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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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Strange articles of trade

By: Virginia Mills - 03 Sep 2010
The letters of 19th century naturalist and botanist, James Motley, in Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive tell the story of his journey through the Singapore Straits to reach Sumatra. Read about his fascinating encounters and observations of island culture.
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Many of the most interesting letters in the Directors' Correspondence collection come from intrepid botanists and collectors who ventured into little-explored areas in the pursuit of plants and artefacts unknown in the West.

One such man was James Motley.  A civil engineer by profession, he worked for mining companies, first in Labuan and later at Banjarmasin, in Borneo, where he died on 1 May 1859 during the massacre of Europeans at Kalangan at the start of the Banjarmasin war.

The sections of Motley's correspendence with Sir William Jackson Hooker that I found most interesting were those regarding the diverse items of trade he encountered on his journey through the Singapore straits to reach Sumatra.  For example, at a fishing settlement called Kasoo, Motley observed:

"Among the strange articles of trade here I saw a basket full of fat white Annelidae [that's worms!] as thick as the thumb and about a foot long, they are formed in the decayed wood of a Rhizophora sp…after it has laid long in the salt water and fetch a good price among the rich Chinese at Singapore, who consider them a rare delicacy".

 Extract from Motley's account of his journey to Sumatra
Extract from Motley's account of his journey to Sumatra, from a letter dated 28th November 1854

Though Motley finds most of the islanders to be engaged in legitimate trade, he expresses concern at stories of their "piratical propensities".  Arriving after dark at a settlement called Sungei Sipagu on the island of Suggi, Motley felt obliged to have his rifle and hunting knife by his side whilst resting on his rattan sleeping mat, as the Suggi people were said to be 'occasional pirates'.  In the morning however he found them engaged not in piracy but in drying agar-agar and pounding dammar resin in preparation for trade.

Agar-agar is a Sargasssum which Motley observed being collected by the women and children of Suggi from a reef  exposed at low tide. Once gathered it is laid out on mats to dry in the sun.  Motley describes it to Hooker but is unable to identify it beyond calling it "an algae".  It is turned into a jelly used to make sweet and savoury dishes.  Already used extensively in China, Motley suggested that it could be successfully exported to Europe in its dried form at an advantage to "the home trade".

Dammar resin is obtained from Dipterocarpaceae, and Motley describes the process by which the powdered resin is made into torches. When very fine it is melted in boiling wood oil and mixed with crumbled rotten wood until it is of a consistency to be formed into batons, these are covered with the leaflets of a stemless palm, Zalacca [Salacca] conferta to form torches with the appearance of gigantic cigars.

On reaching the coast of Sumatra, Motley encountered the 'Orang Laut' or 'Men-of-the-Sea' who spend their entire lives on their boat-homes.  He was impressed to observe their very effective method of fishing which employs a 'balat' - a fishing weir made of bamboo fastened with twisted stems of a Cissus species. Motley was able to obtain a bundle of the fish from the catch by trading with the chief or 'Orang Kaya' who desired, in return, Motley's old pair of trousers, to which he took a great fancy!

 A water bottle, made of a gourd, in a woven carrier

A water bottle, made of a gourd, in a woven carrier. Donated to Kew by James Motley, it would once have been carried by the Dyak tribe from Borneo, where Motley resided.

Many of the items Motley collected, and perhaps traded for, are in Kew's Herbarium and Economic Botany Collection.  They include plants used as medicines, dyes, poisons, perfumes and preservatives, as well as items of clothing and domestic utensils made from plant materials. 

- Ginny -


More Information

  • We don't yet have an online catalogue for the archive but details of many of Kew's catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogue.
  • All of Kew's Latin American Directors' Correspondence is available to view online for those with access to JSTOR plant science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
  • Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected and donated by James Motley.

2 comments on 'Strange articles of trade'

Conserving botanical paintings - upcoming demonstrations in the Marianne North Gallery

By: Rebecca Chisholm - 23 Aug 2010
Read about the work of the Marianne North conservators and how you can come and see a demonstration by the team.
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Conservation at Kew does not stop at plant species and the environment. Kew’s team of paper conservation staff are currently working on the final stages of a two-year project to preserve the paintings lining the walls inside the recently restored Marianne North Gallery. I am part of this team working on the 832 oil paintings on paper to ensure they last long into the future. One of my colleagues, Helen, has also blogged about our work

Alongside our practical work we hold monthly gallery talks in the Marianne North Gallery about how we conserve the paintings. This month we plan to demonstrate the most common practical treatment to help explain how we have been improving the condition of the paintings. I will now go on to describe the treatment and why it is carried out.

Close up of flaking paint

Close up of flaking paint

When they first went on display between 1881 and 1882, the paintings were originally stuck onto low-quality boards to keep them rigid in the frames. Today these boards have become brittle and discoloured from acids transferred from inside the wooden frames. This acidity will have moved through the board and onto the back of the painting which would eventually cause the paper to weaken and the paint to become unstable. The main task in treating a painting is to remove this backing board with care so as not to damage the painted surface on the front.

It is important to consider the nature of the paint and whether it is stable enough to withstand backing removal. This treatment has to be carried out with the painting placed face down so any loose or flaking paint needs to be made secure first using a type of adhesive. During backing removal the painting rests against a cushioned support of felt covered with a smooth polyester film similar to tissue paper to prevent abrasion. Light weights hold the painting in place.

We use surgical scalpels to gradually remove the board taking it down layer by layer. These are precision tools which ensure care and accuracy in direct contact with the painting. The surgical blades range in shape and size depending on the stage within the treatment and the area being removed. Where there is an inscription or drawing on the board we retain it to keep with the painting.

Backing removal using a surgical scalpel

Backing removal using a surgical scalpel

The final layer of board stuck against the back of the painting is known as the facing paper. Deionised water is applied in small amounts using cotton wool to soften the glue and paper layer and allow it to be removed using a small spatula.

Removing the final layer of backing board

Removing the final layer of backing board


Find out more...

If this has intrigued or baffled you and you want to know more, come along to a free drop-in practical demonstration taking place in the Marianne North Gallery from 2.30 - 4pm on Friday 27th August.

We look forward to seeing you there.

- Rebecca -


Further Information

• Find out more about the Marianne North Gallery
• Discover how you can play a part in safeguarding the future of each Marianne North painting
• Read about Marianne North and her links with Kew

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Discover the new Library, Art & Archives Reading Room

By: David Iggulden - 17 Aug 2010
Read about the new Library, Art & Archives Reading Room and how it has transformed services for staff and visitors.
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Kew's Library, Art & Archives (LAA) have now opened a fantastic new Reading Room where both staff and visitors can fully explore the collections within LAA and conduct associated research. The new facility has transformed the services the department is able to offer users and significantly enhanced access to the collections overall. It has already provided the Archives team with their busiest month to date as more and more visitors request to consult items from their collections!


 People reading books in the new reading room

The new Reading Room for staff and visitors


The new circular Reading Room can accommodate up to 40 people at a time for quiet study, with each desk space being fully equipped with a personal light and power for laptop use. A new Enquiry Desk greets users as they enter the area with staff on-hand to help throughout the day. Also within the space are displays of the latest botanical journals, new library acquisitions and a useful reference collection.

As part of this new facility, special stores are also included for the rare treasures which form a significant part of the LAA collections at Kew. This ensures that these items are kept in the most appropriate conditions (restricting temperature, humidity and light) to help conserve these important resources for future generations.

The Reading Room also includes a changing exhibition of some of these rare treasures from the collections. The current display refers to the career of William Bertram Turrill, whose long career at Kew culminated in heading the Herbarium for eleven years until his retirement in 1957. Further information about Turrill and the display will be included in a future post.


People sitting at desks in the new reading room

The Reading Room can accommodate up to 40 people at a time for quiet study


Visiting the Reading Room

The Library, Art & Archives collections at Kew are available for reference to everyone for research. If you wish to visit the Library to consult items from one of the collections, we recommend you make an appointment in advance to ensure that we can accommodate you.

Upon arrival visitors will be offered a locker for their belongings and provided with a clear plastic bag which can be used for essential equipment (such as a laptop) that you wish to take into the Reading Room and use during the visit. Two forms of identification (including one proof of address) are also required when visiting the Library. These basic rules help the department to ensure the security of the collections at all times.

To search the Library Collections, visit the Library's online catalogue. Unfortunately we don’t yet have an online catalogue of our Archives, but details of many of our catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogue and the National Register of Archives. For a description of the Illustrations collections please see: Ward, M. & Flanagan, J. (2003) : Portraying plants - illustrations collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (pdf format 102KB) (Art Libraries Journal v.28, n.3, 22-28).

If you wish to visit the Reading Room please email:, telephone: +44 (0)20 8332 5414 or write to Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, TW9 3AE.

We look forward to welcoming you to our new Reading Room!

- David -


Further Information

1 comment on 'Discover the new Library, Art & Archives Reading Room'

Dr Livingstone, I presume? The Zambesi Expedition 1858-1864

By: Michele Losse - 30 Jul 2010
Read about documents from the Zambesi Expedition in Kew's Archives
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As promised in my last blog posting, I’m going to tell you about our archives relating to the Zambesi Expedition. This post is to give you a taste of what we hold – we hold many more collections relating to Africa.

The Zambesi Expedition (1858-1864) was headed by David Livingstone (1813-1873) with John Kirk (1832-1922), the expedition’s naturalist, and Thomas Baines (1820-1875), the store keeper and artist. The main purpose of the expedition was to extend the knowledge gained on previous expeditions into mineral and agricultural resources of Eastern and Central Africa and also to improve knowledge of the local inhabitants and establish trade links with them. The expedition concentrated on the Zambesi itself as well as its mouths and tributaries, the Shire and the interior.

A page from Kirk's 20 page letter

A page from Kirk's 20 page letter, AEX/2/1 f.7

Kirk was a prolific letter writer and over the expedition wrote regularly to both William Hooker  and Joseph Hooker, Kew’s Directors, with some letters being 20 pages long! The botanical collections that Kirk gathered during the expedition were sent to Kew and the British Museum.

The letters contain invaluable information on the expedition such as logistical problems, encounters with Portuguese slave traders, the geology of the Zambesi valley and surrounding mountains, as well as descriptions of tribes encountered. This was a perilous venture, the Shire was not an easy river to navigate, and Kirk lost some of his specimens when his boat overturned! The local tribes were not always friendly:

We were robbed at night and lost thus both our supply of beads and wearing apparel being reduced to the clothes we happened to be sleeping in. The thieves took all my specimens and undid them but finding that they were nothing of value threw them away but they were almost destroyed by being trodden with the sand.” (AEX/2/1 f 21).

Livingstone and his men found it hard to leave their Victorian values behind and could not help being rather shocked by some of the indigenous people’s behaviour:

We came across a Batoka people quite devoid of the sense of shame going about possibly with a few beads or a fine pipe and a spear but without anything as a covering and when some of them were given a piece of cloth they might tie it round the neck or the head but laughed at the idea of using it as others do, yet they were a kind hospitable race.” (AEX/2/1 f 7).

Map of Lake Nyassa, drawn by Kirk

Map of Lake Nyassa, drawn by Kirk, DC69 f.160c

Although the expedition failed to follow the Zambesi to its source, it did lead to the European discovery of Lake Nyassa (Lake Malawi). Also of major significance were the mapping and surveying of a region previously unknown to most Europeans.

- Michele -


Further Information

If you would like to read more about Livingstone and the Zambesi Expedition, please have a look at the Livingstone on-line project website. We contributed digital copies of our letters to this project.

We don’t yet have an online catalogue of our Archives, but details of many of our catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogues

To find out more about the Archives or details on how to visit us please see our webpages, or e-mail us.

3 comments on 'Dr Livingstone, I presume? The Zambesi Expedition 1858-1864'

A spot of cricket in the Directors' Correspondence archive

By: Katherine Harrington - 21 Jul 2010
Read about a letter from K. S. Ranjitsinhji in the Asian Directors' Correspondence archive. Ranji was an Indian King and is also regarded as one of the best cricket batsmen of the Empire.
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The Directors' Correspondence team, based in the HLAA (Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives), have just started the digitisation of Kew's collection of Asian correspondence. Our project over the next two and a half years is to summarise and scan approximately 12,000 letters dating from the turn of the nineteenth century through to the 1930s.

We are really looking forward to uncovering more tales of botanical discovery and exploration from eminent naturalists and plant collectors in Asia such as William Munro, Henry John Elwes and Frank Kingdon-Ward.

We also enjoy coming across letters from noteworthy persons who are not necessarily famous as botanists or naturalists. On that note, and as we are soon to see England play Pakistan in the Test Series, we were very pleased to find in our first volume of Asian correspondence, a letter from the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, K. S. Ranjitsinhji, known as Ranji to his friends. 

 The England versus Australia team, Trent Bridge, 1899.

The England versus Australia team, Trent Bridge, 1899.
Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, K. S. Ranjitsinhji, is second from left in the middle row.  Image via Wiki Commons.

Ranji was an Indian King and is also regarded as one of the best cricket batsmen of the Empire. He took up the sport during his studies at Cambridge, played county cricket for Sussex, and became one of England's best known test cricketers.

Following his sporting retirement, Ranji returned to Jamnagar in the Indian state of Gujarat to become Maharaja. From here he wrote in 1909 to Sir David Prain, then Director of Kew, asking for advice regarding the planting of 'gum' or Eucalyptus globulus trees to alleviate the problem of malaria.

Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium which is transmitted through the bites of infected mosquitoes. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water and Ranji reported that there was a lot of standing water in his district.  Eucalyptus trees are fast growing and are sometimes used to drain swamps. By removing the stagnant water the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes would be significantly reduced. Ranji also asked Sir Prain if other trees would have the same effect and wondered if perhaps willow might be planted in the shallow water, suggesting in fact Salix alba, the willow from which the cricket bat is made!


Extract of a letter from K.S. Ranjitsinhji to Sir David Prain from Kathiawad, India, 1909

Extract of a letter from K.S. Ranjitsinhji to Sir David Prain from Kathiawad, India, 1909 (DC Vol. 160 f.189).

Malaria continues to be a significant health problem in tropical and subtropical areas with 250 million cases and nearly one million deaths resulting from infection every year. Now there are several anti malarial drugs available and transmission is reduced and prevented using mosquito nets and insect repellents. 

We'll be keeping you updated with more of our finds from the DC in coming weeks so do come back to check out the blog.

- Kat -


Further information

We don't yet have an online catalogue for the archive, but details of many of our catalogued collections are avaliable through the National Archives Catalogue.

  • All of Kew's Latin American Director's Correspondence is avaliable to view online for those with access to the JSTOR Global Plants initative.
  • Learn about the history of Cinchona bark as a treatment for malaria.
  • Did you know Ranji has a cricket competition named in his honour?
  • Find out about Harry Potter's Whomping willow at Kew.

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