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
Did you find what you were looking for?
Before we started contributing to this blog, our team published some of the more interesting finds from the Directors' Correspondence in Kew's staff magazine VISTA. We came across some of these stories recently and thought they were deserving of a wider audience.
This story was originally highlighted by our friend and one-time team member Lindsay Rosener and it describes the unusual phenomenon that one 19th century plant hunter, William Fawcett, encountered during his time as Director of the Public Gardens and Plantations in Jamaica.
In 1887, Fawcett wrote to RBG Kew's Assistant Director Daniel Morris, describing a circular rainbow and Brocken Spectre he observed one afternoon, while walking near Strawberry hill, in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC 210/126].
The "faintly coloured" circular rainbow he witnessed appeared "on the white mist which was driving up the valley". Fawcett measured the sight using his "pencil held with outstretched arm" and his letter to Morris includes a sketch of his impression of the rainbow, along with notes concerning the colour of its rings, which ranged from "yellowish white" to "reddish".
Fawcett's sketch and notes of the circular rainbow he observed while walking in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC210/126].
Fawcett writes that while measuring the rainbow, he noticed that his "black shadow was doing the same, & every gesticulation I made, could be distinctly seen against the white mist." The black shadow in question was a 'Brocken Spectre', 'broken bow' or 'mountain spectre'. This is an optical illusion in which the observer's shadow appears magnified upon the surface of the clouds.
Although Fawcett recognized the shadow as his own, he describes how "awe-inspiring" such a vision would be to someone without such understanding and suspects that contemporary portrayals of small brained giants, such as 'Jack and the Giant Killer', may stem from the shadows' unusual proportions: "The head was small, the eyes being of course in the centre of the circle, but the limbs in proportion to their distances, grew large, & the legs were of an immense length."
A beautiful example of a Brocken Spectre and circular rainbow taken from Stob Dubh in the Scottish Highlands. Photograph reproduced with kind permission from Gordon Anderson, GA Highland Walks.
The Brocken Spectre, first described in 1780 by Johann Silberschlag, derives its name from the 'Brocken' peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The circular rainbow observed by Fawcett is often seen in conjunction with the Spectre and is referred to as a 'glory'.
As is the case with many strange phenomena, the sighting of a Brocken Spectre was once thought to be a bad omen: possibly because one poor climber was said to have been so startled at the sight of this weird giant in the clouds that he stumbled and fell to his death! Thankfully, Fawcett – a man of Science – was well enough informed not to suffer the same fate.
- Helen -
- Fawcett's letters to RBG Kew can be viewed online on the JSTOR Plant science website
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3 comments on 'Brocken Spectres and Circular Rainbows'
There can be few things more terrifying than a tiger attack and when faced with such a situation, you would surely thank your lucky stars if you lived to tell the tale. A European assistant working at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Calcutta [Kolkata] in 1879, named Adolph Biermann, experienced just such an encounter and the incident is described in two separate letters in the Directors' Correspondence.
Tiger on the loose!
The first letter is from Sir George King to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, and he gives his first-hand account of how the tiger escaped from the personal menagerie of the former King of Oudh[Awadh], in which he saw it swim across the river and enter the Gardens. He himself went unnoticed but approximately 15 minutes later the tiger encountered the unfortunate Biermann. At the time of King's writing, Biermann was recovering from the attack but it was acknowledged that he had narrowly escaped with his life. It is worth noting that King relates the news of the incident in the context of his lately being very busy due to a lack of helping hands!
Sir George King, Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta
The attack is also related by George Alexander Gammie in a letter to a Mr Smith. Gammie seems somewhat more sympathetic than King, stating Biermann to be 'most unfortunate' and having had 'a very narrow shave of his life'. He also goes into rather more gruesome detail about the attack itself, describing the way in which a fair part of Biermann's scalp was torn off and the skull underneath exposed, amongst other injuries. Gammie goes on to say that Biermann was leaving for Europe on sick leave a little later in the year.
An excerpt from Gammie's letter describing the attack
It is always interesting to see how an event is recounted from different perspectives, and these letters serve as an example of one of the reasons the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project is such a fascinating one. I have only been working as part of the team since March, but have already come across some very interesting material in amongst the specimen despatch notes and requests for seeds and suchlike. Such items highlight the importance of these letters from a historical perspective, as well as a botanical one. This unfortunate encounter between a naturalist and a tiger is one such example; giving an insight, however subtle, into the priorities and viewpoints of the authors as they depict the same subject matter in different ways.
Stripes in the news
A further account of the attack can be found in a local newspaper report of the time, which goes into great detail with regards to the nature of the tiger's escape, its movements and encounters with other people, the efforts to contain and destroy it and its subsequent death by the gun of a Mr Wace. The tiger, one of two that escaped and referred to in the article as 'Stripes', also attacked others before being shot, including one hunter who was not expected to survive his injuries. The reporter claims the escape was the result of 'a keeper having incautiously left the door of their cage open while cleaning it'. Of course one can speculate on the wisdom of personally keeping a wild animal such as a tiger as something of a pet! The article's narrative is fairly dramatic and suspenseful and provides another angle on the incident in addition to the anecdotal evidence of the letters.
Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, first Scientific Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, also had a captive tiger, pictured above. Her name was Janet.
Biermann himself, though he survived, did not live to tell the tale of his encounter for very long, as he contracted cholera and died the following year. But thanks to this archive material, we have some very interesting evidence of a quite unexpected and very unfortunate event.
0 comments on 'Gardeners and tigers and scares, oh my!'
Historic Royal Connections
Kew’s royal connections extend back to the early 18th century when King George II and his son Prince Frederick began to develop two separate estates which were later joined to create the Royal Botanic Gardens we know today.
Kew and the Queen
Since her coronation, Her Majesty the Queen has visited the gardens on many occasions for both public and private events. She helped Kew to celebrate its bicentenary in 1959 by planting a walnut tree (Juglans regia), and Kew Palace hosted her 80th birthday celebration in 2006.
Queen Elizabeth celebrating Kew’s bicentenary in 1959
Her other visits have included opening the Queen’s Garden and a new Herbarium wing containing the Library in 1969. In 1982, she reopened the Temperate House, which had been under restoration for five years, and visited the Marianne North Gallery. In 2004, in recognition of Kew’s UNESCO World Heritage status, the Queen unveiled a plaque in the Nash Conservatory.
The Queen signing the Director’s Visitor Book in 1982
The Queen’s Beasts
Have you ever wondered why ten stone beasts stand guarding the Palm House? They are actually replicas of the heraldic figures representing the Queen’s ancestors which were placed outside Westminster Abbey on the day of her coronation. They help to reinforce Kew’s royal identity.
The Queen’s Beasts
So as part of your Jubilee celebrations, why not visit the Library Reading Room from the 31 May to learn more about the Queen’s relationship with Kew and to see some of the fascinating books, archives and illustrations that are on display.
- Deborah and Stephanie -
0 comments on 'Jubilee celebrations'
On Monday 14 May 2012 we were the excited recipients of the sculptures by David Nash, which are to be on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art as part of David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery which opens at Kew on 9 June 2012.
The sculptures will be exhibited in the Gallery alongside some of his two dimensional works and films associated with the sculptures themselves, while more of his sculptures will be placed within the wider Gardens, including some situated in the Temperate House.
The sculptures started arriving at the gallery at 9.30am after they were brought down from David Nash’s studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales
The sculptures needed to be transported to the Gallery using machinery
The sculptures were all individually wrapped and transported through the gardens on forklift trucks and tractors. Many of David Nash’s two dimensional works for the Gallery had arrived the week before, so for the first time we began to see the sculptures alongside the new drawings that Nash has completed during his time at Kew so far.
The two dimensional works were already in the gallery so the space was ready to receive the sculptures
It took until lunchtime for all the sculptures to come into the Gallery. They were brought in one by one on bases or inside frames using trolleys. The reception area was filled with about half a dozen sculptures while some were taken straight into the space.
The Gallery reception area
They were then placed inside the Gallery and unwrapped by Nash and the team. Some of the 2D works were also being unwrapped alongside the sculptures and the relationship between the drawings and sculptures began to emerge.
The 'Two Ubus' being raised to an upright position
David Nash placing the 'Two Ubus' so the cross as the top
The works by David Nash being exhibited in the Gallery all vary in size and shape, with a couple of sculptures comprising more than one element. All the works are of wood, and untreated, apart from a small number which have been burnt to achieve a blackened appearance, a characteristic feature of much of Nash’s work.
'Incised Pyramid Sphere and Cube' seen through 'Two Ubus'
The Gallery reception area will display 'Family Tree' and 'Palm Egg'
The final placing of the sculptures and the hanging of the two dimensional work took a few more days, along with the installation of the two films that will be running in the gallery. It has been an exciting but very different few days in the Gallery with plenty to do working alongside David Nash and the team.
David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery will open on 9 June 2012 at Kew Gardens. In the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, David Nash’s work will be displayed alongside the exhibition Portraits of Leaves and Fungi – paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection until April 2013.
- Joanne -
- David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery
- Portraits of Leaves and Fungi - paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection
- Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
0 comments on 'David Nash sculptures arrive in the Gallery'
As part of my traineeship in the archives here at Kew, I have been learning how to catalogue the archive’s collections to internationally recognised standards. Cataloguing collections makes them more accessible to users, because we have a detailed record of what each collection contains. I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know some of Kew’s collections better, which allows me to provide a more informed service for readers. Recently I have catalogued the papers of two botanists – William Price and Arthur Pearson. Read on to find out more about these two individuals, and about some of the challenges I faced when cataloguing their papers.
William Price papers
William Robert Price (1886-1975) studied Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on to work in the Herbarium at Kew. Here he met Henry John Elwes, and the two of them travelled to Formosa (now Taiwan) in 1912 to collect plant specimens for the Herbarium.
Price's photo of Kew's Herbarium (archive ref: PRI/2/2)
Price’s papers consist of a diary and collecting lists relating to his Formosa trip, and two autobiographical works about his life and career. These autobiographies contain pictures of the Herbarium at Kew as it was in Price’s day, as well as photographs of the places he visited on his travels. Price really was an excellent and amusing story teller, and his works are a joy to read. I particularly enjoyed his anecdotes about his work in the Herbarium and the individuals he worked with. The story of how Price came to work in the Herbarium at Kew is told with particular humour:
'I presented myself one day in November 1909 at Mr. Hill’s (then the Assistant Director of Kew) office, with an urgent request to him : “Can I be an Assistant at the Herbarium?”. His answer was: “No”, and I went home very cross. But I persisted and returned with the same request and received the same answer, returning home crosser! However, either because Mr. Hill couldn’t think of any other way of getting rid of me, or because he was a kind man... I received soon after a charming letter... offering me the job of Temporary Assistant at £1 a week.'
Arthur Pearson papers
One of Pearson's notebooks listing the fungal forays of the British Mycological Society (PEA/2/1)
Arthur Anselm Pearson (1874-1954) was an amateur, but highly respected, mycologist (someone who studies fungi) who was actively involved with the British Mycological Society and attended many of their forays (trips to collect and record fungi). The British Mycological Society still exists today, and I found their website very useful whilst cataloguing Pearson’s papers. It helped me to learn more about mycology (a topic I was previously unfamiliar with!) and the society that was such an important part of Pearson’s life. I also talked to mycologist colleagues at Kew to help me understand the content of Pearson’s correspondence and mycological notes. Hopefully these papers will prove useful to anybody interested in the history of fungal recording and the British Mycological Society.
Can you help? A bit of a mystery...
Whilst I was looking through Pearson’s papers I noticed that some of the correspondence was not in fact Pearson’s at all, but comprised letters from various individuals to a man named W. D. Buckley. The content of the letters indicated that Buckley, like Pearson, was a mycologist. Very little is known about W. D. Buckley here at Kew, so if anybody out there has any information at all about his life or career, we would love to hear from you!
- Contact the Archives team
- Search the Archive Catalogue
- Learn more about the Archive Collections of other plant collectors held at Kew
- Come and see us
0 comments on 'Formosa and Mycology... Cataloguing Kew's Archives'
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.
- 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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