Library, Art and Archives blog
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It is not often that, on reading through the Directors' Correspondence, we come across a murder report. Yet this is exactly what we uncovered recently when digitising a volume of letters from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the early 1900s. The story is a tragic one and serves as a reminder of the conflicts that arose as a result of European colonialism and striking cultural clashes.
Dr C B Robinson
Charles Budd Robinson was born in Nova Scotia in 1871 and briefly worked at the New York Botanical Garden before joining the Bureau of Science in the Philippines. In 1913, Dr Robinson embarked upon a botanical exploration of the island of Amboina (now Ambon), in Indonesia, with great enthusiasm and was well liked among both the European and native inhabitants of the island, which made his murder especially shocking as it was so unexpected. The report in Kew's archives is a copy of one made by the Assistant Resident of Amboina, Mr van Dissel, to the Resident of Amboina, Mr Raedt van Oldenbarnevelt. From here, I will rely on extracts from van Dissel's report to tell the sorry tale.
Reads: Copy of the inclosure to the communication of the Resident of Amboina, of December 27th, 1913; No. 7899. Report on the murder of Dr C. B. Robinson.
Extract from a copy of Dr Robinson's muder report by Mr van Dissel, Assistant Resident of Amboina
The story unfolds
Dr Robinson was reported missing on 11 December 1913, having left on a botanical excursion six days earlier. 'The general impression was that there had been an accident, because Dr Robinson, as a botanist, was in the habit of frequenting the most remote places'. It was a few more days before the truth behind his disappearance finally emerged and van Dissel pieced it together as best he could.
Dr Robinson arrived at a remote settlement where 'A young Boetenese...who had climbed up a coconut tree to get a few coconuts...saw Dr Robinson standing at the foot of the tree' and became frightened – unused to seeing a European in such a remote place. He hurried home and 'here he caused much excitement among the people by telling them that he was being pursued by a European. Dr Robinson, who followed the boy, then arrived at the settlement and asked for a drink...whereupon a woman handed him a glass of water.'
Plant-hunter or head-hunter?
Some confusion then arises as to the exact cause of the murder, but statements made by the boy caused the investigators to deduce that 'the people were in fear and trembling that Dr Robinson would do them some harm, on account of rumours which regularly make the rounds of the Moluccas in the months of November and December'. These rumours related to the ritual of head-hunting, which was previously observed in some regions of Indonesia and known as 'potong kapala' (literally: to chop someone's head off), which left people afraid of certain persons or 'creatures' seeking to decapitate them. Possibly, poor Robinson was taken to be one of these malevolent persons.
Extract taken from the obituary of Charles Budd Robinson
'The headman of the settlement followed Dr Robinson, armed with an axe, and said to one of his countrymen: "There goes a dangerous European who wants to cut off our heads; I am going to kill him," ' – and he did, with the help of five others. 'The body, with everything found on it, was wrapped in coconut leaves, weighted with stones, and sunk in the sea'. Van Dissel goes on to assert that 'This misfortune would never have happened to Dr Robinson had he not started out unaccompanied...Moreover, I can imagine how natives living in remote regions...and already unreasonably afraid of Europeans, should be much frightened by the aspect of Dr Robinson...who dressed in khaki cloth, with a queer small felt hat on his head and carrying a kind of hunting knife, looked quite different from any of the Europeans one sees hereabouts'. Even in Ambon City, the locals said he looked like a convict.
Another embellishment of this story is that Dr Robinson actually asked the boy to cut him down a coconut. Regrettably, the Malay word for coconut, 'kelapa', is decidedly similar to the word for head, 'kepala', and so Dr Robinson, with his poor knowledge of Malay, may actually have asked to cut off the boy's head. Whatever the true reason, superstition and fear took over and Dr Robinson was sadly killed. His death came as something as a shock to the relatively safe country, and was keenly felt by the whole of Ambon as he had gained the affection of the entire community. He was amiable and well known by the locals who referred to him as 'Dr Kembang' – the flower doctor.
Reads: Dr. Robinson was an amiable person. According to the children of Ambon, who brought him specimens for his herbarium and to whom he was always so kind and friendly, he was incapable of doing any harm. His death has coused general compassion among the poulation of Ambon.
Extract taken from a copy of Mr Raedt van Oldenbarnevelt's letter to the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies
The final word goes to Resident Mr Raedt van Oldenbarnevelt, who, in a letter to the Governor General of the Dutch Indies, reminds us of the perils of miscommunication when he writes that Robinson 'had taken a great liking to the population, as they were always very kind and accommodating towards him on his many excursions through the interior of Ambon...Although I myself had frequently advised him not to go out alone...because he spoke Malay so poorly.'
- Charlotte -
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To complement the David Nash exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, I have selected two groups of contemporary paintings from my collection. His work with trees inspired me to select paintings of leaves for their vital role in growth, and his work using charred and decaying wood prompted my display of fungi portraits.
Portraits of fungi
‘The Colours of Russula’ Russula sp. by Alexander Viazmensky
Although fungi have traditionally been considered plants and part of botany, scientists now agree that they are not plants at all. Lacking the ability to photosynthesize and with a distinctive type of cell wall, DNA studies show they are more closely related to animals. However, fungi in the form of mycorrhizae have an exceedingly important symbiotic association in mineral nutrition with the roots of many plant species, especially trees. Also, fungi are much involved with the decay of leaves and wood after death, facilitating the recycling of forests and woodlands.
Alexander Viazmensky has painted a number of lively portraits of fungi. He scatters sketches of pine needles and leaves of beech or birch around his paintings together with scraps of moss and ferns, the sort of debris picked up when collecting the fungi, giving clues to the habitat in which they are found.
Morchella elata by Alexander Viazmensky
I have acquired works from Viazmensky since 1992. He told me that he collects most of his specimens from the woods near to St. Petersburg. Sometimes he will have to wait several years to complete a painting that is missing a particular stage of development, perhaps an emerging ‘button’ or a fully mature mushroom or toadstool. His composition The Colours of Russula took a long time, as he needed to collect a wide range of species to fit his composition. He finds the edible Morchella elata with its convoluted, ridged and pitted surface the most challenging subject to paint. His paintings epitomise a Russian’s passion for a fungal foray and I love the vitality of his beautifully observed watercolours.
Portraits of leaves
I have always been interested in how an artist paints leaves. When I started judging botanical art in the mid 1990s I was surprised by how many novice painters gave them very superficial treatment – the flower was paramount. However I follow Ruskin who expressed it, perhaps too optimistically, 'if you can paint one leaf you can paint the world'.
Australian Tree Fern Dicksonia antartica by Stephanie Berni
In this part of the exhibition, I decided to show different stages of leaf development, starting with Stephanie Berni’s unfolding fern crozier with its tightly rolled fronds covered in hair (see above) and Martin Allen’s furry young chestnut leaves (below). At the other end of the spectrum I have included skeletal, decaying leaves by Brigid Edwards and Rebecca John. In between these are the subtle seasonal leaf changes seen in Raymond Booth’s Rosa moyesii and Malena Barretto’s large life-sized leaflet of the tropical mahogany that she found on the rainforest floor in Brazil.
Detail of Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum by Martin Allen
There are many more paintings in the exhibition showing the amazing diversity of leaves with their different shapes, sizes, colours and modifications – from thorns to tendrils. I hope that visitors will appreciate the variety and complexity of this vital part of the plant world’s photosynthesizing mechanism, as well as admire the skill with which they have been painted.
Rosa moyesii by Raymond Booth
- Dr Shirley Sherwood -
About Dr. Shirley Sherwood
Dr Shirley Sherwood is a contemporary botanical art collector who is world renowned for her extensive collections and regular exhibitions. Dr Sherwood and her husband James Sherwood, her two sons and five grandchildren all supported the building of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens, which is the only purpose-designed and continuously open gallery in the world which is dedicated solely to botanical art.
- Visit the Portraits of Leaves and Fungi exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The exhibition closes on 8 April 2013.
- Find out more about the Shirley Sherwood Collection:
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Visitors to the Library, Art & Archives’ Reading Room can enjoy the displays in the windows of the Wolfson Rare Books Room. At the moment we have an Olympic-themed display, with three plates from the monumental Flora Graeca, showing the olive (Olea europaea), the laurel (Laurus nobilis) and a view of the Acropolis and city of Athens as it was in the late 18th century.
Flora Graeca is one of the most significant botanical works ever produced: ten volumes in total which took 34 years to publish, it was the most expensive Flora ever produced, due to the many wonderful illustrations by artist extraordinaire Ferdinand Bauer. He accompanied Oxford botanist John Sibthorp on an expedition to mainland Greece between 1786 and 1787. Bauer was both highly accomplished and practical: he used a colour chart with numbers for different colours and letters for shading. To minimise the amount of paper he would have to transport around Greece, he made sketches of two or three species per page, using both sides of the paper. He covered his sketches in numbers and letters based on the colour chart, in a painting-by-numbers style, so that a botanically accurate painting could be made afterwards – sometimes many years later.
The first window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing a late 18th century view of the Acropolis and city of Athens in Sibthorp's Flora Graeca, and Masumi Yamanaka's painting which uses plants to interpret the Olympic rings
The plates on display from Flora Graeca have been chosen for their symbolic value: olive branches were used to make the victory crowns and laurel was one of the plants used in garlands of honour. The Olympic Games have their origins in ancient Greek religious festivals, where the symbolic use of plants was a common feature.
To continue the Olympic theme, we also have Kew’s latest staff photo, taken on 30 May this year, with staff standing inside the giant floral representation of the Olympic rings currently on show outside the Orangery. To complete our display, we are thrilled to show a recent painting by artist Masumi Yamanaka, showing her interpretation of the Olympic rings. Masumi has formed the five rings from five plants, chosen for their symbolic meaning and colour: olive (Olea europaea), laurel (Laurus nobilis), poppy (Papaver), lemon (Citrus limon) and Muscari, the black, green, red, yellow and blue rings respectively. Masumi took fewer than 48 hours to produce this lovely picture.
The second window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing the olive and laurel plates from Flora Graeca and also the staff photo taken inside the giant Olympic rings at Kew
To visit the Reading Room and see the display, please contact us by email (email@example.com) or telephone (020 8332 5414); we are open Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm.
- Fiona -
- Find out more about Kew's Library, Art & Archives
- View a digitised version of Sibthorp's Flora Graeca as part of the Oxford Digital Library
- See an aerial view of the giant Olympic Rings at Kew
- Search the Library catalogue online
- Visit the official sites for the London 2012 Olympic Games and also the London 2012 Paralympic Games
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I can’t believe that my year at Kew is almost over – it has absolutely flown by! Although I will be sad to leave the fascinating archive and the beautiful gardens, I am really excited about embarking on my future career as an archivist. I feel I’ve learned so much this year and have had so many opportunities to experience what working in an archive is really like, both at Kew and further afield.
I’ve really enjoyed being able to experience so many different aspects of archival work, including answering enquiries, supervising readers, retrieving documents, managing reprographics orders, cataloguing, repackaging, giving tours, producing displays and, of course, writing blog posts about the collections. I’ve also had the chance to learn about modern records management, which in turn has helped me to understand how some of our documents became archives in the first place. Additionally I’ve been given the opportunity to work with Kew’s conservators and digitisers, who do so much great work in helping to preserve our archives and in making them accessible.
Part of the Jubilee Celebration Reading Room display produced by the Graduate Trainees during their year at Kew
Touring other archives
I’ve also had the chance to visit other archives, including the National Archives at Kew, the Surrey History Centre, the archives of the Natural History Museum, the National Theatre and even Unilever up in Port Sunlight. It has been interesting to compare collections and practices at archives of different sizes and types, and to talk to other trainees and archivists about their experiences in this small profession.
My next step is to study towards a post-graduate Diploma in Archive and Records Management at University College London. It’s necessary to have a Diploma or Masters in this area to become an archivist, and several universities in the UK offer relevant courses, some via distance learning. Hopefully my year at Kew will have given me lots of practical experience to draw upon whilst on the course.
But although it’s farewell from me, don’t forget to look out for blog posts by the new Graduate Trainee in the autumn.
- Steph -
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Before we started contributing to this blog, our team published some of the more interesting finds from the Directors' Correspondence in Kew's staff magazine VISTA. We came across some of these stories recently and thought they were deserving of a wider audience.
This story was originally highlighted by our friend and one-time team member Lindsay Rosener and it describes the unusual phenomenon that one 19th century plant hunter, William Fawcett, encountered during his time as Director of the Public Gardens and Plantations in Jamaica.
In 1887, Fawcett wrote to RBG Kew's Assistant Director Daniel Morris, describing a circular rainbow and Brocken Spectre he observed one afternoon, while walking near Strawberry hill, in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC 210/126].
The "faintly coloured" circular rainbow he witnessed appeared "on the white mist which was driving up the valley". Fawcett measured the sight using his "pencil held with outstretched arm" and his letter to Morris includes a sketch of his impression of the rainbow, along with notes concerning the colour of its rings, which ranged from "yellowish white" to "reddish".
Fawcett's sketch and notes of the circular rainbow he observed while walking in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC210/126].
Fawcett writes that while measuring the rainbow, he noticed that his "black shadow was doing the same, & every gesticulation I made, could be distinctly seen against the white mist." The black shadow in question was a 'Brocken Spectre', 'broken bow' or 'mountain spectre'. This is an optical illusion in which the observer's shadow appears magnified upon the surface of the clouds.
Although Fawcett recognized the shadow as his own, he describes how "awe-inspiring" such a vision would be to someone without such understanding and suspects that contemporary portrayals of small brained giants, such as 'Jack and the Giant Killer', may stem from the shadows' unusual proportions: "The head was small, the eyes being of course in the centre of the circle, but the limbs in proportion to their distances, grew large, & the legs were of an immense length."
A beautiful example of a Brocken Spectre and circular rainbow taken from Stob Dubh in the Scottish Highlands. Photograph reproduced with kind permission from Gordon Anderson, GA Highland Walks.
The Brocken Spectre, first described in 1780 by Johann Silberschlag, derives its name from the 'Brocken' peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The circular rainbow observed by Fawcett is often seen in conjunction with the Spectre and is referred to as a 'glory'.
As is the case with many strange phenomena, the sighting of a Brocken Spectre was once thought to be a bad omen: possibly because one poor climber was said to have been so startled at the sight of this weird giant in the clouds that he stumbled and fell to his death! Thankfully, Fawcett – a man of Science – was well enough informed not to suffer the same fate.
- Helen -
- Fawcett's letters to RBG Kew can be viewed online on the JSTOR Plant science website
- Follow us on Twitter @KewDC for more fun facts, quotes and project updates from the Directors' Correspondence team
- Read more articles from the Library, Art & Archives blog
- Learn more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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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
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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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