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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Before we started contributing to this blog, our team published some interesting finds from the Directors' Correspondence in Kew's staff magazine, VISTA. We came across these stories recently and thought they were deserving of a wider audience.
"Will no one explore Roraima and bring us back the tidings which it has been waiting these thousands of years to give us?" The Spectator, April 1877
Early explorers in Latin America spoke of mysterious mountains towering above the jungles and reaching into the clouds. These dramatic sandstone mesas are called tepuis and are some of the world’s oldest rock formations. Mount Roraima is the tallest such tepui, lying where the borders of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Brazil, and Venezuela meet. Its flat summit reaches over 9,000 feet with high cliffs dramatically maintaining its isolation.
Tantalizing tales of the attempted exploration of this mountain and the failure of anyone to reach its summit fuelled Victorian speculation as to what might lie at the top of the ancient plateau, and inspired Kew's then Director, Sir Joseph Hooker, to use his influence to support an expedition. In 1884 Everard Im Thurn, an author, explorer, botanist and anthropologist of Swiss extraction and the Magistrate in Pomeroon at the time, led a team that became the first to reach Roraima's summit and their success paved the way for further scientific explorations.
View of the south-east face of Roriama showing a waterfall and Im Thurn's ledge of ascent (from The Botany of the Roraima Expedition, 1884)
The Directors' Correspondence collection contains letters regarding the details of Im Thurn’s expedition and also letters from his friends and colleagues, W.H. Campbell and G.S. Jenman. From plant specimens sent back to England, staff at Kew identified over 50 species new to science such as Bonnetia roraimae.
Specimens of Bonnetia roraimae collected by Im Thurn in 1884, (top) and by Quelch and McConnell who followed in Im Thurn's footsteps in 1894 and 1898 (bottom) (RBG Kew, K000221146)
Reports from Early Victorian expeditions to Roraima are thought to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imperial adventure yarn The Lost World (1912) based around an expedition to a plateau in Venezuela where prehistoric animals had survived. On his return from the summit of Roraima, Im Thurn authored several works related to his travels. Everard pursued a career as a colonial administrator, culminating in a position as Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He maintained a high profile in British scientific circles throughout his life, was a prolific contributor to popular and scientific journals, and was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Im Thurn’s correspondence with the Directors of Kew spans his long career and offers an insight into the kind of botanical material he exchanged, the gifts he sent to the museum at Kew, his botanical interests, and his thoughts on matters as varied as publishing and the division of country boundaries. His letters demonstrate a great love for Guyana and even in 1887 he discusses the rapid rate at which the unexplored interior of British Guiana is disappearing and his fears that the native peoples could soon vanish. Whilst in London in 1900 he wrote to then director Thiselton-Dyer:
"I walked home tonight through Piccadilly and had my attention called by my companion to the shops – but I was quite homesick for my bush paths and longed for the chance of meeting either a crapaud [frog] or a jaguar or something interesting." Directors' Correspondence 204/366 (RBG Kew)
Im Thurn was also a keen amateur photographer and sent several photographs to Kew, including this photograph of Catasetums, a type of Orchid, growing in his Guyana garden.
Catasetums from Im Thurn's garden. Directors' Correspondence 204/332 (1887, RBG Kew)
Im Thurn’s varied and exciting career is an important part of the Cross-cultural Histories of Tropical Botany in Latin America project being under taken at Kew by Sara Albuquerque. You can search Kew's digitised Im Thurn correspondence via the JSTOR Plant Science website.
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence project
- Watch National Geographic footage of Mount Roraima
- View photographs of Guyana by Everard Im Thurn from the collections of the Royal Geographical Society
- Read a digitised version of im Thurn's anthropological work 'Among the Indians of Guiana', 1883
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In late October Kew’s Main Gate was renamed Elizabeth Gate . The gates of the Gardens have played an important role in the history of Kew in allowing and restricting access to the grounds and in marking historic celebrations and events.
Historic Kew image of the Main Gate.
The newly retitled Elizabeth Gate was designed by the architect, Decimus Burton, and was first completed in 1846. As well as designing a number of buildings at Kew Gardens including, rather impressively, both the Palm House and the Temperate House, Burton also designed the layout of Hyde Park and the gardens and buildings at London Zoo.
Decimus Burton’s design for a new entrance to Kew Gardens, dated 10 December 1844.
The Main Gate has been renamed Elizabeth Gate to commemorate this year’s Diamond Jubilee. The strong royal connections of the Gardens are well known and in fact the original building that housed the archive was formerly the royal residence of the Duke of Cumberland, brother to William IV.
Historic Kew image of visitors walking towards the Main Gate.
The Elizabeth Gate is not the first gate to be renamed after a female British monarch. In 1889, the unused Queen’s Gate, which had previously stood between the Marianne North Gallery and the Temperate House Lodge, was re-erected opposite Lichfield Road to meet the demands of visitors using the recently constructed railway station. Kew Gardens had gained in popularity as an attraction thanks to the improved transport facilities and a new entrance was needed to meet the growing demand. Opened on Queen Victoria’s 70th birthday in May 1889, the newly installed gate was named Victoria Gate.
Historic Kew image of the Victoria Gate.
A letter from the Office of Works sent to the Treasury in July 1888 argued that direct access to Kew Gardens for visitors arriving at the Kew Gardens station of the Metropolitan District Railway was a ‘necessity’. The writer was ‘convinced that an entrance to the Gardens in the position proposed would be a very great boon to the public’.
Our records show that in 1889 it cost £130 or £7,785.70 in today’s money to move the previously under-used gates to their new location.
At a luncheon held at the Kew Gardens' Hotel prior to the opening of the Victoria Gate, the Chairman toasted the health of the Queen and pointed out that it was particularly appropriate to open the gate that day, when the Queen’s birthday was being celebrated.
The letter below was received by Kew in July 1889 from Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria’s private secretary, sent from the royal residence at Windsor Castle. Addressed to ‘My dear Primrose’, the letter announced that Queen Victoria ‘approves’ of the naming of the gate.
Letter to Kew Gardens from Windsor Castle
Today a total of four pairs of gates in the Gardens are Grade II listed – including both Elizabeth and Victoria Gate. They are considered to be of particular importance, a key part of Kew's World Heritage Site status, and are therefore protected. When you are entering the Gardens, why not take a moment to admire the historic Gates and all they represent?
- Elisabeth -
- Read about the restoration work now taking place on the Elizabeth Gate
- Learn more about the gates at Kew
- Explore the Archives catalogue
- Contact the Archives team
- Visit the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room
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Letters and more on display
We have just finished digitising the Directors' Correspondence volumes containing 19th and 20th century letters from Asia, and visitors to Kew's Library can now see some of our favourites on display in the Reading Room. The collection highlights the important role Kew played in the development of the British Empire and in global exploration and scientific investigation. It is also a resource that compliments many of Kew's other collections. For this display we have reunited letters with some of the items they describe or were originally sent with: items which became part of Kew's Economic Botany Collection, specimens which are now preserved in the Herbarium, and publications, photos and drawings from the Library, Art and Archives collection.
For example, along with letters from the Royal Botanic Garden Calcutta describing the devastation wrought by a cyclone in 1864, visitors can now see photographs of the destruction – avenues of denuded trees and the enormous roots of a baobab torn out of the ground. We also have photos of the Calcutta garden in a more splendid state along with guidebooks that paint, in flowery Victorian language, a picture of the gardens as they were over 100 years ago.
A large proportion of the Asian Directors' Correspondence comes from voracious letter writers on the Indian sub-continent. Calcutta director Nathaniel Wallich wrote well over 150 letters to Kew, many of which were complaints about the preparation of his publication 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores'. Luckily the result was worth all Wallich's suffering – at least in our opinion. You can see Wallich's book for yourselves as part of our display and make your own judgement.
Kew's Asian correspondents
In our choice of epistles to feature we have tried to represent every part of Asia covered in the collection, from Charles Ford in Hong Kong to Charles Telfair in Mauritius.
The display showcases the letters of Charles Ford who was the first director of the Hong Kong Botanic Garden and an economic botany enthusiast, who wrote about the subject and sent many practical and ornamental economic botany artefacts to Kew.
Top: Letters from Charles Ford on display with a natural plant washing sponge, tools used for harvesting Chinese cinnamon, an illustration of Chinese cinnamon dating to 1656, and an ornate carved picture frame.
Bottom: Detail of the carved picture frame.
One of Charles Ford's contributions to Kew's Economic Botany Collection was an ornate frame made of Pai-cha wood (Euonymus maackii), and produced in the renowned carving centre of Ningbo. To find out how the craftsman achieved such detail you can read the letter Ford sent describing the process, now on display alongside the frame and hosted digitally on JSTOR Plant Science.
Henry Nicholas Ridley
Representing Malaysia and Singapore is Henry Nicholas Ridley. As well as being a long-serving director at the Singapore Botanic Garden, Ridley travelled throughout Malaysia. You can see one of his expedition photo albums on display, as well as letters concerning his outspoken protest against deforestation, and material relating to his pioneering work in establishing the rubber plantation industry.
Ridley at the tapping of one of the first rubber trees introduced at Singapore
John George Champion
Champion represents Kew's correspondents who were not trained botanists but for whom botany and plant hunting was a passionate hobby. Champion was a soldier stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). One of the letters tells us that he was known as 'the Lion of the Punjab' but the letters paint a picture of a gentle man who desperately wanted to achieve in the field of botany and who wrote to his sister 'I thank God I have never yet had occasion to slay anyone with my own hand, although I have been target enough, and have only escaped through God's will.'
Champion was also an amateur illustrator and included many illustrations of plants with his letters to Kew's then director Sir William Hooker.
Illustration of an Anonaceae by J G Champion, sent with a letter from Sri Lanka to Kew
The historic geographical filing of the Directors' Correspondence places Mauritius, somewhat unusually, in the Asia section of the collection. Charles Telfair was an important figure in establishing the study of natural history in Mauritius. Among the correspondence on display are some of his letters relating to Cerbera tanghin the plant used in the 'Tanghin ordeal', once employed in Madagascar as a trial for those suspected of witchcraft, or persons accused of committing crimes. You can find out more about the Tanghin ordeal by visiting us in the Library to see the display or by checking out our previous blog on the subject.
Come visit us
These are just some examples of the letters and complimentary materials on display in the Reading Room, which is open to visitors, by appointment, between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Do come along to visit.
- Visiting the Library
- Se the digitised Directors' Correspondence at JSTOR Plant Science
- What is the Directors' Correspondence collection
- More Library, Art & Archives blog entries
- Donate - Help us look after our art collections and heritage
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Hello. My name is Elisabeth and I am the new Archives and Records Management Graduate Trainee joining the Archives team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Elisabeth in the Kew's Archives Store
Before arriving at Kew I studied for a Contemporary History MA at the University of Sussex. Whilst working for my degree I gained relevant experience through volunteering at a number of archives. I volunteered weekly at the University of Sussex archive, cataloguing the University’s own collectionand was later employed by the University to repackage the directives sent out by the Mass Observation Project– a unique study of everyday life in Britain. Alongside this I volunteered for the National Trust at 2 Willow Road. Designed and occupied by the modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger, it now houses the archive of the Goldfinger family. Here I gained experience invigilating researchers and was involved in the early stages of digitising the collection.
New at Kew
I learned about the graduate trainee role through Kew's website and was attracted by the chance to build on my experiences and learn more about the day-to-day running of an archive.
As the new archive graduate trainee my duties include responding to enquiries, identifying and retrieving items for researchers in the reading room and managing reprographics orders. I will also be working on a number of projects, including the repackaging of some of Kew’s archival collections.
One of my first tasks was to prepare a display for the recent London Open House weekend held in September, celebrating the architecture of the buildings at Kew.
Open House archive display at Kew
The Japanese Gateway
Whilst finding archive items for the display I learned a lot about the history of the buildings at Kew – including the charming story behind the origins of the Japanese Gateway or Chokushi-Mon.
The Japanese Gateway today
Chokushi-Mon, ‘the Gateway of the Imperial Messenger’, is a four-fifths size replica of a gateway in Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan. The replica was built for the Japan-British Exhibition, held in London in 1910. The intricate carvings on the gateway portray oriental legends and the exhibition proved hugely popular, attracting more than 8 million visitors.
The extract below is taken from a letter, from Keisuke Niwa Esq., representing the Kyoto Exhibitors’ Association, sent to David Prain, the then director of Kew, informing him of the decision to present the gateway as a gift to the Gardens. Happily accepted, after the exhibition closed, the gateway was dismantled and reconstructed at Kew.
Extract from Letter - Dated 12 September 1910 (archive reference: QX/KPG)
This is just one of the fascinating stories that make up the history of the Gardens. I’m really looking forward to learning more about the archive, the Gardens, and the people involved in making it such a wonderful place to spend a year’s archive trainee-ship today.
- Elisabeth -
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I am writing during my last week at Kew and thought I would share with you some of my favourite moments over the past year. I can’t believe my time here is almost over. It has sped by. I am excited about starting my course but will miss everyone in the Library, as they were all so welcoming and willing to share their expertise.
I have enjoyed the varied nature of my work here at Kew. I have been fortunate enough to have catalogued many of the books that have entered Kew’s vast library collection this year and to see how my cataloguing has helped our visitors. Alongside my cataloguing and enquiry desk shifts, I have been able to work on various projects with Steph, the Archives Graduate trainee, including creating a display that celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and her links with Kew, and writing a guide to the book scanner. During my time here I have learned so much about how libraries are shaped by their users and how vital it is to embrace digitisation, and I know this knowledge will help me with my course.
Memorable moments in the Gardens this year
This year has been a great year to have been at Kew. The David Nash exhibition in the gardens and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery has been excellent and it has been interesting to see new pieces of David Nash’s work taking shape in the Wood Quarry.
Oculus Slab, 2010, Eucalyptus by David Nash displayed in the Princess of Wales Conservatory
It was exciting to be here when the Olympic flame came through the Gardens as part of the official Olympic torch relay, and to experience the great atmosphere that it generated in the gardens. It was definitely a moment I won’t forget.
The Olympic torch relay as it went through the gardens
I am leaving to begin a Masters course in Library Science at City University, London. I chose City to take my Librarianship qualification because the Library Science course there examines the changing nature of librarianship and the future of libraries. The course is also one of those accredited by CILIP the institute for library professionals.
Thanks for reading my blog posts this year and please look out for future posts from the new Graduate trainees, Marc and Elisabeth, over the coming months.
- Debora -
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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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