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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About Augustine Henry
The Directors' Correspondence team has recently digitised over 100 letters from the botanist Augustine Henry (1857-1930). Henry typifies a certain category of correspondent that we often come across in the collection: men who are sent out to unfamiliar lands in some official capacity, be it military, governmental, engineering, surveying etc. who find themselves amongst strange new flora and so develop an interest in botany and plant collecting.
Henry originally became interested in the sources of medicinal plants passing through his customs house in Yichang, China. Botany was a leisure activity for him but through his letters we can trace his development from amateur enthusiast to botanical heavyweight who, with the help of local officials and native collectors, amassed a collection of over 150,000 specimens representing 6000 species. Some 1700 of these were new to science and some are named after him.
Henry's first letter to Kew, dated 1885.
Writing from Yichang, Henry tells Kew's Director Joseph Hooker that: "a good number of medicines are grown about here, and there seems to be a fair number of interesting plants. As this part of China is not very well known to botanists...interesting specimens might be obtained." [archive ref: 151/578]
Documenting plant uses
As research material, Henry's letters are interesting as firsthand accounts of the plant hunting adventures of a prolific collector venturing into largely unexplored territory. But they also open a door to research within other Kew collections.
Henry sent seeds and specimens to Kew and many of those mentioned in his letters can be found in the Herbarium collections. As we were reading through the letters, however, we also came across numerous references to other material Henry was sending to Kew: items relating to commercially significant plants and the ways in which local people made use of them in their everyday lives.
Searching for such items in Kew's Economic Botany collection catalogue we found that many of the things Henry describes in his letters are still part of the Economic Botany collection. For example Henry writes of a "Morus sp. a wild Mulberry, the root bark of which produces a most excellent strong fibre, which is woven into cloth: & made into handsome game bags" [archive ref: 151/665-670]. Henry sent specimens of the bark, the fibre and the cloth made from it as well as one of the game bags he admired, so we can actually see the progression from raw material to useful product.
With the help of Collection Curator Mark Nesbitt we also found tools Henry sent which were used by the indigenous people to harvest a varnish from the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum); a knife to incise the bark, spouts to tap the varnish and mussel shells to collect it.
Tools used to collect sap from the 'Chinese lacquer' or 'varnish' tree', sent to Kew by Henry and now part of the Economic Botany Collection
Reuniting letters with their objects
It was our desire to bring together these items and the original letters that inspired us to put on a display where they could be seen side by side. The roots of Coptis teeta (a traditional Chinese medicine) that Henry sent to Kew stored in tiny woven baskets can now be seen alongside his letter describing the traditional method of cultivating the plant:
"A rude staging about 400ft x 400 feet is erected on the mountain side, (6000 to 9000 ft alt.) composed of trunks and branches of trees driven into the ground about 4ft high & across the tops of these poles other branches are laid horizontally – so that the sun will only glimmer on the plants growing beneath - After 8 years growth the root is large enough and is then dug up and exported to all parts of China." [archive ref: 151/624-625]
You can also see the game bag and a pair of traditional Taiwanese sandals which Henry sent back to Kew in the Plants and People exhibition in Museum No.1. The sandals are made of fibres obtained from an Alpinia species.
Having chosen examples of useful and commercial plants from the Economic Botany collection we set about looking for more varied material. Henry was also a linguist and writes in his letters about the language of the 'Lolo' or Yi people:
"The composition of words is ingeniously simple. A gun is 'fire-kit', gunpowder is 'fire-rice', a snare is a 'take-get', a bucket is '2 ears projecting', lightening is 'the sky winks'." [DC 151/725-730]
In Kew's archive we found Dictionaries of Chinese characters compiled by Henry as well as extremely long plant lists detailing the species he had collected and recording their various local names as well as scientific ones.
Final touches to the display
To bring some colour to the display the Illustrations team helped us to find beautiful figures of some of the plants Henry and his local collectors had gathered. We chose to display two, which also bear the name of their discoverer: Lilium henryi and Rhododendron augustinii.
Part of Augustine Henry display - book containing an illustration of Lilium henryii alongside a letter about Coptis teeta and some samples of the roots
This display shows the research trails which are being opened by the digitisation of the DC and how they allow one to follow in the footsteps of plant-hunters-past as well as leading into explorations of the other diverse collections at Kew.
The library is open to bona fide researchers by appointment. A written application to visit is usually required. See here for full details about visiting the Library. The digitised Augustine Henry letters will soon be available to view online at the JSTOR Plant Science website.
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In October 2011, I attended a five day oral history conference in Denver, Colorado, USA. My reasons for going were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how things were done on the other side of the Atlantic. Academics in American universities have recognised the value of oral history to such an extent that it has become a widely available academic subject there. In Europe, it still has its sceptics, although it is becoming more widely respected here. My other reason for wishing to go was to further my skills and information base for my current project, ‘Hidden Memories’, which involves interviewing retired members of staff here at Kew.
Extract of an interview from Kew's oral history project
Oral History Association
The conference was organised by the Oral History Association. Speakers came from all over the United States and the rest of the world. The programme was themed around the topic 'Memories of Conflict and Disaster: Oral History and the Politics of Truth, Trauma, and Reconciliation', and offered space for a variety of oral history subjects. Workshops provided attendees with professional development options for every level of oral historian. Topics ranged from an introduction to the field of oral history, to learning about new technologies in publishing and how to apply the law to an oral history collection.
Social evening and film show
On the social side, Wednesday night consisted of a lively evening of short films, digital stories, poetry and previews with a special bourbon tasting sponsored by the Buffalo Trace Distillery! A number of oral history films were shown. ‘Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery', provided an insider’s look at life in the distillery and how world-class bourbon is made. ‘Mosaic: Voices of Women’s Suffrage’, was a filmed version of a play featuring the accomplishments of three American suffragists, in which a conversation is imagined comparing their experiences from the 1860s until 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed granting women the right to vote. The last film shown was ‘Packed: A Film About Fire, People, and Possessions’ about a fire in the Colorado mountains in 2010. It included interviews with the evacuees, in which they explained what they had chosen to take with them, not knowing if the possessions left behind would survive the massive blaze.
A selection of items from Kew's oral history collection
‘Scientists in Difficult Times’
On the Friday afternoon, I chaired a panel entitled ‘Scientists in Difficult Times’ and also presented a paper about the oral history project at Kew ‘Hidden Memories’ with three other colleagues. Rob Perks from the British Library presented ‘Life Stories and the Audio-Video Debate: The Oral History of British Science at the British Library', Dr Peggy Dillon, from Salem State University talked about ‘Preparing for the Scientific Interview’, and Ronald E. Doel from the Smithsonian Institute spoke on ‘Documenting a Research Institution: The Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History and Video History Collections'.
It was an extremely interesting conference and I made some very useful contacts from all over the world, learnt about new techniques and ideas, and exchanged tips and information with other oral historians.
- UK Oral History Society
- American Oral History Society
- Oral History Discussion Network
- To find out more about Kew's oral history project, contact the Archives
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Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to travel to India, China or South America over 100 years ago? What you might have eaten? How you might have travelled? And where you would have slept? Kew’s Archives are full of letters, notebooks and other forms of documentation which can help us to understand what daily life really was like for the adventurers of the past.
The travels of Charles Wilford
Charles Wilford's bill for goods purchased from SW Silver & Co (Archive ref: KCL/13/1)
Some 19th century travellers appear, by modern standards, to have travelled in extravagant style. The Archives contain documents relating to a number of expeditions organised by Kew to collect plant specimens from abroad. One of these expeditions to Japan and China was undertaken by Charles Wilford between 1857 and 1860, and the documents relating to it include an invoice from S. W. Silver & Co., a company who supplied clothing and equipment to travellers. The invoice includes items such as:
- 1 x Best Hair Mattress and Pillow (we are unsure what 'best' means)
- 1 x Enamel Basin
- 2 x German Silver tea spoons
Invoices such as this paint a vivid picture of the style in which collectors like Wilford might have lived whilst they were travelling.
The travels of Francis Kingdon-Ward
Other explorers also clearly enjoyed home comforts on their travels. The papers of Francis Kingdon-Ward, who traveled throughout south-eastern Asia in the first half of the 20th century, include a bill from Fortnum & Mason’s export department for goods sent to Kingdon-Ward for an expedition to India. The bill includes:
- 12 x tins Heinz Baked Beans
- 6 x bottles HP Sauce
- 4 x 10 lb tins Cadbury’s Mexican Chocolate
- 1 x Abyssinian Table [This appears to have been a type of table used for playing bridge!]
Kingdon-Ward continued to travel into the 1950s and, remarkably, the archive contains a collection of material samples sent to Kingdon-Ward for possible use in a tent he was having specially made for an expedition in 1952. It is a rare treat to be able to touch and so closely examine the types of materials used to make the equipment employed by travellers at this time.
Samples of material for Kingdon-Ward's tent (Archive ref: FKW/2/24)
The travels of Charles Darwin
Some explorers, on the other hand, appear to have embraced the native lifestyle in the places to which they travelled. A notable such example would be Charles Darwin . The Archives hold 44 letters which Darwin wrote to his tutor Rev. John Stevens Henslow, who was Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. In one of these letters , written from Montevideo in Uruguay and dated November 12th 1833, Darwin describes how he travelled on horseback from Rio Negro to Buenos Aires. Darwin writes:
“I am quite charmed with the Gaucho life: my luggage consisted of a Hammer Pistol & shirt & the Recado (saddle) makes the bed: Wherever the horses tire, there is your house & home.”
Excerpt of a letter from Darwin to Henslow, 12 Nov 1833 (Archive ref: DAR/1/1/20)
- Steph -
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I’m Kiri, the head archivist, and thought I would let you know about some events that we are holding in January, which will offer you the unique chance to see inside our Archives! As part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign, join me and the other archive staff in our reading room to hear botanists’ and plant hunters’ stories about their travels and cultural encounters.
Photograph from an album in the Ridley collection (archive ref: HNR/1/4)
You will be able to see original documents relating to figures such as Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and John Kirk and hear about their work. The events will also include a behind-the-scenes tour of our Archives and a chance to see some of our treasures. We are holding three sessions and although the first on the 20 January is already fully booked, we still have places available on the 26 and 28 January sessions.
- Thursday 26 January 18.00 - 19.30
- Saturday 28 January 11.00 - 12.30
The events are free and open to all, but places are limited and booking is essential.
To book a place, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A passion for painting
The Illustrations Collection has recently acquired a large group of watercolours of mycological (fungi) specimens by Ray Cowell.
Ray was born in Hampstead and educated in Cambridge, and after leaving school worked in The Veterinary Physiology Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. In 1957 she married Eric Cowell, a botanist, and they began a life together that was periodically nomadic. During their travels Ray became passionate about painting the people and landscapes around her. A self-taught artist who always worked from life, she painted her first fungi in 1973 whilst on holiday in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest, and using a technique based on ‘gouache’, her passion for botanical illustration was galvanized.
Ray Cowell at work on one of her illustrations
Ray used acid-free, grey paper, and would begin by sketching the outline of the fungus, filling it in with Chinese White, which would serve to heighten the colour. Colours were always mixed using primaries that she later added using fine brushes. This facilitated her minutely observed, meticulous, technique. She painted her fungi actual size using fresh specimens, and liked to incorporate the blemishes or damage that she found on the material, such as teeth marks from rodents, because she believed that this might hold some significance.
Amanita echinocephala, gouache on paper. This specimen was painted on the site of a beech plantation in Cambridgeshire, October 1987.
Amanita echinocephala (syn. Amanita solitaria) grows on dry chalky soils, alongside birch and sometimes in beech woods. With an unpleasant smell and taste, this fungus emerges at the beginning of autumn.
Fame around the world
Ray worked in the UK, Holland, Romania, The United States, and in Australia where she was commissioned to paint for Flora Australiensis. She went on to contribute text and illustrations to publications such as The New Scientist, Natura, and Ca M’Interesse. Exhibiting around the world, her work may be found in collections as far afield as Europe, North America and Australia. But Ray wanted to share her skills and enthusiasm with others, and established several fungal illustration courses including one at Royal Holloway College. She was a mentor to others, including Kate Syme - an Australian who secured a scholarship to study with Ray, and is now a celebrated painter of Australian fungi.
Amanita muscaria, gouache on paper, painted on the Cambridgshire-Suffolk border, September 1982.
If you were asked to think of a toadstool, it would invariably be an image of Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. This red, white spotted fungus, archetypal of fairy stories, and historically associated with ‘faery folk’, is poisonous and an emetic, as well as a powerful hallucinogen.
From painting to poetry
Sadly, in later life, Ray Cowell suffered from ME and Lupus, becoming severely disabled, and as her health worsened, she was unable to produce the detail she required for her paintings, and she turned her creative ability to writing poetry. She died on 24 October 2010.
Boletus edulis, gouache on paper, painted in an area between Harling Drove, Norfolk and Wicken, Cambridgshire, November 1978.
Boletus edulis grows widely across the Northern Hemisphere in a mutualistic association with coniferous and broadleaved species. The fungus envelops the roots of the trees, exchanging otherwise hard-to-access nutrients from the soil for sugar produced by the plants through photosynthesis. Commonly known in English-speaking countries as the cep, penny bun, porcini, or sometimes King Bolete, this edible mushroom's flavour is concentrated after drying, making it a versatile, highly prized gourmet ingredient used extensively in many cuisines.
You can find out more about the cep mushroom in Dentinger, B.T. et al. (2010) Molecular phylogenetics of porcini mushrooms (Boletus section Boletus). Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 57(3): 1276-1292.
Kew’s Illustrations Collection continues to grow with purchases made through its modest acquisitions budget and through bequests and the sponsorship of artworks. If you have any queries about the Illustrations Collection please contact the team at email@example.com.
- Lynn -
- Find out more about Kew's Illustrations Collection
- Discover Kew's Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
- Give now - help Kew look after art and heritage
- Discover Kew's Library, Art and Archives collections
- Find out more about fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)
- Learn more about fungi
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Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
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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Discovering David Douglas through the Directors' Correspondence: My husband Ken and I take tours around Mauna Kea, the vast volcano on the island of Hawaii, on Mana ... by: Maile Melrose
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