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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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Colombian curiosities in the Directors' Correspondence at Kew

By: Virginia Mills - 01 Feb 2010
Read about Robert Blake White's travels in Colombia, the ancient artefacts he collected and the ideas he picked up about gardening in synchronisation with the phases of the moon.
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Here is another little taste of what we have come across in our work digitising Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection. Robert Blake White is an interesting character who wrote to Kew Gardens c.1868 to 1899. His letters concern such diverse subjects as the collection of native Colombian artefacts, or 'grave goods', to his own forthright opinions on gardening in synch with the phases of the moon.

Grave Goods

White went to work in Colombia in South America as an engineer and he writes of his travels throughout the country, the things he saw and the collection of artefacts he made on his way. His letters mention chisels, clay whistles, earthenware musical instruments and pottery goods, which he offers to send to Kew, along with interesting plants he found. Many of the fruits and seeds White collected are in Kew's Economic Botany and Herbarium collections, and some of the artefacts mentioned by White in the Directors' Correspondence were later transferred to the British Museum.

                    Robert Blake White pots 

Sketches of some of the antiquities White has seen; two pottery jars and the heads of two gigantic stone figures at San Augustin, Colombia.  

Gardening by the Moon

White's letters also reveal that it wasn't just plants and artefacts he picked up in Colombia, he also adopted some of the local ideas about farming and cultivation. A letter White wrote from Palmira in 1896 explains his belief that the moon has a profound effect on both the flora and fauna of the tropics, where the seasons are less distinct. His theory is that plants grow under the influence of the new moon and rest for the remainder of the lunar period. He gives a list of 13 practical rules for lunar planting. White believed all these rules should be followed by horticulturists and arboriculturalists, for example: tree resin should be collected at the new moon for a greater yield and medicinal plants should be harvested after the full moon to benefit from their full potency.

'Gardening by the moon' has a long tradition. The ancient Roman scholar Pliny observed in around AD77 that: "it is a point most religiously observed to insert the graft during the moon's increase" [Naturalis Historia 17.24 trans John Bostock and H.T. Riley]. White's letters to Kew, hundreds of years later, give the very same advice. Some gardeners to this day hold to the practice of lunar planting and farmers' almanacs have an established tradition of using lunar cycles to guide their calendars.

What do you think?

White's botanical practices may seem to be founded purely in tradition but his letters do display an effort to ground his theory with scientific reasoning and he bases it not only on inherited wisdom and superstition but on his own observations during the thirty years he spent in Colombia. Perhaps those of you with green fingers or veggie patches have your own planting traditions? We're interested to hear what you think, so please leave a comment below if you have an opinion on lunar planting, or just tell us about what you get up to in your gardens...

- Ginny -


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Archives 'Take Flight'

By: Hannah Jenkinson - 22 Jan 2010
Read about archives that might take off! Find out more about some of the fantastic documents and illustrations we have in the collection at Kew.
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Happy New Year from the Archives Team! I’m Hannah, the Archives’ Graduate Trainee and I’m here to tell you about this year’s Archives Awareness Campaign (AAC) and about some of the fantastic documents we have in the collection at Kew.

AAC is an annual event that promotes an exploration and celebration of the wealth of archive treasures available to you! Archives throughout the UK are offering exciting and unusual interpretations of their archive material in exhibitions, displays, talks and articles.

This year the AAC theme is ‘Take Flight’. My interpretation of this theme has given me the chance to delve into the world of insect life here at Kew, revealing a variety of information about butterflies, moths and other insects, as well as vibrant and remarkable works of art in the Archive and Illustration collections.

A plant collector’s notebook from the nineteenth century would not usually create much interest from the average reader. However, one such notebook in the Archives is not what it seems. Colonel Francis Hall, the botanist and plant collector, produced a colourful volume of botanical and entomological drawings in his collecting notes from an expedition to Ecuador. The volume, received by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1880, contains vibrant illustrations of South American plants, as well as drawings of moths, butterflies, spiders, and caterpillars, one of which is displayed here.

Hall archives volume

Sir Joseph Hooker, dedicated botanist and director of Kew 1865-1885, spent several years collecting information and conducting experiments on insect consuming plants. His unusual insectivorous collection includes newspaper cuttings, a research diary with diagrams and correspondence from his close friend Charles Darwin. At this time Darwin wrote the first well-known thesis on carnivorous plants he wished to visit the Gardens at Kew to see examples of plants from the mimosa genus that were capable of rapid movement, much like the Venus fly trap.

Insect management plans and research carried out in more recent times show the continuing importance of insects for plants and animals in the Gardens. A management plan of butterflies in 1992 showed that some eight species of butterfly had ceased to exist at Kew Gardens since 1906. The plan recommended new seed mixtures and grass cutting regimes to increase butterfly numbers, and animals further along the food chain such as bats.

Insects are also found in works of art in the Illustrations collection. The botanical artist Maria Sibylla Merian famously illustrated key stages in the life cycle of insects against the background of its host plant. Her art of illustrating metamorphosis have earned her the title of the ‘first lady of ecology’. Not only do her paintings have scientific value, but they are undoubtedly vibrant and beautiful. In other illustrations you can find swallowtail butterflies, carpenter bees, longhorn beetles, and even a flea! If you are interested in insects and plants or would like to know more about this wonderful collection then you can contact the Illustrations Team at


- Hannah - 

More Information

  • Learn more about the Archives Awareness Campaign and see what is happening in an Archives near you at the AAC website
  • For further information about the Archives see our webpages or contact the Archives Team at
  • Read about Kew's Darwin Letters and the Appeal to raise money for them on our blog

3 comments on 'Archives 'Take Flight''

Season's Greetings from the Library, Art and Archives Team

By: David Iggulden - 22 Dec 2009
Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for 2010!
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Sir William Thiselton-Dyer

 Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1885 - 1905


The Library, Art & Archives at Kew will be closed to visitors between Thursday 24th December and Monday 4th January inclusive.  We will of course do our best to respond to email enquiries sent to over the festive period, but unfortunately we won't be able to take telephone enquiries.

In the meantime, please take the opportunity to read our blogs and browse the Kew website.  We'd love to read your comments, so tell us what you think!

We wish you all a peaceful Christmas and a very happy and prosperous New Year! 


- David -


More Information

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Welcome to Kew's archive...

By: Kiri Ross-Jones - 18 Dec 2009
Meet the Archives Team and read about the Darwin-Henslow letters.
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Meet the Archives Team

As this is my very first post, I thought I’d better introduce myself! I’m Kiri, Kew’s archivist and records manager (I'm on the far left in the photo below). Together with Michele our assistant archivist, Hannah our graduate trainee and Omelia our modern records assistant, I have the privilege of managing Kew’s historical documentary Archives and modern records.

Our Archives consist of 1km of documents, which equates to about 7 million pieces of paper! They include documents relating to the history of Kew, such as the historical correspondence of the directors at Kew (see the Digitisation Team's post for more details), as well as other items relating to the history of botany, such as diaries and photographs from Victorian plant hunters.

LAA - Archives team

Members of the Archives team will be blogging soon, letting you know about their work and interesting collections that they have come across. But to start I thought I’d tell you a bit about one of my favourite collections in the Archives… 

The Darwin - Henslow Letters 

We are now running up from the Falkland Islands to the Rio Negro (or Colorado). The Beagle will proceed to M: Video; but if it can be managed I intend staying at the former place. It is now some months since we have been at a civilized port… It is a detestable place, gales succeed gales with such short intervals, that it is difficult to do anything.

This is a quote from one of 44 letters that we hold, from Charles Darwin to his mentor Professor John Stevens Henslow. The letters are very open and human, which means as well as being extremely important documents from Darwin’s life that help to inform our understanding of his theories today, they also give a real insight into Darwin the man. Having read them, I felt like I had got to know the young, adventurous Darwin.

The letters chart Darwin’s travels on the HMS Beagle expedition, from his excitable response to being accepted on the expedition by Captain Robert Fitzroy in 1831, to letters detailing his experiences in South America and finally to analysing and distributing the specimens he had collected once home, 5 years later (Kew's Herbarium holds some of the Beagle specimens).

LAA- Darwin letter

These letters are amongst the most popular items that we hold in the Archives, and with this year being Darwin's anniversary, we have launched an appeal to raise funds to conserve them. The letters are in urgent need of repair and re-housing and we are concerned that without this work they may deteriorate to such an extent that they will no longer be usable. You can help us restore and save these precious documents for future generations by getting in touch and making a donation to our Darwin's letters campaign.

Transcriptions of the letters are already available on the Darwin Correspondence website, and we’d like to digitise the letters and make them available on the web, giving everyone the opportunity to read these original letters written by Darwin.

The amount that we need to raise to do this is £25'000 as each letter costs around £570 to conserve, re-house, catalogue, transcribe, digitise and web-enable.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our Darwin letters and do keep an eye on the blog for future posts from the Archives after Christmas.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas,

- Kiri -  

Make a donation to help save Darwin's letters

More information


2 comments on 'Welcome to Kew's archive...'

Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team

By: Helen Hartley - 11 Dec 2009
Meet the Library Arts and Archives Digitisation Team and find out what they do.
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Hello!  I lead the team responsible for digitisation of the Directors' Correspondence (DC) archive in the LAA, one of the largest collections within Kew's official Archives. There are four of us in the team: Lindsay, myself, Ginny and Kat.

LAA DC Team 

Our work is funded by the Mellon foundation, and our job entails scanning and summarising letters sent to the Directors of Kew from the 1840s to the 1920s.   The electronic data we produce is published on the web, opening up this archive to a wider audience.

Described as above, our job might seem a bit dry and not necessarily something you'd drag yourself out of bed for in the morning. Not so! Hand on heart, I love my job! For anyone like myself who has an interest in history and in the natural sciences, the DC is an amazing archive and almost every day we are entertained by weird and wonderful characters and accounts of their travels and discoveries.

As one might expect in such an archive, there are a lot of letters that describe the mundane, but these are interspersed with tales of death, destruction, political unrest and scientific discovery with a sprinkling of some good, old fashioned gossip!

We'd like to use this blog to share some of the highlights of the DC collection. Every month, we'll feature a letter, or series of letters, that has caught our attention. We'll also keep you up to date with how the team is progressing. We are currently nearing the end of the first phase of our work: to digitise the correspondence from, or relating to, Latin America. By March 2010 we hope to begin digitising the DC from Asia.

 I do hope you'll follow our blog!  

Hostmann and his Bats 

To give you a taste of what you can expect from us, I'll leave you with an extract of a letter written in 1841 by the botanist Friedrich Wilhelm Rudolf Hostmann to Sir William Jackson Hooker, Director of Kew from 1841 - 1865. In this very long (16 page!) letter, Hostmann provides a vivid description of an expedition initiated in March 1840 to collect plant specimens in the interior of Suriname.   He needed several servants and 15 canoes to transport his equipment and collections through flooded forests. Along with details of his leaking tent, hunting trips, the hospitality of the Gallina tribe and sightings of dangerous snakes, the letter contains a passage detailing how he allowed vampire bats to drink his own blood:

 Extract of a letter from Wilhelm Rudolf Hostmann

"Led by instinct they [the bats] choose a remote part of the body where there is less chance to be caught. I offered them my feet uncovered, and soon had the pleasure to see one occupied with each of my great toes; I hardly could feel when, under continued fibrations [sic], which the animal made with the wings the wound was inflicted; a few minutes afterwards they both seemed to have their competent portion and dropped at the ground; to my great astonishment I found the wound pretty considerable and of a triangular form".

For the record, despite his somewhat unorthodox approach to scientific experiment, Mr Hostmann lived for another 22 years!

More Information

  • If you wish to access the DC, please contact the Archives:
  • JSTOR subscribers can view the DC from Africa and Latin America on the GPI website

- Helen -

2 comments on 'Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team'

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Letter extract from the Archives

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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