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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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Meet award-winning botanical illustrator Lucy Smith & discover her line drawings

By: Julia Buckley - 17 Jun 2013
Lucy Smith recently won second prize in the Margaret Flockton award for botanical illustration. Read about her work as a botanical illustrator at Kew.
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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.

Photo of botanical illustrator Lucy Smith

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. 

Lecomtella illustration by Lucy Smith

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 

Photo of examples of dried palm specimens folded for storage

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 Smith

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. 

Calamus eximus illustration by Lucy Smith

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:

- Julia -


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The beginnings of Missouri Botanical Garden

By: Virginia Mills - 10 Jun 2013
Letter and plans from Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive give a glimpse into the humble beginnings of one of botany's most revered institutions - Missouri Botanical Garden - and its founder Henry Shaw.
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains letters written to Kew from many botanic gardens all over the world. They have origins as arenas to show off the natural plant splendours of tropical colonies, as experimental gardens trialling plants with potential economic value, as physic gardens dedicated to medicinal plants and as learning spaces attached to universities and herbaria . Missouri Botanical Garden was founded, it seems, purely as an act of philanthropy by a man who had made his fortune in St Louis and wanted to give his adopted city the gift of a garden. 

Henry Shaw, Founder

His name was Henry Shaw and in 1856 he wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker - a complete stranger addressing the Director of the foremost Botanic Garden in the world (Kew of course!), seeking advice on his plans for a botanic garden in Missouri.

Black and white photo of the founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Henry Shaw

Founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Henry Shaw (1800-1889)

Writing to Kew

In his letter to Hooker Shaw announces himself modestly as, "a proprietor of some land in the vicinity of St Louis". In fact he was one of the largest landowners in the city and had made enough money to retire by 1840, at the age of just 40. The freedom afforded by such wealth allowed Shaw to travel and develop his enthusiasm for botany. We know he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew during his travels and that, along with the Glasgow Botanic Garden and the gardens at Chatsworth, they were a great source of inspiration.

When Shaw returned to St Louis in 1851 he began work on transforming some of his own land into a garden. Five years later he wrote to Kew for advice and outlined what his planned garden would look like.

Photo of a letter from Henry Shaw to Kew Director Sir William Jackson Hooker

Extract of a letter from Henry Shaw to Kew Director Sir William Jackson Hooker, dated 1856.

Plans for a Garden

Shaw writes that the garden is to be 18 to 20 acres in area and surrounded by a wall. It will include an arboretum for such fruit trees as will stand the Missouri climate: apples, pears and peaches. Also plant houses, the building of which Shaw will superintend himself. The letter also shows that he is already determined the garden should be of scientific value rather than purely a pleasure park. He plans to build a museum and lecture hall and has consulted with the principals of nearby medical schools. This approach no doubt pleased Kew's staunch man of science, William Hooker. The advice Shaw wanted from Hooker was botanical: what plants should he populate his fledgling botanical garden with? The answering letter may lie in Missouri's own archive and is perhaps still evident in some of the garden's planting.

Plan of Henry's Shaw's public garden

Plan of Henry's Shaw's public garden

Download a larger image (pdf)

Shaw's letter is fascinating to me as an insight into the humble and rather heart-warming beginnings of one of the world's great botanical institutions. It is also particularly nice as he sent plans of the position and layout of the garden with his letter (and I love a nice old map). 

  Map showing the location of Shaw's public garden

Map showing the location of Shaw's public garden, 1856.

Download a larger image (pdf)

Shaw's Garden Legacy

Shaw opened his botanical garden to the public in 1859. Since then it has quadrupled in size and is a renowned centre of science, but is still apparently known affectionately as "Shaw's Garden" and Shaw himself is also remembered in a mausoleum within the garden.



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Celebrating the launch of JSTOR Global Plants

By: Kat Harrington - 24 May 2013
Kew's unique Directors' Correspondence collection is being made available digitally through a new collaborative website, JSTOR Global Plants.
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This month sees the launch of JSTOR Global Plants (formerly JSTOR Plant Science) a community-contributed dataset featuring more than 2 million high resolution plant type specimen images as well as reference works, drawings, paintings, photographs and archive materials related to plants and the history of botany.

The database is the product of an ongoing collaboration between more than 270 herbaria worldwide and one of the primary source highlights is Kew's very own Directors' Correspondence collection (DC) which provides an amazing variety of explorers' correspondence, predominantly from the 1830s to the 1920s.

Image of a hand drawn map of the area around Lake Shirwa, Mozambique c.1860, from John Kirk, part of RBG Kew's Directors' Correspondence Collection.

Detail of a map of the area around Lake Shirwa, Mozambique c.1860, from John Kirk, chief assistant to David Livingstone on the second Zambesi Expedition, part of RBG Kew's Directors' Correspondence Collection. [Archives ref DC 60/153]

Users can search original letters and documents from the DC collection from Africa (c.7600 letters), Latin America (c.7400 letters), and Asia (c.9400 letters). We are currently working hard to add the North American DC collection. For a taste of the kind of items available check out our previous Library, Art & Archives blog posts.

An advert for the JSTOR Global Plants website.

JSTOR Global Plants is a subscription site; access is available through terminals in Kew's Library Reading Room. Non-subscribers are able to search, view metadata, view thumbnail images and comment. We hope you enjoy browsing this amazing collection!



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Conserving Darwin's Letters

By: Eleanor Hasler - 17 May 2013
Discover more about the conservation work carried out on one of the most important, popular and fascinating collection in the Archives.
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Amongst the several million original items in Kew’s Archives is a series of 44 letters between Charles Darwin and his mentor, Professor John Henslow, which document Darwin’s travels on HMS Beagle. Written between 1831 and 1837 these fascinating letters show Darwin’s theories developing as he collected specimens and reported his findings back to Cambridge. The tone of the letters is very amiable giving an interesting and moving insight into Darwin’s experiences, an example being his excited reaction to being told he had been accepted on the expedition by Captain Fitzroy - ‘Gloria in excelsis is the most moderate beginning I can think of’!

Photo of an archivist surface cleaning Darwin's signature
Surface cleaning a letter


The letters were presented for conservation loose, having previously been taken out of their poor quality nineteenth century binding. Although the paper was a good quality, often large tears and losses were evident especially around the edges and wax seals. Various types of repairs had been added to the letters, and the paper tabs used to stitch the letters into the binding were still adhered to the letters, often obscuring the text. The main problem, however, was the degrading ink which was evident on all of the letters. Darwin had used iron gall ink – an ink which was used extensively throughout the nineteenth century but one which can, due to its components, ‘corrode’ the paper in and around the ink line.

Photo of a detail of corroded ink
Ink and paper loss due to ink corrosion.

Losses, as well as 'haloing' and 'strikethrough' of the ink were evident on the letters so stabilisation of the ink needed to take place in order for the writing to remain legible and to minimise further degradation of the paper support.

Images showing UV light highlighting further possible degradtion of the ink in the letters
Absorption of UV light indicates the presence of iron gall ink. The visible presence of writing on the reverse side, during UV light investigation, indicates a risk of future ‘strikethrough’ of ink, if left in its current state.


All of the letters needed surface cleaning, and previous repairs and tabs had to be removed prior to treatment of the ink. After slow humidification to minimise movement and stress in the paper, the letters were immersed into a water bath and then into an aqueous solution of calcium ammonium phytate. Deacidification then took place in aqueous calcium bicarbonate and the letters were subsequently re-sized with gelatin. This procedure stabilised the ink and allowed for the necessary repairs to the letters to be adhered. Losses were infilled using a toned Japanese paper and tears were repaired so that all the writing was legible.

Photo of Darwin letters in bath during treatment
A batch of letters in the first bath of cold water

The letters were re-housed in a specially designed folder which allows for each letter to be viewed without the risk of any further damage. This was a fascinating project which allowed me to investigate the best way to preserve these important letters for the future whilst respecting their unique history. Thank you to the several generous individuals who made the conservation of these letters possible.

Photo of the bespoke folder housing the treated letters
Letters in the leather bound folder after treatment


- Eleanor Hasler -


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Rory McEwen - The Colours of Reality

By: Joanne Yeomans - 10 May 2013
A new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art showcases botanical illustration from artist Rory McEwen, along with his other artistic talents.
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We are all very excited to introduce our new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art detailing the life and work of Rory McEwen, a talented artist, botanical illustrator and musician. Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality, will exhibit work from the 1950s up to the late 1980s detailing his aptitude for botanical illustration, music and poetry with works loaned from his family and from other private collectors.

Painting of Radcliffe Square by Rory McEwen

Radcliffe Square by Rory McEwen

The new exhibition is accompanied by a display from Dr Shirley Sherwood’s collection which looks at how Rory McEwen has influenced a new generation of botanical artists. Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection has been curated by Dr Shirley Sherwood and will feature work from artists such as Kate Nessler, Annie Farrer, Pandora Sellars and Celia Hegadüs who were all influenced by Rory McEwen in some way. Their work will be displayed next to some of McEwen’s own paintings which are also in the Shirley Sherwood Collection.

Illustration of Courgette Tendrils II by Annie Farrer

Courgette Tendrils II by Annie Farrer from the Shirley Sherwood Collection

McEwen himself was influenced by great botanical painters of the past, most notably Pierre-Joseph Redouté who was painting at the turn of the nineteenth century. McEwen saw Redouté’s ‘Roses’ in person when he was twenty years old as he knew Wilfred Blunt while Blunt was writing his book 'The Art of Botanical Illustration'. McEwen’s works blend art and science together as they are botanically accurate along with being artistic. While taking influence from old masters such as Redouté, McEwen was also affected by contemporary art movements. McEwen worked on vellum, a traditional material. He liked the smoothness of the surface and using very small strokes of dry watercolour he created botanically accurate depictions but simultaneously he was aware of the whole canvas perhaps taking inspiration from Minimalism, and the importance of negative space, making the subject matter look like it’s floating surrounded by bare vellum.


Illustration: Gingko Leaf East 61st Street New York by Rory McEwen

Gingko Leaf East 61st Street New York by Rory McEwen from the Shirley Sherwood Collection

Another aspect of McEwen’s botanical illustration career that sets him aside was his custom of recording imperfections in his natural subject matter. He painted objects such as fallen leaves, which would normally be discarded, and recorded what he saw accurately to create ‘plant portraits’, making the subject matter individual. His depictions of plants were never too stylized or formal but retained the botanical accuracy required for the art form while being interjected with artistic influences of the twentieth century. McEwen’s artwork developed and changed throughout the course of his career. He altered his subject matter and compositions, experimented with collage and sculpture, and continued to take influence from many diverse sources. We hope you’ll come and visit the exhibition to find out more about the life and work of Rory McEwen.

Photo of Rory McEwen with his paintings of Auriculas

Rory McEwen with his Auricula paintings


The book to accompany this exhibition is available in hardback or paperback from the Kew online shop.

Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality is on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art from 11 May to 22 September 2013. Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection will be on display until January 2014. The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is open daily from 9.30am, please contact the gallery on 0208 332 3622 for any enquiries.


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