisation website. The following screenshot is a sneak preview for this website, which is currently being developed by visualisation experts at the University of St. Andrews. In TRADING CONSEQUENCES, we process a number of different historical collections. The visualisation shown in the image below is limited to the Kew Gardens’ Directors’ Correspondence Collection. The image shows a map with bubbles in locations associated with the commodity Liberian coffee. The Seychelles and Sri Lanka are the most significant locations for this commodity. A timeline with the distribution of relevant documents per decade is shown underneath the map.
Locating Liberian coffee and related commodities in the Directors’ Correspondence Collection
Similarly to the information shown in the video, the commodity Liberian coffee appears around 1870. Any commodities related to Liberian Coffee, i.e. ones that appear in the same summary of the original letter, are listed on the righthand side of the page. The title of the the top 50 most relevant documents containing mentions of the commodity Liberian coffee are listed in order of relevance at the bottom of the screen. Each document title links back to the original images on JSTOR Global Plants.
- The Trading Consequences team: Bea Alex, Jim Clifford and Uta Hinrichs -
- The Trading Consequences project
- JSTOR Global Plants
- House of Commons Parliamentary Papers from ProQuest
- Early Canadiana Online data archive
- Adam Matthew's Confidential Print collections
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection
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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.
- Archives team
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
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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