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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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Exploring new frontiers!

By: Helen Hartley - 04 Feb 2013
The Director's Correspondence Digitisation Team is embarking on a new project. Join us as we journey back in time to 19th Century North America to uncover more tales of exploration, discovery and tragedy.
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Toward the end of 2012 the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team completed the digitisation of the Asia correspondence: 26 volumes of letters sent from all over Asia to the Kew from the 1830s to the 1920s.  This phase of the project produced a grand total of 22,508 digital images - a significant achievement for the team.  To date, three quarters of those images are available online. The remainder are still in the process of being quality controlled, but should be available to view in a few months! 

Celebratory bunting made from pictures of botanists who wrote to Kew from Asia

Bunting made from pictures of some of our Asia correspondents to celebrate the successful completion of the Asia project!

Exploring North America

But the work doesn't stop with Asia!  We have already embarked upon our next venture: digitising the North America correspondence.  The first volume of North American letters - dated 1832 to 1834 -  has provided us with a number of interesting characters who wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker (Kew's first Director) while he was Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow.  Some are written by men who became famous for their attempts to chart the Northwest Passage: William Edward Parry, George Back and Frederick William Beechey

Drummond and Douglas

There are also poignant letters from Thomas Drummond and David Douglas, two Scottish botanists who endured numerous hardships in their quest to map and collect the flora and fauna from opposite ends of North America: Drummond in the Eastern and Southern States; Douglas in the Pacific Northwest. 

LAA Drummond and Douglas

Portraits of botanical collectors Thomas Drummond (left) and David Douglas (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Whilst both men had similar goals, the experiences they describe were very different, as illustrated in the following passages:

Drummond wrote from San Felipe de Austin, Texas, in August 1833, that "the weather is said to be warm beyond precedent this season but there is not such a thing as [a] thermometer in the town. I suppose however that the temperature is constantly between 90 & 100 [Fahrenheit]. At this very moment of writing the perspiration is running down my arms in torrents...notwithstanding I am all but naked." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.92]

Douglas noted, from the Columbia River in April 1833, that "This winter has been drier but much more severe than former seasons – The Columbia [River] was closed for the space of 4 weeks at the 'Menzies Island'...22˚ Farh. of freezing, cold for the shores of the Pacific." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.110]

Tragically, neither of these men returned home from their respective trips: Drummond died in Havana in 1835, possibly from septicaemia; Douglas was crushed by a bull after falling into a trapping pit in Hawaii in 1834.  We hope to bring you more detailed stories about these men in future blogs. 

A difficult country for women

Another interesting correspondent was Miss Mary Brenton of Newfoundland, daughter of a government official there.   Brenton collected plants from St John's and the surrounding area.   

Map of Newfoundland with detail of St John's

19th Century Map of Newfoundland, with detail of St John's 

In Brenton's letters to Hooker, she describes the frustrations she has encountered, as a woman, in trying to collect plants:

" the best flowering plants usually grow in swamps, it is difficult for a lady to reach them, and I can find but few persons who have enthusiasm sufficient to induce them to penetrate into a bog up to their knees in water in search of what they may not find after all." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.54]

"My walks are generally so limited having but a short time to scramble about on shore, as my father has leisure from his official duties to accompany me...the woods are too thick for a woman to penetrate through & the bogs & marshes too wet & deep." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.55] 

Pioneering spirit

The letters in the first of the North American volumes give a real sense of the pioneering spirit that prevailed in that country in the 1830s: a time when settlers were migrating to the Pacific northwest along the Oregon Trail; Andrew Jackson began his second term as President (30 years before Abraham Lincoln); Native Americans in the Southern States were being forced to move west; and Texas was still part of Mexico.

If you want to delve deeper into the lives of some of these fascinating and brave pioneers, watch this space – we can't wait to share our finds with you!   Or you can keep up to date with our progress by following us on Twitter @KewDC.

- Helen -


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Introducing the (not quite) new Assistant Archivist

By: Lorna Cahill - 24 Jan 2013
Meet Kew's new Assistant Archivist, Lorna, and learn about the volunteering projects she manages and how she began her own career volunteering in Kew's Archives
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Hello, I’m Lorna Cahill, the new Assistant Archivist here in the Archives department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I started last September but I’m happy to say the archives team has been so busy over the past few months that I have only now got the chance to introduce myself!

Photo of Kew Archive volunteer, Lorna Cahill

Lorna in the Archives

I have been a qualified archivist since June 2011 and have worked in a number of different archive services since I first became interested in archives over 4 years ago. I have also worked at the Natural History Museum, London where I catalogued correspondence to Walter Rothschild and his museum at Tring in Hertfordshire, which is now part of the NHM. RBG Kew and the NHM have a lot in common, so I’m working with similar collections – they both have a lot of Latin names written everywhere!

The Value of Volunteers

However, I am not quite brand new to Kew. My first experience of working in an archive was here at RBG Kew in 2008, when I began volunteering one day a week. Volunteering is very important to archive services, not only because volunteers can do incredibly valuable work, but also because for many people (including me) it is the best way to start their career in archives, decide if they’d like to continue, and then work towards qualification . It is apt that my current role here at Kew will now involve managing our volunteers - I can remember what makes a valuable and positive experience. Volunteers can be involved in many different aspects of archive work - and although it is important that a qualified archivist makes the important decisions about how archive material is catalogued and preserved - the tasks that volunteers can do frequently help active collections be accessed more quickly, easily and safely.

Peter Cowen, one of our current volunteers, has been creating a database of information within our Goods Inwards volumes, which record all plant and seed material that was sent to Kew Gardens and the Herbarium from 1793 to 1938. Many researchers are interested in the history of particular relationships between Kew and individuals and botanic gardens around the world. Peter’s work has made it much easier to find the relevant entries, without having to search through every page of every volume.

Photo of Archive volunteer, Peter Cowen

One of our Archives volunteers, Peter Cowen

Calling All Volunteers!

A new Archive volunteering project will kick off in the next few weeks, involving the preservation of early 20th century material. I will be looking for a group of volunteers who are interested in pursuing Archives as a career and need that first step in the process. Hopefully, they will experience the same thrill of first handling archive material that I felt four years ago! If you are interested in volunteering in the Archives, please contact me at

Volunteers are also important to RBG Kew as a whole, contributing to the science departments, horticulture and as guides to visitors to the Gardens. You can read about of some of the volunteers and their projects here. Anybody can make a difference here at Kew, and can gain as much from the experience as I have.

- Lorna -

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Driving home for Christmas?

By: Joanne Yeomans - 21 Dec 2012
Discover Marianne North’s travels over Christmases long, long ago
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With Christmas fast approaching, I decided for this blog post to look at where Victorian traveller and painter Marianne North spent her Christmases away from home. Marianne North travelled widely between 1870 and 1885, and completed over 800 paintings which are now permanently displayed in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew. In her memoirs, Recollections of a Happy Life, Marianne often described where she was and what she was doing at Christmas time in the various countries around the world during her years abroad. 


In December 1871, during the first of her many trips overseas, Marianne spent Christmas in Jamaica. Her diary states: 'In the West Indies! Christmas Eve. The next morning the landlady took me at daylight to see the opening of the new market. It was Christmas Day... A band was playing and all Kingston promenaded up and down.' Marianne spent a number of months in Jamaica as the last stop on an expedition which lasted from July 1871 to June 1872, and which also included time in the United States and Canada.


View over Kingston and Port Royal from Craighton Jamaica

Painting no. 161: View over Kingston and Port Royal from Craighton, Jamaica 


During a trip in which Marianne spent almost two years in India, between September 1877 and March 1879, she arrived in Tanjore (now Thanjavur) on Christmas Eve 1877. Marianne writes: 'On the 24th of December 1877 I reached Tanjore by the earliest train, asked a policeman I saw to show me the way to the Doctor's, and walked under his porch about nine o'clock, to his great surprise, as he was sitting among his books deep in work, having expected me by a later train. Living with him was like living with a live dictionary, and was a delightful change... I had a delightful upper room full of windows, looking over some miles of country.'

Marianne also made a notable mention in her diary about the Temple of Tanjore during this time: 'I know no building in its way nobler than that temple of Tanjore. The colour of its sandstone is particularly beautiful; its whole history is inscribed round the basement in characters as sharply cut as if they were done yesterday.'


Temple of Tanjore, Southern India

Painting no. 331 Temple of Tanjore, Southern India  

South Africa

After the gallery opened at Kew in 1882, and keen to continue painting, Marianne spent ten months in South Africa between August 1882 and June 1883, and Christmas itself in Grahamstown. Her diary describes: 'I spent Christmas Day at Grahamstown at a picnic with the A.s, a very solemn feast, at which the daughter's time was chiefly taken up with packing and unpacking provisions, plates, cups, etc. The drives over the bare hills were every now and then rewarded by the sight of a great lonely lily, or the huge pink king of all onions, the Buphane toxicaria, all alone without any leaves.'

Vegetation on the Hills near Grahamstown, South Africa

Painting no. 403 Vegetation on the Hills near Grahamstown, South Africa  


In her last trip before she died in 1890, Marianne North visited Chile between November 1884 and January 1885. The entry in her diary states: 'I spent Christmas at Santiago, where Mrs. Pakenham tried her best to make it look like home... and on the 1st of January we went to an evening concert in the Quinta, almost in the open air, to hear sixty students of Salamanca playing guitars, all dressed in black velvet cloaks and ruffs.'


 The Permanent Snows, from Santiago; Patagua in front with Hummingbird and Nest

Painting no. 020 The Permanent Snows, from Santiago;

Patagua in front with Hummingbird and Nest  

Marianne North Gallery

After her return from South Africa and Chile the Marianne North Gallery was extended and re-organised to make more room for these paintings, and also those she painted in the Seychelles between September 1883 and January 1884. Marianne went to many countries in the 14 years she spent travelling around the world painting and would have experienced Christmas in other countries such as the Seychelles, Brazil, Japan and Australia during this time. Her paintings are on display in the Marianne North Gallery, which is open daily. 

Kew's Library, Art & Archives team wish you all safe travels over the Christmas period and a very happy and prosperous New Year.


- Joanne - 



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Everard Im Thurn and the 'lost world'

By: Katherine Harrington - 11 Dec 2012
We take a look at the varied career of Everard Im Thurn through his correspondence with the Directors of Kew, and find out about his exploration of the 'lost world' of Mount Roraima in British Guiana.
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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.

A black and white sketch of the route of Im Thurn's ascent to the summit of Mount Roraima

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.

A photograph of a herbarium sheet containing various examples of Bonnetia roraimae collected by im Thurn, Quelch and McConnell

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.

A close up black and white photograph of several flowering Catasetums

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.



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Your Gate to the Gardens

By: Elisabeth Thurlow - 27 Nov 2012
The recent renaming of the Main Gate has had the Archives team thinking about the importance of the Kew gates in the Gardens' history.
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Elizabeth Gate

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.


Main Gate (now Elizabeth Gate)

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 the Main Gate (now Elizabeth Gate)

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.


Main Gate (now Elizabth Gate) with people

Historic Kew image of visitors walking towards the Main Gate.


Victoria 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.


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.


Royal approval

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 from Queen Victoria's private secretary about Victoria 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 -



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