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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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Celebrating David Livingstone's Bicentenary

By: Lorna Cahill - 19 Mar 2013
To celebrate the bicentenary of African explorer David Livingstone, the Archives team reveal his connection to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and how you can see more of his letters online.
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Today, 19th March 2013, marks the 200th Birthday of David Livingstone (1813-1873), noted explorer of Africa, national hero, and friend to Kew Gardens!


Livingstone Signature

Livingstone and Kew

Livingstone wrote letters and sent plants and seeds to Kew during his journeys across Africa. Below is an excerpt from a list written by Livingstone upon his return to England in 1857, describing various edible plants he encountered on his expedition. 

Livingstone letter excerpt

Directors' Correspondence Vol 59, folio 190

“III. Koma a round hard rinded fruit. When the seeds taken out it is the most fashionable snuff box the Makololo have. Before being dried some of it is edible. I never tasted it.”

From 1858 to 1864, Livingstone, along with Dr John Kirk, travelled along the Zambezi River, exploring its tributaries and identifying natural resources. During this expedition, both Kirk and Livingstone corresponded with Kew, sending plants to be identified, sketch maps of Lakes along the river, meteorological observations and even tools made from plants to be displayed in Kew’s Museum. These are all still held as part of Kew’s Archive, Herbarium and Economic Botany Collections.

Reading more of Livingstone's letters

Anyone can come and visit our Reading Room to view our Livingstone letters. You can also now access them from home via Livingstone Online , an international project collecting together images and transcriptions of Livingstone’s manuscripts from many different institutions , including the National Library of Scotland, the British Library, the School of Oriental and African Studies Library, and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.




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Discovering David Douglas through the Directors' Correspondence

By: Charlotte Rowley - 13 Mar 2013

Read extracts from the letters of David Douglas in the Directors' Correspondence, and learn more about this remarkable plant-hunter and explorer.

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Having digitised the first few volumes of the Directors' Correspondence (DC) from North America, it is fitting that we begin our series of North American blogs with the great Scottish botanist and explorer,  David Douglas. We briefly introduced Douglas in an earlier blog and his remarkable story, lively character and affection for his Scotch Terrier, Billy, make him a firm favourite with the team.

Portrait of David Douglas
Portrait of David Douglas from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Much can be learned of Douglas's fascinating biography from material already published, so here I just want to show a glimpse of his character and adventures using the letters he wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker between 1830 and 1834.

Douglas In North America & Canada

Having already made two remarkable plant-hunting expeditions to North America and Canada on behalf of the Horticultural Society between 1823 and 1827, Douglas returned to Vancouver in 1830 to continue his valuable work. The DC collection contains a hand-drawn map by Archibald McDonald of the Hudson's Bay Company roughly depicting some of the areas Douglas visited on his third, and final, expedition:

Map drawn by Archibald McDonald

Map of areas visited by David Douglas between 1830 and 1834 by Archibald McDonald, with additional annotation [Archive ref: DC 62 f.100a]

Douglas first travelled up the Columbia River, where he discovered many new species including Abies grandis (Grand Fir). A letter from this time shows that success was not easily come by; he narrowly escaped disaster on two occasions:

"An intermittent fever dreadfully fatal broke out...11 weeks ago... not a soul remains!! The houses empty and the flocks of famished dogs howling and dead bodies in every direction... I am one of the very few among the persons of the [Hudson Bay] Company who have stood it...The ship which sailed with us was totally wrecked on entering the River but I am glad to say no lives were lost. To this ship I was at first appointed and... I should have lost my all." [Archive ref:DC61 f.96]

Extract of a cross-written letter from Douglas to Hooker
Extract of a cross-written letter from David Douglas to Sir William Hooker, 11 Oct 1830 [Archive ref:DC61 f.96]

Collecting in California and Hunting in Hawaii

Having returned to Vancouver, Douglas then set off for California where he botanised extensively. His discoveries included Pinus sabiniana, Pinus radiata and Pinus coulteri causing him to write in a letter to Hooker "you will begin to think shortly I manufacture pines at my pleasure".

In August 1832, Douglas sailed for the Sandwich [now Hawaiian] Islands, arriving in Honolulu. From there he sent a letter to Hooker's eldest son, William Dawson Hooker, who had previously written to him about a fishing trip. He explained:

In the Sandwich Islands, the Islanders domesticate their fish. They catch when only about 2 inches long 2 kinds of mullet...which they remove to large ponds of brackish or partly salt water...where they grow exceedingly large and fine...Those fellows know something of fishing."

Extract of letter from Douglas to William Dawson Hooker
Extract of letter from David Douglas to William Dawson Hooker, 23 Oct 1832 [Archive ref: DC61 f.108]

In Honolulu, Douglas made many astronomical observations, although in the same letter we see that these were somewhat hampered by the wildlife:

"You must tell Joseph I have now a mortal antipathy (more if more can be) to cockroaches than he has for I made a great many observations at the Sandwich Islands...and the vile cockroaches ate up the whole paper and as there was a little oil on my shoes they nearly ate them up." [Archive ref: DC61 f.108]

Final Journey

Douglas returned to Vancouver and in March 1833 set off up the Columbia and Thompson Rivers to Stuart Lake, in British Columbia. Unable to find a party going to the coast, he travelled back down the Fraser River and there met with disaster:

"At the 'Stony Islands' of Frasers canoo [sic] was dashed to pieces when I lost every article I then possessed...the collection of plants was about 400 species, of which 250 were mosses - a few of them were new. I cannot tell you how much this has worn me down." [Archive ref: DC61 f.112]

To add to his suffering, Douglas's adventures had clearly taken their toll on his health by this time as he wrote:

"My left eye is infinitely more delicate than ever...but my right one is no longer useful to me...I fear that the attack of ophthalmia I had in 1826 then snow-blindness then the intense scorching heat of California...has ruined it. I use purple goggles for the snow...against my reluctance[?] for it makes all plants this colour." [Archive ref: DC61 f.110]

Douglas made it back down the Columbia River and in November 1833 again sailed for Hawaii. Sadly, this was to be his last adventure as just eight months later he was found dead in a pit trap, trampled by an enraged bull. The circumstances surrounding his death sparked rumours of murder, but a subsequent investigation found no evidence of this.

Extract of a notice of Douglas's death
Extract of Press Cutting from the Perthshire Royal Horticultural Society, 23 Nov 1885 [Archive ref: DC62 f.71a]

There are many excellent resources giving further detail about the remarkable life of David Douglas, including the recently published book, The Plant Hunters, with much of the information being taken from his letters to Hooker. Stories such as these serve to highlight the unique value of the Directors' Correspondence collection.  


- Charlotte -


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Introducing the Library Graduate Trainee

By: Marc Muller - 06 Mar 2013
Meet Kew's current Library Graduate Trainee and discover the range of interesting duties his role comprises
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Hello, I’m Marc Muller, this year’s graduate trainee for the library at Kew. I started back in September last year and every day there are more interesting books being delivered, waiting to be catalogued and put onto the system. Although this is my first time working at Kew, I had previously volunteered at the British Library, helping to catalogue canal plans and maps for the digital mapping department. After that I ran quality assurance on websites gathered for the UK web archive assessing and reporting any errors I found. These activities established my interest in information retrieval, preservation and distribution and gave me a good foundation on which to build up my skills at Kew. The library here is a world-leading example example of these three activities in the context of its specialisms in botanical knowledge and history.

Photo of new books displayed in the Kew library

The new books display in the library reading room

I am in charge of the regular display of new books in our reading room which allows us to show off the variety and depth of the information that we hold in the library. I work with the other members of the team to catalogue new books and this has helped me further develop my knowledge of the key cataloguing standards including AACR2 and MARC21 that I first learnt about at the British Library. I work on small projects, help other members of the library team with their tasks, and assist on the reading room enquiry desk as a resource retrieval officer, locating particular items for users. Recently I completed a reorganisation of the nursery catalogue lists, creating public and staff lists which can now be easily accessed and displayed.

Book cover image for 'La flore des Alpes-Maritimes'

One of the new books I recently catalogued: La flora des Alpes-Maritimes et de la Principaute de Monaco 

My time at the library so far has been brilliant for a number of reasons. I find the wonderful depth and breadth of botanical knowledge, from Soviet-era floras to monographs of medicinal plants, really fascinating. These books show how strong the library's ties are around the world. The scope of the botanical knowledge within the collections both past and present also illustrates Kew's efforts to conserve and preserve increasingly endangered plants and ecosystems worldwide, and the importance of this work. Items come from a variety of sources. For example, as well as those purchased by the Acquisitions Librarian, many are donated by a wide range of philanthropic, scientific and private individuals. I particularly enjoy searching the library stacks and stores for recent or historical texts and assisting readers by either providing them with new information or helping to clarify their ideas.

Lastly, I also very much enjoy working with the staff here who I find both friendly and engaging, and who frequently share new ideas with me on further developing the library services. I look forward to updating everyone about my continuing time here at Kew.


- Marc -


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The 'Orchid King' and his army

By: Elisabeth Thurlow - 25 Feb 2013
Read about the dangers of orchid collecting as Kew's graduate trainee repackages a collection of letters held in the Kew Gardens' Archives.
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With Orchids at Kew in full swing at Kew Gardens it seems fitting to draw attention to one of my ongoing projects. In the Archives, as I have been repackaging a collection of letters sent to the orchidologist, Frederick Sander, considered to be ‘the Orchid King’ of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This collection is being treated to a bit of much needed T.L.C. to make it accessible to current users and also to preserve it for our future generations. Whilst re-housing the letters in archival standard materials, I am also producing an index to the letters making them more accessible to researchers. As I repackage the collection I am learning more about the 'Orchid King' and his loyal legion of collectors. 

Photo of Frederick Sander

Portrait of Frederick Sander held in the Kew Gardens Illustrations collection. RBG Kew.

 Engaging an army of plant collectors all over the world, Sander filled his greenhouses with enormous shipments of orchids. Frequented by kings and nobles, he could even count the Pope as one of his many loyal customers.


Photo of orchids on display at Kew Gardens

 Orchids on display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. RBG Kew.

Plant hunting - a risky business 

But at what cost did Sander amass these valuable orchids? Plant hunting proved to be a very hazardous game to be involved in. The letters sent to Sander from his ‘travellers’ shed light on the dangerous practice.

After visiting Kew and mapping the route taken by previous collectors in his search for an elusive orchid, Sander sent the German plant collector, William Micholitz, on a hunt to the remote island of New Guinea. Here Micholitz was horrified by the ritual sacrifices of the native tribes. Fearing for his life, Micholitz collected all that he could before his retreat only for the ship carrying the plants to catch fire. Sanders simple reply? Return and recollect.

On his reluctant return, this time accompanied by an armed guard, Micholitz now found the jungles to be empty of the precious orchid. Searching for an alternative location, in the letter below Micholitz recounts his joy when he eventually stumbles upon the sought after flower, growing amongst human remains.


Document extract - letter from Micholitz to Sander, 1891 

Extract from letter sent from Micholitz to Sander, dated 1891. Archive reference: Letters to Sander volume 11 folio 120. RBG Kew.

The extract above reads: “I forgot my troubles when I saw the first on bare limestone between a great number of human skulls and bones. The natives do not bury their dead, but put them in a kind of coffin then place them on these solitary rocks when they stand along the shore...however, you need not be afraid I shall send you no bones or skulls with them”  

Sander's legacy 

Specimens collected on behalf of Sander are today held in the Herbarium collections at Kew, and his name is attached to many beautiful orchids. This important collection is now being repackaged meaning these fascinating letters will be available for researchers to view in our reading room.

- Elisabeth -



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Conserving portraits of Kew botanists

By: Emma Le Cornu - 11 Feb 2013
Discover the fascinating conservation work which has recently taken place on pastel portraits from Kew's Illustrations collection.
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I have recently completed conservation of a collection of 15 pastel and chalk drawings on paper, depicting portraits of notable botanists of the 19th century. These are part of the Illustrations collections at Kew, originally from the Joseph Hooker collection and are by the Scottish artist Daniel Macnee (1806-1882).


The portraits were found housed in an open box and were stacked on top of each other, interleaved with tissue paper (figure 1). Without proper mounting they could not be viewed by researchers or go on display. Each portrait was severely discoloured, the paper was very brittle and the pastel was gradually being rubbed away.


Portraits before conservation treatment

Figure 1: The portraits before treatment, housed in a box and interleaved with tissue paper

Two of the portraits were still attached to a wooden frame and had severe tears across the entire centre of the paper support (figure 2).

Portrait of Asa Gray before treatment       Portrait of Asa Gray before treatment

Figure 2: Portrait of Asa Gray, before treatment
The paper is pulled around a wooden frame, leaving it vulnerable to damage such as the tears shown. The paper is also severely darkened probably due to prolonged light exposure.


Five of the portraits had been previously ‘conserved’ and dry mounted with a heat set film. These had also been heavily re-touched with white chalk to disguise the discoloration of the paper (figure 3).

Portrait of Allan Cunningham, before treatment

Figure 3: Portrait of Allan Cunningham, before treatment
The paper has been previously dry mounted with a heat set tissue and the background has been re-touched with white chalk, to disguise the darkening of the paper. These attempts at conservation were probably carried out in the 1970s.


Pastel, chalk and charcoal are very difficult to handle and store, as they only sit on the surface of the paper and are very easily detached if moved or touched. The aim of the treatment was to re-house the pastel drawings to make them more accessible and prevent further deterioration.

The majority of the portraits were stuck to a poor quality board which was very acidic and had contributed to the deterioration of the paper. The board was removed from all of the portraits using a scalpel to pare it away from the back of the paper (figure 4).

Removal of the acidic backing board as part of conservation work

Figure 4: Removal of the acidic backing board by gradually paring away with a scalpel.

Many of the papers were also torn along the edges and some had large tears across the whole image. These were repaired with small strips of Japanese paper and a paste made from wheat starch (figure 5).

Portrait of Thomas Drummond, verso showing repairs to tears.

Figure 5: Portrait of Thomas Drummond, verso, showing the repairs to the tears with strips of Japanese paper along the edges. The discoloration of the paper around the edges shows where a wooden frame would once have been in contact. Another drawing was also uncovered on the verso.

The portraits were then hinged into deep window mounts to prevent anything coming into contact with the surface and stored in an archival Solander box.

Portrait of Thomas Drummond before conservation treatment.      Portrait of Thomas Drummond after conservation treatment.

Figure 6: Portrait of Thomas Drummond, before and after treatment

This was a very challenging project due to the very brittle supports and the fragile media. The portraits are now housed safely and securely in archival quality mounts and can be easily accessed and displayed.

Three of the portraits have been framed and are now on display in the Wolfson Rare Books Room window in the library Reading Room, along with some related items from the illustrations collection.

- Emma -


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