Library, Art and Archives blog
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James Edward Tierney Aitchison
We encounter many different sorts of plant collectors in the Directors' Correspondence collection - from avid amateur enthusiasts to surgeon naturalists. In the latter category is James Edward Tierney Aitchison (1835-1898) who had a 30 year correspondence with Kew from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
A portrait from Kew's collection of J.E.T. Aitchison sent to Mrs Thiselton-Dyer, wife of a former Director
Aitchison was born in Neemuch, North West India, in 1835. He read medicine at the University of Edinburgh and entered the Honourable East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon in 1858. He published articles on the plants of Punjab, Sindh and Lahal and sent his first collection of dried plants to Kew in 1862, the same year that he married Eleanor Carmichael.
In 1872 Aitchison was appointed the British Commissioner to Ladakh, India. At this time Ladakh was a crossing point for the most important trade routes in Asia from Turkestan, Tibet, Punjab, Kashmir and Baltistan. Aitchison used his experience there to compile a Handbook of the Trade Products of Leh, a kind of A-Z guide to every conceivable sort of goods from 'Anár' – from the fruit of the pomegranate, Punica granatum, to 'Zirishk' – a fruit from Baltistan analogous to European Zante currants.
An image of the Bazaar of Leh, in Ladakh, from Robert Shaw's 'Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar' (1871)
Working as a botanist
In 1878 Aitchison accompanied Lord Roberts into the Kurram Valley (North West Pakistan) and served with the 29th Punjab Regiment for two years during the period of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, attached to the field force as a botanist. Aitchison also collected plants whilst appointed to a Delimitation Commission settling the boundary of north-western Afghanistan in 1884. He published accounts of his botanical and zoological work from this period in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. To give you an idea of the scale of his collecting he reported that during his Afghan Delimitation attachment he brought c.800 species comprising c.10,000 specimens back to England.
The type specimen of Prunus aitchisonii (Rosaceae) from Kew's Herbarium, collected by Aitchison in 1879
Aitchison wrote to Kew primarily to request accurate plant identifications, for further information and to describe particular plant species and landscapes. In addition he often discussed the problems he faced while plant hunting...
"We go on towards Allykhe, I will try and do my best, but fighting and botany do not amalgamate", Camp Kurram, 11 Apr 1879 [archive ref: DC 154/49-52 NWI]
In a letter from Khusan in 1884 he writes;
"Just a line, we have halted here for 7 days after our very long march some 770 miles...this rapid marching in to the lateness of the season gave one no chance of collecting as everything was dried up & all fruit disappeared... We are far too late for anything unless got by accident – not a leaf or a fruit to be got growing on its own stem - & besides up to this all our communications with the people have been restricted most carefully on every subject..." [archive ref: DC 154/89 NWI]
Aitchison found isolation from the local people for political reasons difficult as he was especially interested in finding useful plant products and identifying their correct sources. He also struggled to obtain the right sorts of equipment for botanical collecting and wrote to the then Director of Kew, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, wondering if it would be asking too much for Hooker to propose that the Government reward him for his work [archive ref: DC 154/74-75 NWI] as he had been refused his Batta (extra allowance) because botany in the field was not a Military Duty.
Having collected his precious specimens Aitchison had to ensure their safe transit to England. In 1893 Aitchison wanted to send the then Director Sir William Thiselton-Dyer a large specimen of a branched date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, from Multan (Pakistan) [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]. He had to send it in four pieces, each six foot in length. The vessel that transported the wood to Liverpool caught fire and Aitchison was only too thankful that the sections were not thrown overboard.
Extract from a letter detailing the transmission of a specimen of Phoenix dactylifera [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]
The exchange of useful plants
Throughout his letters Aitchison discusses identifying new and useful plants. For instance while in Gulran (Afghanistan) he finds there is a great deal of liquorice from which the native people made an extract by boiling down the roots in whey, using the resulting liquor to treat coughs and colds [archive ref: DC 154/86-87 NWI]. He also found a curious plant, which was very small but which grew an enormous taproot in sand and was used to make paper. He was certain it could succeed on their 'Scotch Links' [archive ref: DC 154/3 NWI].
Aitchison was also keen to introduce new economic crops and timbers which he thought would grow well and wrote to Kew asking variously for sugar maple, strawberry, gooseberry, and Vancouver and Canadian pine seeds. Several of his letters discuss the introduction of hops into Kashmir by the Murree Brewery for beer production, which he considered a sign that British interests in Kashmir were 'looking up' [archive ref: DC 154/38-39 NWI].
On his retirement Aitchison settled in Scotland and unsuccessfully contested a seat in parliament for Clackmannan and Kinross for the Liberal Unionists. C.1892 he moved to Leyden House at Mortlake intending to work up his copious notes for a Flora Indiae Desertae with the help of Kew. Sadly he passed away in 1898 aged 63, before this could be achieved. Several plant species are named in his honour including Rubia aitchisonii and Berberis aitchisonii.
Aitchison's digitised letters will shortly be accessible via the JSTOR Plant Science website where many of his plant specimens can also be viewed. In his letters Aitchison mentions that his wife illustrated some of his plants and I am keen to discover if we have any of her illustrations here at Kew.
- Kew's archive holds various other correspondence from Aitchison and a collection of his papers summarised as 'Afghan Plants and Flora Indiae Desertae: native names A-Z; Systematic lists and notes 1860s-1880s'.
- Visit the library
- See more digitised correspondence and plant specimens via JSTOR plant science
- Read more articles from the Library, Art & Archives blog
- Learn more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Preparing for an exhibition requires input from a range of specialists and I am going to talk about my involvement from the Preservation section.
As conservator of the Illustrations collection I was needed to help in preparing illustrations for framing. Many of the pictures had been attached to poor quality backing paper or herbarium sheets, with the original watercolour and a printed version, usually a lithograph, attached to the same sheet.
Removal of the backing sheet
For exhibition the pictures needed to be remounted and framed. Most of the illustrations were left on their original backing if they were in good condition and of good quality. Those with very poor quality or damaged backing papers were removed from them prior to mounting. This also allowed the removal of any discoloured adhesives.
‘Rhododendron hookeri’ lithograph alongside the original illustration in graphite and watercolour attached to a herbarium sheet (265 x 420mm), before treatment, showing adhesive staining in the corners and tape residue along the edges.
In the past, the illustrations had been attached to the backing, usually by the four corners, using various types of adhesive including animal glue. Some of these adhesive spots have darkened considerably with age causing irreversible staining visible on the front of the paper in the corners. By removing the adhesive from the back we can prevent any further staining and re-attach the illustrations to new backing with an archival quality adhesive.
Removal of the poor quality backings and adhesive
The illustrations were then mounted into window mounts made from museum quality mount board. To keep multiple illustrations attached to herbarium sheets together, a mount with multiple windows was used.
A window mount is composed of a solid backing board hinged to a top board with windows cut to display the images. The illustrations were hinged into the mounts with tabs made from Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Japanese papers are very strong whilst being very thin, making them ideal for use in paper conservation to repair tears and hold sheets of paper in place within a mount. Wheat starch paste is a very strong adhesive which does not discolour or lose its strength with age.
Hinging into window mounts
Framing the illustrations
Once the illustrations are hinged into the window mounts, they are ready to be framed. The Kew Illustrations department has a standard frame size and design for the works to be exhibited. There were around 50 artworks to be framed and this was carried out by two conservators over two days. Framing can be a very time consuming task, ensuring clean glass inside and out and the removal of any fluff that might creep onto the mount and image. The mounts were secured into the frames with hardboard backing and sealed with tape. They were then wrapped in polythene sheeting and taped securely to keep them protected during their journey across the Gardens to the gallery.
Exhibitions of illustrations at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art provide an excellent opportunity to assess the condition of parts of the collection that may not receive attention otherwise and prompt their conservation if need be. It is also very fulfilling to take part in enabling original images to be seen by the public.
Joseph Hooker - naturalist, traveller and more (Sat 12 November 2011 - Mon 09 April 2012)
- Learn more about the work of the Preservation team
- Read a blog post on the Joseph Hooker exhibition and his acquaintances by the Exhibitions and Galleries team
- Find out more about Kew's Illustrations collections
- Discover the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
- Visit the Library, Art & Archives blog homepage
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Lear's letter to Hooker
The Directors' Correspondence team recently digitised a letter by the artist and writer Edward Lear – most famous for his nonsense poems and witty limericks. In this letter, written from Darjeeling in 1874, Lear tells Sir Joseph Hooker, then director of Kew, how he has been making sketches of Kinchinjunga's outline and scenery for future paintings, and describes the area as a 'wonderfully beautiful place'. Mount Kanchenjunga is in the Himalayas, the majesty of which Lear depicted in his painting 'Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling', which is currently on display in the National Museum Cardiff.
'Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling' by Edward Lear, with an extract of a letter showing Lear's signature below
The area held fond memories for Hooker, who was the first Westerner to explore the mountain in 1848, collecting plants and recording his experiences in his Himalayan Journals published in 1854. Hooker's journals contain vivid and comprehensive observations made on his journey and plainly reveal his reverence for this landscape:
'The view...is one quite unparalleled for the scenery it embraces, commanding confessedly the grandest known landscape of snowy mountains in the Himalaya, and hence in the world. Kinchinjunga (forty-five miles distant) is the prominent object'
'Kinchinjunga bore nearly due north, a dazzling mass of snowy peaks, intersected by blue glaciers, which gleamed in the slanting rays of the rising sun, like aquamarines set in frosted silver'
Lithograph of W.H. Fitch's watercolour of Mount Kanchenjunga taken from Hooker's Himalayan Journals
The wonder of exploration
In his letter, Lear describes how the immediate neighbourhood has altered greatly since Hooker was there, the destruction of timber making it more like Bournemouth or Torquay. Nonetheless, he is grateful to have had the opportunity to see so much of India after an unfortunate incident in which his sketching stool broke under him, rendering him unable to ride.
This letter is interesting not only because the author was well-known, but also because it demonstrates the relationship between early botanists and explorers and the locations they visited on their travels. We have often come across letters expressing immense regret at having to return home after the author develops a great fondness for their adopted homeland. Curious as to whether others were mindful of Hooker's connection to the mountain, I searched for further references to Mount Kanchenjunga in the parts of the collection that have so far been digitised.
In the footsteps of Lamas
In a letter to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1862, Thomas Anderson, then Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, describes his journey to a glacier at the base of Kanchenjunga. He describes staying at 'Aloktong', a small hut erected for the Yukson Lamas on their annual visit towards Kanchenjunga to appease the mountain spirit. In fact, the mountain is of great spiritual importance to the Lepcha people of Sikkim who regard it as their guardian deity, believing that their ancestors were created from a handful of pure snow at the summit. It appears that there is further correspondence between the two men over who was first to reach the glacier, with Anderson conceding that it was Major Sherwill who got there first and apologising if Hooker had been misled.
Sketch map sent with Thomas Anderson's letter showing his route to the glacier at the base of Mount Kanchenjunga
Misfortune on the Mountain
A more unfortunate account of an expedition to Kanchenjunga in 1881 comes from George Watt who, on his descent, had his 'good nature severely tried' when three of his men got onto a bridge consisting of a single plank which then gave way under them. He lost his photography equipment, undeveloped photographs and bundles of precious dried specimens of Rhododendrons and Primulas. Watt reports losing at least £100 but, as is fairly typical in such accounts, he does not mention the fate of the men.
To end on a nicer note, a letter from M.O. Muller from Darjeeling in 1871 gives further indication of Sir Joseph's fond recollections of the mountain, as he tells Hooker:
'I have sent your love to Kinchinjunga [Kanchenjunga] by the Deputy Commissioner who has just started his tour but I question much if it will ever reach, however when the wind blows strong from the south I will send a puff in the direction bearing your love.'
'Distant View of Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling' by Marianne North
- You can learn more about Sir Joseph Hooker's travels and see letters, photographs and sketchbooks from the collections at Kew in the current exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery
- 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical trailblazer' by Pat Griggs and published by Kew, contains further information on Hooker's travels along with sketches, illustrations and photographs from the Kew archives
- Visit Marianne North's paintings in the beautifully restored Marianne North Gallery
- View the parts of the Directors' Correspondence that have so far been digitised on the Jstor Plant Science website
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As part of my role as the Library Graduate Trainee here at Kew, I am lucky enough to get a taste of the different jobs in the Library, Art and Archives section. I recently spent a week in the preservation studio learning about the role of Jonathan Farley, the Senior Conservator, and helping him to conserve a pamphlet from the library’s collection, dating back to 1849. The pamphlet was entitled: Buildings and monuments, modern and medieval: being illustrations of the edifices of the nineteenth century..., and includes plans and illustrations relating to Kew. Full details about the pamphlet can be found in the library catalogue.
Paper and patience
My week started off with Jonathan giving me a brief history of the development of paper and books. It was fascinating to hear how the processes and materials used for making paper did not change for thousands of years and how it was only when literacy levels increased in the 18th and 19th centuries that new paper making processes and materials were developed to meet the increasing demand.
Over the week I learned that a conservator has to have patience and also the ability to judge how much conservation a book should receive, as it is not possible to give every item the same amount of resources. A book of great importance to the collection because of its subject matter, author or age will receive more attention due to its significance and consequent interest to library readers.
Conserving the pamphlet
We started the conservation process by thoroughly cleaning the pamphlet's pages. I learned that there are two types of dirt, surface and ingrained, and that you start with the lightest cleaning methods and work towards the more aggressive ones, so avoiding any unnecessary work. At each stage of cleaning the item is assessed to see whether anything further is needed or can be done to improve its condition.
Image (left): the front cover of the pamphlet that Debora helped to conserve after it had been cleaned
Image (right): the pamphlet cover after the two types of Japanese paper had been pasted on to prevent further disintegration
After cleaning the pamphlet we pasted pieces of Japanese tissue paper on both sides of the front and back covers because they were quite fragile and were disintegrating. We then filled in any gaps where the paper had been lost.
After each stage the pamphlet was weighted down between blotting paper in order to allow it to fully dry out before we moved on to the next stage. Once the covers had been repaired we attached paper guards to each page and these were then glued together to form the different sections of the pamphlet. These sections were then sewn together and the outside cover glued on.
Once the pamphlet had dried the edges were trimmed.
The pamphlet Debora helped conserve as it looks now.
I really enjoyed my week in the preservation studio. The pamphlet I helped restore is now back in the library’s collection and is available for readers to use.
The conservators do an amazing job and I hope in my future career to be lucky enough to work in libraries that have conservators to help preserve the collections.
- Learn more about the work of our conservators and find out when they will next be giving a talk at Kew
- Find out more about the Graduate Trainee programme in The Library and Archives
- Search Kew's Library Catalogue
- Browse the Library, Art & Archives web pages
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains many letters written by botanical collectors sent out by Kew to far flung parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The romance of the intrepid explorer
There is a certain romance to the idea of the intrepid explorer striking out into the unknown and collecting all manner of exotic plants and objects. However, some of the letters in our collection reveal that travelling in remote parts of the world was often far from romantic or idyllic, and could sometimes be downright grizzly.
Photo of arrangement of skulls by the Atayal people, from James Davidson's 1903 work 'The Island of Formosa, Past and Present'. This is how he describes the sight: "After exposure to the rain and ravages of insects and rats the trophies are soon reduced to glistening skulls; and to the stranger are the most striking objects"
The challenges of plant hunting
In the past, botanists often wrote back to Kew to inform their colleagues about why they were being prevented from doing their collecting work. Many of the challenges they described were similar to the sort of every day troubles we might encounter on our own modern travels. Money is tight, the transport is poor, the weather is causing delays – sound familiar?
Richard Oldham was frustrated by all of these mundane difficulties whilst collecting for Kew in China, Japan and Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the 19th Century - when these regions had still only relatively recently been opened to foreigners. But he also encountered a more unusual impediment in the form of the amorous practices of the Taiwanese indigenous people.
The perils of headhunting
In a letter to Kew dated 19 March 1864, Oldham explains why he cannot explore the mountains near Tamsuy (now called Tamsui or Danshui):
"As the spring is the season at which the young savages marry, it is yet unsafe to go as they always fight either with other savages, or Chinamen in order to get heads with which to celebrate their marriages, and it is possible they might take particular liking for the heads of foreigners. It will perhaps be safer to go during the summer".
Headhunting, the practice of taking someone's head after killing them, was a ritualistic part of life for most Taiwanese aborigines until the 1930's. In his 1903 account of the island, James Davidson says that the northern tribe, the Atayals, were the most active head hunters. Oldham was also staying in the North and it may have been these people he feared.
At this time, headhunting practices and their significance varied between peoples, but Davidson records that to the Atayals it was a prominent, essential and honourable part of society and served many functions - such as gaining favour with unmarried women, obtaining rank and bringing luck and protection. The heads themselves were kept in the open air on a narrow platform and never removed.
As Valentines Day approaches, we can be glad that our romantic rituals are more likely to involve displays of flowers and candles than dismembered heads.
- Virginia Mills -
- Browse the Library, Art & Archives web pages
- Take a look at some other recent posts in the Library, Art & Archives blog
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence collection and the digitisation project
- Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected by Oldham
- If you have a subscription you can view the Directors' Correspondence content as it goes online at JSTOR plant science
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