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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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Library display celebrates digitisation landmark

By: Virginia - 09 Nov 2012
To mark the completion of the latest phase of the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Project, a display has been prepared in Kew's Library Reading Room to showcase the collection. The display includes 19th and 20th century letters from botanists, travellers and directors of botanic gardens across Asia, as well as photos, illustrations and plant products they sent to Kew with their letters.
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Letters and more on display

We have just finished digitising the Directors' Correspondence volumes containing 19th and 20th century letters from Asia, and visitors to Kew's Library can now see some of our favourites on display in the Reading Room. The collection highlights the important role Kew played in the development of the British Empire and in global exploration and scientific investigation. It is also a resource that compliments many of Kew's other collections. For this display we have reunited letters with some of the items they describe or were originally sent with: items which became part of Kew's Economic Botany Collection, specimens which are now preserved in the Herbarium, and publications, photos and drawings from the Library, Art and Archives collection.

On Display. Letters, photos and publications from Calcutta Botanic Garden.

For example, along with letters from the Royal Botanic Garden Calcutta describing the devastation wrought by a cyclone in 1864, visitors can now see photographs of the destruction – avenues of denuded trees and the enormous roots of a baobab torn out of the ground. We also have photos of the Calcutta garden in a more splendid state along with guidebooks that paint, in flowery Victorian language, a picture of the gardens as they were over 100 years ago.

A large proportion of the Asian Directors' Correspondence comes from voracious letter writers on the Indian sub-continent. Calcutta director Nathaniel Wallich wrote well over 150 letters to Kew, many of which were complaints about the preparation of his publication 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores'. Luckily the result was worth all Wallich's suffering – at least in our opinion. You can see Wallich's book for yourselves as part of our display and make your own judgement. 


Kew's Asian correspondents

In our choice of epistles to feature we have tried to represent every part of Asia covered in the collection, from Charles Ford in Hong Kong to Charles Telfair in Mauritius.


Charles Ford

The display showcases the letters of Charles Ford who was the first director of the Hong Kong Botanic Garden and an economic botany enthusiast, who wrote about the subject and sent many practical and ornamental economic botany artefacts to Kew.


Letters and Artefacts from Charles FordLetters and Artefacts from Charles Ford 

Top: Letters from Charles Ford on display with a natural plant washing sponge, tools used for harvesting Chinese cinnamon, an illustration of Chinese cinnamon dating to 1656, and an ornate carved picture frame. 

Bottom: Detail of the carved picture frame.


One of Charles Ford's contributions to Kew's Economic Botany Collection was an ornate frame made of Pai-cha wood (Euonymus maackii), and produced in the renowned carving centre of Ningbo. To find out how the craftsman achieved such detail you can read the letter Ford sent describing the process, now on display alongside the frame and hosted digitally on JSTOR Plant Science.


Henry Nicholas Ridley

Representing Malaysia and Singapore is Henry Nicholas Ridley. As well as being a long-serving director at the Singapore Botanic Garden, Ridley travelled throughout Malaysia. You can see one of his expedition photo albums on display, as well as letters concerning his outspoken protest against deforestation, and material relating to his pioneering work in establishing the rubber plantation industry.


Ridley with rubber tree

Ridley at the tapping of one of the first rubber trees introduced at Singapore


John George Champion

Champion represents Kew's correspondents who were not trained botanists but for whom botany and plant hunting was a passionate hobby. Champion was a soldier stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). One of the letters tells us that he was known as 'the Lion of the Punjab' but the letters paint a picture of a gentle man who desperately wanted to achieve in the field of botany and who wrote to his sister 'I thank God I have never yet had occasion to slay anyone with my own hand, although I have been target enough, and have only escaped through God's will.'

Champion was also an amateur illustrator and included many illustrations of plants with his letters to Kew's then director Sir William Hooker.


John Champion Illustration

Illustration of an Anonaceae by J G Champion, sent with a letter from Sri Lanka to Kew


Charles Telfair

The historic geographical filing of the Directors' Correspondence places Mauritius, somewhat unusually, in the Asia section of the collection. Charles Telfair was an important figure in establishing the study of natural history in Mauritius. Among the correspondence on display are some of his letters relating to Cerbera tanghin the plant used in the 'Tanghin ordeal', once employed in Madagascar as a trial for those suspected of witchcraft, or persons accused of committing crimes. You can find out more about the Tanghin ordeal by visiting us in the Library to see the display or by checking out our previous blog on the subject.

Come visit us

These are just some examples of the letters and complimentary materials on display in the Reading Room, which is open to visitors, by appointment, between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Do come along to visit.




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Introducing the new Archives Graduate Trainee

By: Elisabeth Thurlow - 29 Oct 2012
Read about the first few weeks of our new trainee and the story behind the travels of Kew's Japanese Gateway
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Introducing Elisabeth

Hello. My name is Elisabeth and I am the new Archives and Records Management Graduate Trainee joining the Archives team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

LAA_Elisabeth in Archives

Elisabeth in the Kew's Archives Store

About me

Before arriving at Kew I studied for a Contemporary History MA at the University of Sussex. Whilst working for my degree I gained relevant experience through volunteering at a number of archives. I volunteered weekly at the University of Sussex archive, cataloguing the University’s own collectionand was later employed by the University to repackage the directives sent out by the Mass Observation Project– a unique study of everyday life in Britain. Alongside this I volunteered for the National Trust at 2 Willow Road. Designed and occupied by the modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger, it now houses the archive of the Goldfinger family. Here I gained experience invigilating researchers and was involved in the early stages of digitising the collection.  

New at Kew

I learned about the graduate trainee role through Kew's website and was attracted by the chance to build on my experiences and learn more about the day-to-day running of an archive.

As the new archive graduate trainee my duties include responding to enquiries, identifying and retrieving items for researchers in the reading room and managing reprographics orders. I will also be working on a number of projects, including the repackaging of some of Kew’s archival collections.

One of my first tasks was to prepare a display for the recent London Open House weekend held in September, celebrating the architecture of the buildings at Kew. 

LAA_Open House Display

Open House archive display at Kew

The Japanese Gateway

Whilst finding archive items for the display I learned a lot about the history of the buildings at Kew – including the charming story behind the origins of the Japanese Gateway or Chokushi-Mon. 

Japanese Gateway

The Japanese Gateway today 

Chokushi-Mon, ‘the Gateway of the Imperial Messenger’, is a four-fifths size replica of a gateway in Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan. The replica was built for the Japan-British Exhibition, held in London in 1910. The intricate carvings on the gateway portray oriental legends and the exhibition proved hugely popular, attracting more than 8 million visitors.

The extract below is taken from a letter, from Keisuke Niwa Esq., representing the Kyoto Exhibitors’ Association, sent to David Prain, the then director of Kew, informing him of the decision to present the gateway as a gift to the Gardens. Happily accepted, after the exhibition closed, the gateway was dismantled and reconstructed at Kew. 

LAA_Japanese Gatweway letter
Extract from Letter - Dated 12 September 1910 (archive reference: QX/KPG)

This is just one of the fascinating stories that make up the history of the Gardens. I’m really looking forward to learning more about the archive, the Gardens, and the people involved in making it such a wonderful place to spend a year’s archive trainee-ship today. 

- Elisabeth -

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Reminiscences from a year at Kew

By: Debora Hodgson - 28 Sep 2012
Read Debora’s final blog post as she leaves Kew to begin a Masters course in Library Science.
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I am writing during my last week at Kew and thought I would share with you some of my favourite moments over the past year. I can’t believe my time here is almost over. It has sped by. I am excited about starting my course but will miss everyone in the Library, as they were all so welcoming and willing to share their expertise.

I have enjoyed the varied nature of my work here at Kew. I have been fortunate enough to have catalogued many of the books that have entered Kew’s vast library collection this year and to see how my cataloguing has helped our visitors. Alongside my cataloguing and enquiry desk shifts, I have been able to work on various projects with Steph, the Archives Graduate trainee, including creating a display that celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and her links with Kew, and writing a guide to the book scanner. During my time here I have learned so much about how libraries are shaped by their users and how vital it is to embrace digitisation, and I know this knowledge will help me with my course.

Memorable moments in the Gardens this year

This year has been a great year to have been at Kew. The David Nash exhibition in the gardens and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery has been excellent and it has been interesting to see new pieces of David Nash’s work taking shape in the Wood Quarry.

Oculus Slab, 2010, Eucalyptus by David Nash
 Oculus Slab, 2010, Eucalyptus by David Nash displayed in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

It was exciting to be here when the Olympic flame came through the Gardens as part of the official Olympic torch relay, and to experience the great atmosphere that it generated in the gardens. It was definitely a moment I won’t forget.


Photo: The Olympic torch relay as it went through the Gardens
 The Olympic torch relay as it went through the gardens

I am leaving to begin a Masters course in Library Science at City University, London. I chose City to take my Librarianship qualification because the Library Science course there examines the changing nature of librarianship and the future of libraries. The course is also one of those accredited by CILIP the institute for library professionals.

Thanks for reading my blog posts this year and please look out for future posts from the new Graduate trainees, Marc and Elisabeth, over the coming months.

- Debora -



 More information

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On the murder of Dr Charles Budd Robinson

By: Charlotte Rowley - 20 Sep 2012
Read about the death of enthusiastic plant hunter Dr Charles Budd Robinson in Ambon, as told by the murder report in Kew's archives, and learn why miscommunication can be deadly.
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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.

Extract from the murder report of C B Robinson

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 from the obituary of C B Robinson

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.

Coconut confusion

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. 


Letter extract

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 -  



Related links

  • View the digitised Directors' Correspondence collection on the JSTOR plant science website
  • Follow the Directors' Correspondence team on Twitter @KewDC for quotes, fascinating facts, and highlights from the collection
  • Find out what else can be found in Kew's archives
  • Email the team at:

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‘If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world’

By: Dr. Shirley Sherwood - 07 Sep 2012
In this latest post from the gallery, Dr Shirley Sherwood shares how she curated her current exhibition: Portraits of Leaves and Fungi, paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
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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 by Alexander Viazmensky
‘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
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
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
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
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.

Further information

Both books are published by Kew Publishing and are obtainable from Kew's online shop as well as the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

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