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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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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Visitors enjoying the sunshine outside the Orangery, which was a wood museum at this time
Over the last year, Lynn Parker, our Assistant Illustrations Curator, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on a book showcasing over 250 rare and remarkable black and white photographs from across our collections. Having spent some time searching through boxes in our stores, we found a number of photos, each revealing their own story – images of a man with a penguin in the Gardens, land girls in clogs and women harvesting beetles from cacti in Antigua. Never before has the history of Kew been told through its photographic collections and so it was decided that this would provide a good opportunity for a publication, as well as a chance to promote parts of our collections never previously seen.
Woman spinning cotton in India
The story begins in the 1840s, with our earliest photographs (daguerreotypes), which are of the Palm House being built. We look at the building projects under the Hookers and how they formed Kew, Victorian Kew’s imperial inks, drawing on images of plant products and other botanic gardens around the world and life in the field for plant hunters. We then return back to Kew, to explore behind the scenes and the untold stories of staff, our long history of welcoming visitors and the visitor attractions around the Gardens, wartime Kew and finally the emergence of the Kew we know today, in the period 1940s-1970s. Images of giant plants and seeds, Edwardian visitors enjoying the scenery, unknown corners of the Gardens and key personalities can all be found in the book.
Staff working in the Tropical Pits
Through working on the project, Lynn and I found that we learned a great deal about the history of Kew, as well as discovering previously unknown images. If you appear in the images yourself or can provide us with any further information, we would love to hear from you! Please contact us at email@example.com.
Without the generosity and photographic skills of many of our previous members of staff and visitors, this book would not have been possible. If you have any images of the Gardens that you are happy to share with us, particularly images from pre-1970, you can upload your photos to our Flickr group, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Win postcards of historic images
To celebrate the publication, postcards are being given away daily via our twitter feed – All you need to do is follow us @KewDC and retweet.
Buy a copy of the book
The Story of Kew Gardens In Photographs can be purchased for £15 from Kew’s online shop
- Kew Publishing
- Arcturus Publishing (our joint publishers)
- Kew's Image Library
- Read a press release about the book
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To commemorate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death, we have a new small display in the Wolfson Rare Books Room prepared by this year’s Library and Archive Graduate Trainees. Showcasing material held in Kew’s collections, the display charts the long relationship between the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, providing a view of this distinguished and hard working self-taught naturalist.
Portrait of Wallace from Kew's Art collections
Alfred Russel Wallace was born 8th January 1823, and eventually become apprenticed to his brother as a surveyor. Whist working as a drawing master at the Collegiate School in Leicester, he befriended noted entomologist Henry Walter Bates . They later exchanged letters, discussing the works of travelling naturalists, and developing a desire to make their own journey of exploration.
Deciding on the Amazon as a destination and carrying a letter of introduction from William Hooker, Wallace and Bates set out to explore the area. After parting ways with Bates in 1849, Wallace’s expedition from 1848-1852 allowed him to amass a large collection of material, assisted at times by botanist Richard Spruce. A shipwreck whilst on the return journey home destroyed all of it, save a few small items. Upon his return, Wallace spent two years recovering from the ordeal before leaving for another expedition to the Malay Archipelago. While there, he independently came up with the idea of natural selection, providing a mechanism for evolution, giving him an equal standing with the other author of the theory, Charles Darwin.
To mark the centenary of his death in 1913, we have created a display to detail the connection between Kew and Alfred Russel Wallace. The collection Kew holds of Wallace material, covering a period of 65 years, spans the leadership of four of Kew’s earliest directors. Wallace was a constant visitor to the Gardens and even corresponded with Kew for help in developing his own garden, once he had settled back in England. Whilst on his expeditions, Wallace sent many botanical specimens to Kew, including some from the Amazon, which were dispatched prior to Wallace’s return to England.
Kew's display, showing one of the fern specimens collected in Borneo
We hope you can find the time to come visit us in the Library and have a look at our display, which is on until the 20 May 2013. The display includes rare letters and publications, photographs, plant artefacts and specimens, including one of the few surviving Amazon specimens. The Library is based in the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives building on Kew Green. Entry is free and we are open Monday-Friday, 09.00-17.00. Afterwards, should you wish to know more, Kew holds a number of his publications and 135 letters from Wallace to Kew in its Library and Archive collections. The letters were sent along with many botanical specimens, which are now held in the Herbarium. Some objects are also held in Kew’s Economic Botany collections.
Some of the publications in the display
This display joins many others as part of the Wallace100 events being run this year in association with a number of other organisations. An events calendar can be found on the Natural History Museum’s Wallace page.
Letter, portraits and publications in the display
- Marc -
- Read the blog post by Kew's palm expert, Bill Baker, on Wallace to find out more about a culinary connection between botanists past and present
- For further information on Wallace, visit the Alfred Russel Wallace website
- To discover further Wallace-related events, visit the Natural History Museum's Wallace100 pages
- For further information about Kew's LAA collections, or the display, email us at email@example.com
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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.
- Archives team
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
Brocken Spectres and Circular Rainbows: Hello Peggy! It's always nice to hear from the descendents of people who played an important part i ... by: Helen Hartley
Brocken Spectres and Circular Rainbows: I am a direct descendant of Sir Daniel Morris. My paternal grandmother was Ruth Morris, one of three ... by: Peggy Farrington
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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