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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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Suffragettes at Kew

By: Miriam Hopkinson - 08 Nov 2013
Miriam, the new Archives Graduate Trainee, discovers more about the suffragette attacks at Kew 100 years ago.
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About me

Hi, I’m Miriam, the new Archives Graduate Trainee at Kew. Before starting here, I completed an undergraduate degree in History & Anthropology at Goldsmiths College. I also worked and volunteered at a few different archives alongside my studies in order to gain experience in the sector.

These included doing a university work placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, completing a cataloguing project at the British Red Cross archive, working on a digitisation project at the Women’s Library, and sorting materials at the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive. I’m really enjoying my new role so far, and I love learning all about the history of Kew.

Photo of Miriam Hopkinson

Photo of me in the Archive Store

During my recent Kew induction tour I was intrigued to find out that in 1913 suffragettes attacked the orchid house at Kew, and then, twelve days later, burnt down the tea pavilion. I was keen to learn more about these events and so I delved into the archives to find some answers.

Damage to Orchid House 'slight'

On the 8 February 1913, a night stoker on his usual round of checks at 4am discovered that some panes of glass in the Orchid House had been smashed, and some of the plants destroyed. The perpetrators were never discovered, but ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets had been left at the scene. Interestingly, in a report of the damage, Kew's Director, Sir David Prain, confesses that:

“The damage done is trifling compared with what it might have been, but I trust that this fact may be carefully concealed from the public and especially from the newspapers lest its publications provoke another attempt.” ( RGBK Metropolitan Police Correspondence 1845-1920, ff.150-151)

As a result, newspapers reporting the attacks seem to overstate the extent of the damage:

Newspaper cuttings about the suffragette attack

RGBK Metropolitan Police Correspondence 1845-1920, ff.157-161

Some individuals also wrote to Kew's Director, having read of the attacks in the newspapers, and 'helpfully' provided suggestions on how to deal with the suffragettes. For example, Mr John C. Willis of Jardim Botanico, Rio de Janeiro, suggests bringing back the ducking stool!

Image of letter DC 217 f150

DC217 folio 150

While Mr W. Popplewell-Bloxam of Kensington asks, “Is there not a blood-sucking orchid which after attracting its victims renders them [insensible] by an exhalation + then fastens its tentacles on their blood vessels!!” 

Image of letter DC 159 f6

DC 159 folio 6

Suffragettes defiant over Tea Pavilion arson

Twelve days after the Orchid House attack, the Tea Pavilion at Kew was burnt down.

Photo of the burnt down tea pavilion

This time, two women were caught fleeing the scene. At trial, Olive Wharry and Lillian Lenton were found guilty of the arson and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Kew holds no records about the women themselves, or their reasons for targeting Kew, but hints to their motive can be found in the Old Bailey court proceedings, during which Wharry said that she believed the pavilion belonged to the government.

While in court, Wharry also stated that morally she was not guilty, and would not submit to punishment. Once behind bars, the pair immediately went on hunger strike and Wharry's prison scrapbook - held at the British Library - reveals that she went 32 days without eating before being released.

During my time at Kew I look forward to discovering many other stories about the history of the organisation. If you would like to find out more, why not visit the Library, Art and Archives Reading Room?



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History of art in the Directors' Correspondence: the painting of an iconic Kew image

By: Helen Hartley - 30 Oct 2013
Spiridione Gambardella's portrait of Sir William Jackson Hooker is an iconic image of the great man - but how did this painting come about? Letters in the Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection shed some light on the process.
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An Iconic Image

When I started on the Directors' Correspondence (DC) digitisation project, I was given an A4 sheet containing the names, dates and pictures of the first five Directors of Kew. The tiny black and white thumbnail image of Kew's first Director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, above my desk is a facsimile of a portrait by the artist Spiridione Gambardella.  The original oil painting hangs in the meeting room of the Linnean Society of London. It is a congenial image of the great man and one that I have become very familiar with over the years.

Portrait of Sir William Jackson Hooker by S. Gambardella at the Linnean Society of London

Sir William Jackson Hooker: Oil on Canvas painted by Spiridione Gambardella. Digital image reproduced with kind permission of The Linnean Society of London.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I came across a number of letters in the DC collection discussing the artist Gambardella and his painting of this very portrait. The references were uncovered in the letters of Francis Boott, an American physician and botanist who lived and worked in London.  We have digitised around 200 letters from Boott, a man who was well-connected socially and who took the aspiring young artist, Gambardella, under his wing. The first mention of Gambardella is in a letter from Boott to Sir William, dated 3 Nov 1842:

Photo of a handwritten letter from Francis Boott mentioning Gambardella

 "My friend Gambardella has promised me to paint your Portrait at Kew. I wish to save you all possible trouble. Will you admit him to your house & tell me what hours would suit you best?...I am much interested in him - He has noble aspirations - If you will tell me what your wishes are as to time I will at once make arrangements with him - sooner the better."  [Archive ref: DC 63 f.42]

Sir William was obviously keen to accept the offer: only four days later Boott wrote again, thanking Hooker for his kind permission to receive Gambardella [Archive ref: DC 63 f.39].  The artist visited Hooker the following day, Boott informing Hooker – in a letter of introduction – that Gambardella "will prefer the morning light, & perhaps daily visits". [Archive ref: DC 63 f.38].

It took Gambardella 8 months to finish the portrait: he left London for Liverpool around 16 July 1843, begging Boott to send the copy of his portrait to Hooker with his love. Boott placed the original in the Linnean Society.

 Photo of a handwritten letter from Francis Boott regarding portraits for Hooker and the Linnean Society

 Extract of a letter from Francis Boott informing Hooker that Gambardella sent him a copy of the portrait for Hooker [Archive ref: DC 63 f.55

Meeting Sir William face-to-face

I contacted Julia Buckley from our Illustrations team at Kew to ask about Hooker's copy of the painting.  Julia very kindly suggested I go along and take a look at it: it was much smaller than I'd imagined, less than half the size of the Linnean portrait.  Nonetheless, it was fascinating to be able to see the portrait that had been discussed in the letters.

Photo of Helen holding Kew's copy of Gambardella's oil of Sir William

I had the pleasure of seeing Sir William's copy of Gambardella's oil painting of Sir William in Kew's collection

On the back of the small Kew painting is a hand-written label which states: "From this portrait, the likeness in the Linnean Society was made".  Looking at digital images of the two portraits side by side it is clear that this is the case: the Linnean Society portrait has a much 'finer' finish, with the artist adding detail to the background and to Sir William's clothes.  Sir William's face in the Linnean portrait also has a more 'air-brushed' quality to it.

A comparison of the Kew (left) and Linnean (right) portraits of Sir William by Gambardella

Comparing digital images of the Kew 'copy' (left) and the Linnean image (right) of Sir William by Gambardella.

A Short Biography of Gambardella

In addition to providing a glimpse into how the artist worked, Boott's correspondence contains a short biography of Gambardella.  By way of a 'reference', Boott informed Hooker that the artist was a native of Corfu, born of Neapolitan parents, who was brought up and educated at Naples, where he studied drawing.  However, according to Boott, his "free mind could not submit to the despotism of State & church there". Gambardella accepted a post on an American ship, eventually reaching the US, where he became naturalised. Gambardella's paintings there were so superior that he was advised to go to London, where an Italian friend introduced him to Boott. Boott describes the artist as having "the keenest sensibilities - is of the friendliest[?] disposition - & almost painfully sensitive to esteem."

Photo of a hand-written letter describing Gambardella's personality

Extract of a letter from Boott describing Gambardella's personality [Archive ref: DC 63 f.39]

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any correspondence from Gambardella himself held at Kew. However, the letters from Boott illustrate – once again – what interesting nuggets of historical information lie buried within Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection. The digitisation process, which involves the painstaking work of reading through all of the letters, has been so important in uncovering such gems and in serving to illustrate just how diverse and historically interesting the collection is! 

- Helen -


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Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.

By: Virginia Mills - 24 Oct 2013
As we prepare to launch the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project online, Virginia Mills selects extracts from the letters of this renowned 19th century botanist and one-time Director of Kew Gardens describing his pioneering exploration of India and the Himalayas.
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The Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project

Banner image for the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project

I've been working on the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project for a few months now, digitising and transcribing the letters of Kew's most renowned Director and all-round scientific polymath: Joseph Hooker. Digital images of the letters along with transcriptions will be made available online for the first time on a new Kew microsite which is scheduled to go live for a pilot phase in January.

There are thousands of letters to and from Joseph Hooker in Kew's extensive archive but for the pilot phase of the project we have selected one series: Joseph Hooker's Indian letters. Even within this one series of correspondence I have found that Hooker's letters home reflect a broad diversity of scientific interests. Hooker's primary concern was botany but his letters also display a keen interest in geography, geology, zoology and anthropology to name but a few.

Hooker in the Himalayas

Joseph was in India from 1847-1851 trekking through the sweltering plains and climbing in the remote Himalayas. He went partly to satisfy his own curiosity about exotic floras and to collect specimens for Kew Gardens, but also with instructions from Charles Darwin to observe the distribution of animals and from naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who was interested in plants at altitude. Hooker reported what he'd observed in long letters to many illustrious correspondents: for example, he wrote to Professor Wheatsone, a pioneer of spectroscopy, describing an unusual occurrence of an aurora in India. Another notable correspondent was John Stevens Henslow - a fellow botanist and mentor to Darwin, who was also Hooker's father-in-law. Joseph married Henslow's daughter Frances on his return from India and in the Kew archive we are lucky enough to have personal letters from Hooker to his family, including his wife-to-be as well as his parents and sisters, in addition to his important scientific correspondence. All contain fascinating observations from a keen-eyed scientist blazing a trail to seldom-explored frontiers in the high Himalayas.

I have selected some extracts from the Indian letters which reflect both the broad variety of Hooker's scientific interests and some of the epistolary anecdotes he recounted to his different correspondents.

Hooker to Darwin

Hooker wrote several letters to Darwin from India. The following extract is from one dated 1848 in which he discusses the distribution of different species in India, including species of antelope divided by a river, different coloured squirrels found on opposite sides of mountain ranges, and the species of wild elephants:

"I find as, might be expected, that the Natural features of this vast area separate different species in most cases, & that sometimes the limits of the latter, though defined, are apparently not subject to any evident law but to caprice... One of the most striking instances of the prevalence of races in districts is afforded by the Elephant, of which there are three distinct wild Indian varieties; confined to the three separate but similar forests they respectively affect" [JDH_1_10_52-54]

In the same letter he continues more lightheartedly:

"I may add that I have been riding a Sylehet [elephant] daily for the last month & a noble beast she is, a grand fellow to talk to your children about hereafter... it has to push on the waggons [sic] with its fore head... If Elephants have head--aches what splitting ones they must be." [JDH_1_10_52-54]

Photo of a letter from Hooker to Darwin on species in India

Extract of a letter from Hooker to Darwin in which he discusses the distribution & variation of species in India.

Click on the image to download a PDF file containing images of the entire letter or download a full transcription of the letter (pdf)

To his father - letters about collecting

To his father, William Jackson Hooker, himself then Director of Kew, Joseph wrote a long treatise about the species of plants he saw on his travels through India and about the specimens he collected, one of which gave him a rather unpleasant surprise:

"Arums are superb and very curious. One flowered in my room this morning & I was awoken by an insufferable stench, putting a therm[ometer]. into the spathe it rose to 9° above the temp[erature]. of the air at 7 am & now at 11 pm it is 4 degrees hotter than the air."

Hooker was a scientist to the core. On awaking to find the smelly bloom what else would a scientist do but proceed to take measurements of the phenomenon such as its temperature? 

Hooker the artist

These are some of Hooker's sketches of Indian Arums, of the genus Amorphophallus.

Sketch by Joseph Hooker of an Arum

He notes of one below that it smells like rotten salt fish. Hooker sent rough field sketches such as these back to Kew where they still form part of the Herbarium collection, consulted by botanists as scientific documents. 

Joseph Hooker annotated field sketch of an Arum

As well as live plants, Hooker collected items of economic botany for his father who had set up a museum to display useful plant products at Kew: any functional or decorative item that was made from plant material, any food stuff or materia medica was to be gathered for this museum:

"With regard to things for the Kew Museum I have done my best; (but the scanty population of the districts I passed over is against much exercise of the arts.) One of the most curious things procured (& I think ever seen) is a fine bellows made entirely of the leaves of a tree & used for smelting iron by the indigenes or aborigines of these parts. Nothing can prove their poverty more strikingly. The article is the size of a very large cheese, has a bamboo snout & is altogether a great curiosity. At the Fairs I invariably pick up beads worn when under a Vow or by the Brahmins, boxes & such like, & all the gums & drugs I can procure. The number of the latter are in Legions" [JDH_1_10_55-58]

Many of the medicinal and edible substances Hooker collected for the museum, as well as other curiosities such as the bellows described, are still part of Kew's economic botany collection. As the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project progresses we hope to be able to feature items from Kew's collections that complement the letters, such as Hooker's field sketches, his dried plant specimens and economic botany contributions. 

Other family letters

In letters to his sister we see a much more whimsical side to Hooker. This illustrated extract is from a letter in which he caricatures his dog, named Kinchin after the mountain Kanchenjunga, as so smart he will soon be writing Hooker's letters for him! He also describes some mischievous antics of his faithful canine travelling companion.

"when up in the snows I was one day sitting writing in my tent...I looked out at a hole & saw "Kinchin" down at the kitchen"... his head - I shudder to go on - was in my dinner" [JDH/1/10/151]

Joseph Hooker illustrated letter

Illustrated letter from Joseph Hooker about his dog Kinchin and featuring an illustration of the clever canine supposedly learning to write! 

Writing to his wife-to-be Joseph Hooker was not above some of the complaints you might expect from a cantankerous tourist. In one letter alone he complains of his baggage being slow to arrive, the rainy and foggy weather, the difficulty of traversing steep roads, the dirty accommodation, and some of the more unwelcome wildlife:

"my legs with leeches, which swarm about the foot of the hills, bite through your stockings, & roll themselves up into little balls like thick-skinned gooseberries, & thus lie with impunity within your shoes" [JDH_1_10_67-68]

In Hooker's defence he may have found the travelling hard but it only took some treasured letters from home to restore his mood and he was willing to endure all the hardships for the privilege of exploring "the most extraordinary mountains in the world" and collecting their botanical treasures.

The first installment of Hooker's Indian correspondence, featuring images of the letters as well as full transcriptions, will be available on Kew's website from January. I hope you'll visit the site then to discover more of Joseph Hooker's exploits.

And if you want to find out more about Joseph Hooker right now, Kew publishes a sumptuous book about his life and explorations, 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer', available from the Kew online shop.

- Ginny-


If you have any questions or would like to know more about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project please contact me at  

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Inspired to collect: The Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection

By: Joanne Yeomans - 17 Oct 2013
This Saturday a new exhibition opens at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art dedicated to the collection of American collector Isaac M. Sutton. Joanne Yeomans asked him about his passion for botanical art.
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Isaac M Sutton

In our new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art - Botanicals: Environmental Expressions in Art, the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection - we will be displaying over 50 paintings from the American collector Isaac Sutton’s collection which have never been on show in the UK before.

Sutton’s collection has previously been exhibited at the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh, and at the New York Botanic Gardens, and features many well-known contemporary botanical artists including Beverly Allen, Rachel Pedder-Smith, Celia Rosser, Carol Woodin and Leslie Berge.

To introduce the exhibition and his collection we asked Isaac M. Sutton some questions about his motivations for collecting:

Photo of Isaac M. Sutton

Botanical Art collector Isaac M. Sutton

Can you tell us a bit about your collection? How many paintings do you have?

"I started collecting botanical art in 1998 after viewing Dr. Shirley Sherwood's ground breaking first exhibition in New York. I was captivated by the beauty of the paintings and decided that I would like to own and hang similar paintings in my homes. To me collecting is not only about the depth and breadth of a collection in a certain genre of paintings, it is also and mainly about displaying and living with beauty, using the paintings as part of decor. The collection began modestly and after a while I began to gravitate to larger pieces of art. Certain artists became favourites. As the collection matured I began to seek out paintings that were different, either in subject and/or style. At present there are more than 250 botanical art paintings in the collection with additions being made yearly, albeit at a slower pace than before." 

Photo of paintings from Isaac Sutton's collection after unpacking

The paintings have arrived and been unpacked in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery

What first encouraged you to start collecting botanical art?

"Dr. Shirley Sherwood's pioneering work in the revival of contemporary botanical art was the main impetus for me to start collecting in this field. Dr. Sherwood made it easy - the artists and organisations that are involved in this field were clearly listed in the back of her catalogues. For a first-time collector her catalogues also served as vouchsafe for any purchase of an artist within them. I always thank Dr. Sherwood for bringing beauty to the forefront of the art world and encouraging all of us to pursue this field." 

Photo od additional paintings from Isaac Sutton's collection after unpacking

More of the paintings that will be on display in the exhibition 

How do you go about choosing art for your collection?

"First and foremost I must like the painting. I next inspect the technical aspects of the painting. Lastly I analyze the composition of the piece. If one of the last two criteria makes an impression on me it is then that I consider adding a piece to my collection." 

The Sutton Dogwood by Katie Lee

The Sutton Dogwood  by Katie Lee will be on display 

Why did you want your collection to be exhibited at Kew?

"In travelling this exhibit I wanted to share with the art and botanical world some true masterworks of the botanical art genre. To that end Kew and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art are a must destination. Great Britain, and Kew specifically, are the capital or headquarters of botanical art. I also wanted the British public to view this collection, a public that appreciates and is a leading advocate of this genre."

Meet Isaac Sutton

Isaac M. Sutton will be giving a tour of this new exhibition on 23 October 2013 at 2pm. This event is free but booking is required. Please contact the gallery on 0208 332 3622 to book a place.

Botanicals: Environmental Expressions in Art, the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection will be on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until 19 January 2014. This exhibition will be shown alongside Black and White, in Colour until 5 January 2014 and Rory McEwen’s Legacy - Artists influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection until 14 January 2014.

- Joanne - 


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Conservation of Chinese watercolours from the Ann Lee collection

By: Emma Le Cornu - 10 Oct 2013
Find out how a paper conservator at Kew, Emma Le Cornu, conserved a collection of extremely fragile Chinese watercolours
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I have recently completed conservation of a large collection of botanical watercolours that were on a variety of supports including paper, vellum and a very fragile Chinese paper.

Ann Lee Collection

The Ann Lee collection contains 165 botanical illustrations. The collection is attributed to the 18th century botanical artist Ann Lee, with about two thirds of the items painted by her. The remaining approximately 60 items are Chinese in origin, painted on Chinese paper and most likely painted by Chinese artists.

Watercolour on vellum by Ann Lee

Watercolour on vellum by Ann Lee, 1775, before treatment 

There is little information available on the provenance of the collection. It is likely that it belonged to Ann Lee’s father, James Lee, nurseryman of Hammersmith, who supplied exotic plants to Kew. The Chinese watercolours may have been collected by James Lee as examples of exotic plants. The collection was presented to Kew in 1969. 

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, showing insects in various stages of development: Before treatment


All 165 items were stored in one slim box in paper folders. The majority of the collection was in a fair condition but with tears and creases around the edges as a result of poor storage and handling in the past. These required minor repairs, removal of tape, cleaning of dirt on the surface and re-housing in new mounts and boxes. However, about 10% of the collection was in an extremely poor condition with the supports in fragments and extremely brittle paper that would break into pieces if touched or moved. 

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist before treatment

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, before treatment. The paper is very discoloured and brittle and has broken into fragments

Due to the nature of the Chinese paper, which is very thin and weak, I contacted experts in Chinese paper conservation at the Hirayama studio in the British Museum for advice on treatment.This resulted in collaboration between Kew and the British Museum. I took two of the most damaged watercolours to the Hirayama studio where I was given training by the Chinese paper conservator, then carried out the treatments under her supervision and with her assistance. 


The watercolours were so damaged that the only treatment possible was to apply a lining to the back of the paper to hold it all in place. This was very challenging as the paper was so difficult to handle. The Chinese method was the best solution as it is very quick and does not use much moisture, which may cause the colours to run.

Photo of two conservators lining Chinese watercolours

In the Hirayama studio at the British Museum, lowering the lining paper onto the back of the watercolour and brushing the back to ensure the paper is fully attached

However, it requires skill to place the lining onto the back of the watercolour in one go and there are no second chances. Two layers of Chinese paper are coated with glue, lowered onto the back of the watercolour then brushed over to make sure the papers are firmly attached. With many practice runs and with the assistance of the Chinese paper conservator, I was able to line the two watercolours successfully.

Smaller fragments needed to be fitted into place after lining. This was carried out piece by piece and fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. See how this was done on the video below (the process has been speeded up).

Chinese watercolour conservation treatment from Emma Le Cornu on Vimeo.

Now that the watercolours are lined they can be handled safely without any risk to the paper or the image.

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist: After treatment in a window mount

Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist: After treatment in a window mount

The whole collection has now been re-housed in window mounts and in archival storage boxes and is available to researchers and to go on display. 

- Emma - 


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