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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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Plant collector Joseph Burke and the American West

By: Katherine Harrington - 21 Aug 2013
The fascinating correspondence of nineteenth century plant hunter Joseph Burke is being made available online for the first time through the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Project.
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From Africa to America

The Directors' Correspondence team is currently digitising a collection of nineteenth century letters to Kew's senior staff from North America. We have especially enjoyed a series of letters from Joseph Burke (1812-1873), a seemingly little-known plant collector. In fact Burke had undertaken a successful natural history collecting trip to Africa in 1839 for the 13th Earl of Derby. The Earl introduced Burke to Kew's first official Director, Sir William Hooker who, greatly impressed by his efforts, arranged for Burke to collect for the two gentlemen in the remote west of North America with the assistance of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In June 1843 Burke sailed from Gravesend to York Factory on the supply ship Rupert. We have digitised fifteen letters concerning Burke's travels. Though relatively few in number they are crammed with fascinating stories: dangerous encounters, wonderful wildlife, Blackfoot, Flathead and Nez Perce Indians, and news of emigrant parties heading for Oregon, then just on the verge of becoming an American territory.

Detail of a map of western America from Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains 

Detail of a map of western America from Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains

A challenging expedition

Burke's engrossing letters give a clear indication of the many difficulties he encountered, not least the poor communications: there was only one mail a year that would bring Burke letters and word from home. Travel was difficult with horses up to their saddles in swamps, and passage through dense, impenetrable woods. Burke reports his dog sledges and drivers falling through ice-covered rivers into the freezing waters below. On occasion supplies ran very low.

"We had scarcely anything to eat for three days. The people killed a dog to eat him. I was not quite hungry enough to join them." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]

Burke and his party traded for supplies with local Indians but this could be far from straightforward.

"At the little lake we found an Indian called the little chief & his party. They were not inclined to be very friendly with us. The Spaniards from Taos[?] had commenced fighting & had killed many of the Youtas... They made strict enquiry concerning the strength of our party, & would not trade their furs without the whole of the goods were brought [here]. Although they had abundance of trout, they would not trade any. The little chief's brother, who has always been friendly with the whites, gave us some fish... [&] told us unknown to the others, to saddle our horses and retreat as fast as possible for they were then holding a council against us. Some were for killing us at once, & others thought it better to try & persuade us to bring the rest of the party & all the goods." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]

The weather also had a deleterious effect on Burke's plant collecting;

Extract from a letter by Burke

Extract reads: "The past summer has been the most unfavourable the oldest persons about this place ever remember witnessing... We have had frost, snow, or cold rain, nearly the whole time. I expect in a few days to be able to cross the Athabasca, on my way to the Columbia, I fear I shall find but few ripened seeds on account of the unfavourable season." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.147]

Burke gives lively descriptions of the landscape, the successes and failures of hunts, and his meetings with various Indians. In the autumn of 1845 Burke travelled with Hudson's Bay Company men to obtain buffalo meat for the winter. Their party joined a large camp of Nez Perce who were suffering a great deal of sickness, especially amongst the children.

"The Indian doctors were all busily employed, & a great noise they made. It was enough to give a person in health the headache, to be in the same lodge with them. The Medicine man... has several helpers, who beat with sticks on a piece of wood laid across the lodge. They all sing at the top of their voices... They say it is to frighten away the sickness. These Medicine men are often shot. When the patient gets worse... Although it is a dangerous calling it is so profitable that there is no want of doctors. Amongst the Crows[?] the Medicine bag is more dreaded than any enemy." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.151]

Success at last

Although Burke felt his collecting was thwarted he did meet with success and reported to Hooker that he was sending the Earl of Derby: male & female skins of Mountain sheep, the skin of a wolverine, 29 small quadrupeds, 80 birds, two species of fish, a few birds' eggs and a small box of butterflies. Another letter provides detailed notes regarding various seeds collected during the summer of 1845. One of these includes Camas grass, the bulbs of which were collected by Indian women for food. A ground kiln was constructed and when sufficiently heated the ashes were removed and the space filled with camas. A large fire was made over the top and in three days the camas was perfectly baked. It was then taken out and worked by hand into cakes.

 Photo of specimen of Lupinus burkei collected by Burke in 'Snake Country'

Type specimen of Lupinus burkei collected by Burke in 'Snake Country', RBGK herbarium specimen K000829353.

An unfortunate conclusion

In the autumn of 1846 Burke was stunned to receive a letter from Hooker informing him that his funds had been cut off, in spite of the fact that Burke had clearly explained the difficulties he had encountered and at a time when all his collections had not yet reached England.

"I think Sir William it is a very hard case if a collector is sent from the Royal Botanic Garden to a country where he cannot send his collections by any means by the time mentioned in your letter, that his funds are to be stopped. If it only means my salary I think very little of that, but should it mean that my supplies are to be stopped in the country, it would dishonour me for life." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]

Burke hoped Hooker would forgive him for retiring from his employment without awaiting an answer as it "would be two years upwards before I could receive one." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]

Burke returned to England and did eventually resolve his financial relationship with Hooker before emigrating to Missouri with his family in 1848. Burke's fascinating correspondence will shortly be made available via the JSTOR Global Plants website.



Further information:

The following works can be found in RBG Kew's library:

  • The Man Who Did Not Go To California: A paper read to the Canadian Historical Association at Edmonton, R. Glover, 5 June 1975.
  • A Hard Case in the Oregon Country: Letters of English Botanist Joseph Burke 1844 – 1846, D.R. Johnson, 2001.
  • A Region Of Astonishing Beauty: The Botanical Exploration of the Rocky Mountains, R.L. Williams, 2003.

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Behind the scenes at Kew's Archives

By: Betty Atkins - 12 Aug 2013
History student Betty Atkins writes about her experiences during a two week internship with the Archives department here at Kew, and what she has learned from her first hand encounter with historical documents.
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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 correspondence repackaged by Betty

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.

Lessons learned

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...

Photo of the Herbarium building entrance

The entrance to the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives building on Kew Green

 - Betty -


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William Robinson at Kew's Library

By: Craig Brough - 02 Aug 2013
Kew Librarian Craig Brough writes about the influential 19th century gardening author William Robinson, his garden at Gravetye Manor, and their connection to Kew.
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Gravetye Manor

Gravetye Manor

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

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. 

Letter from Robinson to Kew
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). 

Garden at Gravetye Manor

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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Food for thought – some incredible edibles from Kew's DC archive

By: Helen Hartley - 23 Jul 2013
A peculiar pineapple, a recipe for pumpkin and some alternative appetisers – see what incredible edibles we've uncovered in Kew's DC Archive!
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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.

Peculiar Pineapple!

I couldn't resist starting with the most peculiar pineapple I've ever seen...

Hen and Chickens Pineapple

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 with yams

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.


Bonavia pumpkin recipe

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!


Reptilian Refections

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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John Lindley, the man who saved Kew

By: Joanne Yeomans - 11 Jul 2013
John Lindley, botanist, gardener and orchidologist, is little known nowadays but he played a vital role in preserving Kew Gardens for the nation. Now Kew's exhibition of works by his great grandson, Rory McEwen, is reviving interest in his role and in his own artworks.
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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.

Photo of John Lindley

John Lindley (1799-1865)

Lindley's proposals

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.


Painting of Rosa cinnamomea by John Lindley

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

Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art

Rory McEwen

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

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

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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