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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A historian in Kew's Archives
After what can only be described as a jam-packed fortnight here at Kew Archives, it is time for me to collect my things, put away the archival tape and melinex, and be on my way. As a History student about to enter my final year at the University of Westminster, I was extremely lucky to land a two week placement with the archives team, based in the brilliantly named, ‘Herbarium’ building.
Despite my complete lack of botanical knowledge, not being able to distinguish a dull flower from a pretty weed, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how my course and internship at Kew complemented each other. From the first-hand accounts of exported rubber plants to plantations of imperial Burma in the “1836-1847 Outwards index” (in which I spent many hours deciphering nineteenth century handwriting), to documents relating to the infamous ‘Tanganyika groundnut scheme’ of 1949 (to all intents and purposes, my dissertation topic), the links between my knowledge as a historian and the material at Kew grew.
To put it more clearly, all of the documents I saw represented ‘real life’ historical signposts, of the kind which I had spent the last year of my degree researching. As you can imagine, first hand, physical, 1800s material equalled one very happy historian.
A file of Frederick Sander correspondence carefully repackaged into an archive folder
However, working at the archives has not all been ‘Darwin letters’ here, extravagant ‘19th century illustrations’ there! During my time at Kew I have witnessed just how much commitment, perseverance and - dare I say it - patience, is demanded of the archival team and volunteers in keeping history alive.
An example is the ‘Repackaging Project' which I was lucky enough to experience for myself. Though most definitely time-consuming, this project became one of my most memorable experiences during my time at Kew. Why, you may ask? Because I was fortunate enough to repackage a folder named ‘Offences committed at Kew Gardens’, in which I discovered many bizarre and unusual crimes.
The affair of the white balloon
The best by far was the incident with the white balloon. This dastardly crime concerned an unknown character, fashioning a white balloon 225ft above ground to the top of one of the garden houses, with an attached flag with the words, ‘Give them a go’ atop a picture of a carrot. Give what a go? The mystery still remains. Though it would seem quite a fitting display during Kew’s current ‘IncrEdibles’ festival, during the late 1800s it did nothing but enrage the gardeners who spent several days attempting to retrieve said balloon from the top of the building.
My internship, although brief, has most certainly given a new meaning to my area of study and made me realise that not all history is buried in the past, but is very much alive and kicking in archives like Kew. Whether it be weird and wacky stories like the white balloon, or historical pillars that have shaped the world as we know it today, I have found a new appreciation for my course and subject area.
As for the archives team and all the staff at the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives, I wish you the best of luck and hope to see you some time in the future. Maybe as an archivist myself...
The entrance to the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives building on Kew Green
- Betty -
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There have been a number of recent articles in the popular gardening press about the gardens at Gravetye Manor hotel in West Sussex, England and their development under Head Gardener, Tom Coward. Tom is a former student of the Diploma in Horticulture course at Kew, going on to work for Paul McCartney and then with Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter.
William Robinson portrait courtesy of Peter Herbert
Gravetye Manor was acquired by the gardening author William Robinson in 1884. Vehemently opposed to the formal styles that were prevalent in Victorian England, he developed its gardens to reflect his belief in the use of plants in a naturalistic style. He also championed the use of native British species. His ideas were shared by Gertrude Jekyll and others and continued to influence garden design throughout the twentieth century.
As Kew library has nearly all of Robinson’s books as well as some correspondence, and given our modern day connection with Gravetye through Tom, I decided to celebrate a somewhat forgotten figure in British (and Irish) garden design by compiling an exhibition for the purpose-built display area of Kew’s library.
Example of William Robinson's letters
Robinson’s forthright nature in print seems to be at odds with the gracious character displayed in his letters. As well as being full of gratitude for plants sent to him by Kew, in a letter to Director William Thisleton-Dyer he compliments him on the ”good work in flower gardening which you have done at Kew”. In another letter to Dyer he writes that “Wakehurst should be a beautiful centre for a garden” (his own gardens at Gravetye Manor being only a short distance from Wakehurst Place).
Border at Gravetye Manor
The gardens at Gravetye Manor can be viewed on Tuesdays and Fridays. Or come to Kew’s library to see a digital slideshow of past and present images of Gravetye.
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As I'm sure you've noticed, Kew is celebrating Incredible Edibles this summer. With edibles on our minds, I thought it would be a great opportunity to blog about some of the extraordinary esculents we've encountered while digitising the Directors' Correspondence [DC] collection.
I couldn't resist starting with the most peculiar pineapple I've ever seen...
Photograph of the 'hen and chickens' pineapple, sent to Kew in a letter from Leonard Wray Jr., from Malaysia 1892 [archive ref: DC 165/275]
The photograph of this fantastic fruit was sent to Kew in 1892 by Leonard Wray Jr., the first curator of the Perak Museum – Malaysia's oldest museum. Mr Wray sent many fruit specimens back to Kew, including specimens of 'the hen and chickens pines' shown above, which, as you can see from the photograph, he quite rightly described as "a most splendid variety for show purposes".
Mr Paul And His Yams
Another photograph, this time of various varieties of Jaffna Yams, came to light in a letter from a Mr Isaac Paul of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] in 1893. Mr Paul forwarded a case containing 15 varieties of yams and enclosed a photograph of them with himself and his family.
Isaac Paul (back row on the right) with his father-in-law and family and the 15 varieties of Jaffna Yams he sent to Kew [archive ref: DC 163/194]
In his letter, Paul provides descriptions of the yams and the literal translations of their local names e.g. "Royal yam", "Blood yam", "Fruit yam", "Ship yam" "Temple-cake yam". Paul was keen for the yams to be identified scientifically at Kew. Unfortunately, a note on the letter, written by a member of Kew's staff, explains: "we have no means of fitting the yams received to these descriptions".
Devine And Intoxicating Plant Products
It is clear from the correspondence received by the Directors of Kew in the 19th and early 20th Century, that they were keen to receive information about any plant or plant product new to science - particularly anything that might be exploited for economic gain. Many edible plants and plant products were, therefore, described in the letters, some more appealing than others!
Sir Mountstuart Elphinestone Grant Duff, writing from Madras [Chennai] while he was Governor there in 1885, speaks very highly of Buchanania, which he believed would be a boon to any country in which it would grow: "Its kernels, when roasted, are delightful, but, when devilled, are divine!" [archive ref: 157/387].
In our recently digitised North America correspondence, we found a letter from William Fraser Tolmie [archive ref: DC 195/245] who sent back a number of plant specimens collected from the Pacific Northwest. These included young leaf stalks of what he believed to be Heracleum, used as an esculent by the "Indians" from the Columbia [river] as far North as Stikine; and a Convolvulus from Vancouver used by the "natives" as an article of food and by "the Canadians" as a substitute for coffee.
Walton Haydon, writing from Moose Factory, Canada in 1883, collected a number of plants used as drugs by the First Nations [archive ref: DC 195/247]. One drink in particular, brewed from berries, sugar and scraped mountain ash root, he describes as: 'very intoxicating indeed, but to me very nasty".
The Best Way to Cook Pumpkin!
Within the DC archive we have even uncovered a simple recipe for pumpkin.
Extract of a letter from Emmanuel Bonavia describing how best to cook pumpkin [archive ref: DC 154/134]
In a letter from Etawah, India, 1886, Emmanuel Bonavia described the best way to cook pumpkin: "remove skin & seeds – cut it in cubes an inch each way & stew it very very gently in its own juice, with butter, chopped onion pepper & salt – if too dry add a little stock or gravy or even water." According to Bonavia: "C.[Cucurbita] moschata is delicious cooked in this way – otherwise pumpkin is very tasteless". Must give this a try in October!
Kew's Incredibles festival is, of course, all about edible plants, but I couldn't resist ending with a couple of quotes from the famous plant hunter David Douglas, who, on a trip to the Galapagos in 1825, resorted to sampling some reptilian refections:
"there is a large species of tortoise from 200 to 250lb weight - excellent eating - something like veal. In addition to them we found a large sort of yellow lizard from 2 ½ to 3 ½ feet long which makes very fine soup!!" [archive ref: 62/71c].
Writing about a visit to Juan Fernandez, which he describes as "the famous residence of the hero Robinson Crusoe", Douglas explained that he:
"sowed a large collection of Garden seeds, and useful grasses with some pips and other fruit seeds...expressing a wish they may prosper and add to the comfort of the 2nd ed. of Robinson Crusoe should one appear".
He may have been game enough to try eating turtle and lizard, but for one who left such a great botanical legacy, it is nice to know that he preferred the edible productions of plants!
- Helen -
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The man who saved Kew Gardens
John Lindley (1799-1865) has been described as the man who saved Kew Gardens. He was part of an 1837 committee commissioned by the government to examine Kew and report their findings on the future of the gardens. The death of both Joseph Banks and George III in 1820 started Kew’s decline and the committee was required to review the garden's purpose, either as serving the Royal Household, the public or as a place for science.
John Lindley (1799-1865)
There was unease about Kew’s condition and status: the hothouses were overcrowded and needed repair, the lake was muddy, and the garden buildings were shabby. The review came at a time when other gardens such as Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh were flourishing. The botanic garden at Kew, which covered 15 acres at the time, had a small arboretum and unlabelled plants which had no noteworthy arrangement.
In March 1838, Lindley presented his report. He recommended that the gardens be retained for the nation and as a centre of botanical science in England, equipped with a herbarium and library. The government did not accept the findings but the matter was successfully raised in Parliament in the spring of 1840. As a result, the grounds (apart from 20 acres around the Queen’s cottage) were transferred to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests and William Jackson Hooker was appointed the first Director in July 1841. Lindley’s legacy continues at Kew: his orchid herbarium is held here which holds over 7,000 specimens; and his correspondence is collected in the Library.
Rosa cinnamomea by John Lindley
Lindley the artist
As well as publishing books, notably with Francis Bauer, Lindley also illustrated his own monographs. In 1820 Lindley published ‘Rosarum monographica; or a botanical history of Roses’ where he illustrated 18 of the 19 plates. The book, with an illustration of Rosa cinnamomea by Lindley, is on display as part of the Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
Lindley’s great grandson, Rory McEwen, was a botanical artist painting from the late 1950s to early 1980s and the exhibition features his botanical work as well as showcasing his talents for sculpture, poetry and music. McEwen painted many flower species, including roses, and was greatly influenced by the old master painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté. In the early 1950s McEwen’s brother in law purchased two portfolios of 52 original watercolour paintings on vellum by Redouté and McEwen discovered them during his time studying at Cambridge. This gave him the unique opportunity to study the originals rather than published engravings.
Rose 1970 by Rory McEwen
McEwen’s early paintings of roses, dating from 1953, had a simple style but, as he continued to paint, Redouté’s influence was reflected in his work. McEwen’s attention to detail, simplicity of specimen, elegance of line and surface modeling could all have been inspired by the work of Redouté.
Rose ‘William Lobb’ 1976-78 by Rory McEwen
Visit the exhibition
John Lindley’s influence and legacy at Kew is still evident today. His recommendations in the report started to create the gardens which we see today and his work is still held in a variety of Kew’s collections. In addition, his work as a botanical artist is noteworthy, not only in the context of the genre, but within his own family, as Rory McEwen, his great grandson, was one of the most notable botanical artists of the twentieth century.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality is on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until 22 September 2013.
- Joanne -
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Friends and colleagues of the artist Lucy Smith were recently delighted to learn that she had won second prize in the Margaret Flockton award for botanical illustration – in fact, the third time she has received the second prize in this prestigious award. Lucy’s winning illustration of the rare Madagascan grass Lecomtella madagscariensis was prepared for Kew grass specialist Dr. Vorontsova. I was lucky enough to catch up with Lucy, during a recent break in her work in the Herbarium at Kew, and learn a little more about her approach to illustration.
Lucy at her desk (Image: © RBG, Kew)
Lucy is one of a number of highly skilled freelance botanical illustrators working at Kew to produce line drawings for scientific plant publications. Lucy is much in awe of her colleagues, and praises the Flockton award for bringing together the work of international artists. Its emphasis on accurate depiction of plant characters, technical and artistic merit, composition, and reproducibility all serve to highlight the rigorous requirements demanded of a scientific line drawing.
A section of Lucy’s award-winning Lecomtella illustration (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
Production of line drawings is driven by two main purposes: to contribute to floras of existing plants, and to document new species. Lucy says that she feels a great responsibility to ensure that all her line work is correct, as her illustration will be used to identify the plant it describes. Artists tend to work from dried specimens or specimens stored in spirit for line drawings, but use a live specimen when illustrating in colour. Lucy is adept at both line and colour work and describes how useful it is to produce these two works in tandem in order to inform each other.
Most illustrators specialise in illustrating one or a small number of plant families and Lucy first came to Kew to illustrate palms, an area in which she continues to focus her work. She shows me some examples of dried palm specimens – their leaves folded in half or thirds for storage. These specimens are too brittle to unfold and so the artist re-imagines the specimen by measuring each part of the palm leaf and then uses this information to draw it to a smaller scale in its entirety
Examples of dried palm specimens folded for storage (Image: © RBG, Kew)
Lucy shows me her meticulously kept sketchbooks where she works out her initial drawings and layout. She uses a camera lucida attached to a microscope to draw some of the most minute specimens. I get to try this out with some tiny grass seeds and soon realise how long it must take to master this technique – it is very hard to look down the microscope and draw the outline of the specimen without looking at my hand and the pencil! After making initial sketches Lucy will then consult with the botanist for whom she is illustrating in order to determine which parts of the plant should be included and to get approval of the accuracy of her work. Once the elements of the drawing have been decided she then lays them out on the page in a logical order with the main specimen in the middle and details such as habit, vegetative details, and illustrations of flower and fruit carefully placed around it. She then inks over the top of her pencil work with a very fine pen using fine stippling to mould form. Lucy’s illustrations are aesthetically beautiful but she emphasises that they are science led and that the main consideration is accuracy and care to include enough information without cluttering the drawing with unnecessary detail. It is to her credit that she is able to create both a scientifically accurate illustration and visually stunning work.
A working drawing by Lucy (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
Lucy’s enthusiasm for her work is palpable and she describes her excitement at bearing witness to some of the first instances of the naming of a new species by Kew botanists. She recalls the recently identified palm Tahina spectabilis of which she made illustrations – the first specimen was dissected in front of her eyes for her to draw with the added pressure that it was the only material from this plant available at the time.
A section of an illustration of Calamus eximus by Lucy (Image: © Lucy Smith. RBG, Kew)
I look forward to seeing more work by Lucy and her colleagues and, as well as continuing to appreciate the line work for its scientific and artistic value, I will remember to consider the painstaking process and careful technique that has been invested in one of these incredibly detailed works.
More information on Lucy’s work can be found on her website: www.lucytsmith.com
- Julia -
- Learn more about the Margaret Flockton Award
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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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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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