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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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains an insightful series of letters from William Robert Price (1886 – 1975), then a young botanist visiting Formosa (now Taiwan). In early 1912, Price set out to accompany Henry John Elwes (1846 - 1922) the renowned plant collector and lepidopterist (the study of moths and butterflies) and later co-author of the Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry. Elwes had just been on a tour through Malaysia and Java and was attracted to Formosa by the close resemblance of the flora and fauna to that of Sikkim. Formosa also harbored one of the few forests in the world Elwes had never seen.
The Mount Morrison expedition, Formosa (Taiwan), October 1912. Price (front, centre) wears traditional Japanese footwear: cahan (cloth gaiters) and Waraji sandals
At this time, parts of the island of Formosa were unworkable as the aboriginal tribes were at war with the Japanese. Tribes on the east coast of the island, where steep cliffs and the absence of harbors made it almost inaccessible in the rainy season, remained very hostile. A mass of forest clad mountains in the north and central parts of Formosa had also been the scene of deadly warfare with the Japanese military police. A guard line was cut through the forest extending over 350 miles, with fortified posts and block houses at short intervals to prevent attacks on Japanese camphor collectors.
Price and Elwes spent four months touring the forests and accessible regions of the island, especially the Arisan forests, collecting plants and investigating the local forestry. Price agreed to stay on in Formosa to collect plants after Elwes left for Japan in the summer of 1912. In a letter to Kew's then Director Sir David Prain he remarked, "I go off to the east coast, where savages, malaria and plague are rampant! So I am in for a fine time" [archive ref: DC 152/64a].
A view of Mount Tandai, north east of Mount Morrison, with a species of Pinus in the foreground, from Price's papers, 1912
Price also visited Mount Morrison, the highest peak on the island which was previously unexplored by European botanists. Today, Mount Morrison, originally named after the Missionary who discovered it, is known as Yushan or the Jade Mountain. In a letter to Prain, Price wrote, " The mountains too fascinate, & the more one travels in them, the more one wishes to penetrate, the more one penetrates the more hopeless it seems of ever seeing more than a few isolated glimpses of them" [archive ref: DC 152/73].
Detail of a map by Price of the island of Formosa (Taiwan) showing Mount Morrison, rising to 13,000 feet
Collections at Kew
During his Formosa visit Price collected 1133 plant specimens. He sent a set to Bunzo Hayata who was working on the flora of Formosa, and is known as the founding father of Taiwanese botany for producing the Iconum Plantarum Formosanarum. Price also sent plant specimens to Kew, including seeds of Taiwania and the orchid Pleione pricei that was named in his honour.
While in Formosa, Price reported to Prain that he had 'broken out' into anthropology, but he hoped he had given botany his equal attention. I searched our economic botany catalogue and found that Price sent items such as these Waraji sandals (below), cloth fibres and a walking stick to Kew's museum.
Waraji sandals made from Abutilon rope fibres sent to Kew by Price. These are now part of the Economic Botany Collection (catalogue number 65375)
When I searched through our Archives collection I was also excited to discover Price's original Formosa collecting diary. In fact, Price re-visited Formosa in the 1960s and recorded the changes he observed on the island as well as the very warm welcome he received. In later life he came to Kew to work in the Herbarium and Library and always maintained his interest in the flora of Taiwan.
- View some of the plants Price sent back to Kew which have been digitised as part of the Global Plants Initiative by searching the Kew Herbarium Catalogue for the collector 'W.R. Price'.
- Learn more about the Director's Correspondence Project and its funders the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Read other letters from RBG Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive at JSTOR Plant Science.
- Find out about the unfortunate plant collector Richard Oldham who also visited Taiwan and corresponded with Kew Gardens in the 19th century.
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"When the bamboo flowers, famine, death and destruction will soon follow."
This is a traditional saying from the Mizo people who occupy the hill state of Mizoram in north-east India. Given that their ancestors are thought to have originated from north-west China it is possible that this is the 'Chinese proverb' referred to in a letter from John Mitford Atkinson in 1898, which has recently been digitised as part of the Directors' Correspondence project. At the time, Atkinson was the Principal Civil Medical Officer and Superintendent of the Government Civil Hospital in Hong Kong and was battling to eradicate the plague that had devastated the colony. Atkinson was writing to John Gilbert Baker to send him some seeds of a bamboo obtained from Macau (China). He writes of a Chinese proverb which states that when the bamboo flowers, it means either 'pestilence or famine'. He observes that curiously enough, in the years that the bamboo flowered in Hong Kong - 1894, 1896 and 1898 - plague epidemics ravaged the colony. So could there be some truth in this old saying?
John Mitford Atkinson (1857-1917).
Hong Kong plague
The bubonic plague epidemic reached Hong Kong from southern China in 1894, and the effects were devastating. The disease raged for 30 years and resulted in over 20,000 deaths with a mortality rate of over 90%. It was during the Hong Kong plague epidemic that Dr Alexandre Yersin was able to identify the bacterium that caused the disease which enabled him to develop an antiserum. He was also able to show that the pathogen was present in rodents, identifying a means of transmission. But what does this have to do with bamboo?
Men removing the dead from an infected area of Hong Kong.
Attack of the rats
Many bamboo plants exhibit mass flowering at intervals of up to 130 years depending on the species. In Mizoram, bamboo forests of Melocanna baccifera cover over 26,000 square kilometres and flower en masse every 50 years. The flowering produces such a vast quantity of seed that the rat population explodes, resulting in a 'rat army' of mythical proportions. Once all the seed has been eaten the rats move onto crops, destroying local agriculture and causing widespread famine. This once in a generation event last occurred in 2004 and allowed scientists the opportunity to properly study the phenomenon which had previously only been heard of in anecdotes.
Bamboo in flower (credit: Mogens Engelund)
Interestingly, the two bamboo species in Hong Kong (Bambusa chunii and B. flexuosa) last flowered in 1994-1995 and based on historical evidence are estimated to have a 50 year flowering cycle, which corroborates Atkinson's observations of the flowering years. The bamboo therefore may well have exacerbated the spread of the plague by providing abundant food for the rat population in an already widely unsanitary environment, leading Atkinson to make the connection between the epidemics and bamboo flowering. As it turns out, that old Chinese proverb contained a deadly prophecy.
- Charlotte -
- Visit the beautiful Bamboo Garden at Kew
- Learn more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Read other letters from Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive at JSTOR Plant Science
- Search the Kew Herbarium Catalogue for bamboo specimens
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As one of my last projects as a Graduate Trainee in the Archives, I was given the opportunity to spend a day with the conservation team here at Kew, to find out more about the work they carry out on the Library, Art and Archives collections.
The day kicked off with an introduction to the projects that Ellie, the archives conservator, and Emma, the illustrations conservator, are working on (both were part of the team that recently completed the Marianne North Paintings conservation project). They explained to me the types of media that they are currently working with and the variety of methods they use to preserve them.
Correspondence from Darwin to Henslow, in need of cleaning.
Ellie is currently working on restoring letters from our Darwin Collection. They are of huge historical value but are in urgent need of preservation. In order to ensure that they are available for use by future researchers, the letters need to be cleaned and re-housed into conservation sound packaging. Before the process of cleaning can begin, Ellie needs to make sure that all of the ink and pencil used on the paper is not soluble – she let me try this out by using a microscope to place a tiny drop of water onto the ink. I was surprised by the attention to detail and the patience that is needed to do this – to test one letter before it can even be cleaned takes hours!
During my time in the conservation studio, I also had the chance to browse the curious assortment of tools used by the conservation team – from brushes and corrosive acids, to surgical razors and dentistry equipment; it is really a surgery for collections in need of care!!
A conservator's tool kit!
It was really fascinating and inspiring to see how much work conservators put into preserving and restoring items of historical and cultural significance. The dedication required to carry out the work, and the attention to detail that is needed, is quite remarkable! For me, it has also been incredibly useful to see how conservation and archive teams work together to preserve collections. I really gained an insight into the mysterious world of conservation - a world that is normally hidden behind closed doors.
I hope to be able to take this experience, along with everything else that I have learned during my year at Kew, with me into my future career. So this is goodbye from me - remember to look out for posts from the next Graduate Trainee to see what they get up to!
- Sarah -
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Following on from my blog post last year we have made many new discoveries, which has revealed some fascinating insights into the artist’s working methods.
The research was carried out in collaboration with specialists from the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. Analysis of plant derived material was also carried out by the Jodrell Laboratory, based at Kew Gardens.
Paintings were selected to cover all of the colours used from the majority of the countries that she visited. Very small samples, about the size of a pinhead, were taken from 43 of the 833 oil paintings on paper. These samples were then examined as cross sections viewed through a powerful microscope. This makes it possible to see each individual layer of the paint as it was applied, from the ground on the paper, through each layer of paint, to the top layer of varnish. These tiny samples have provided a vast amount of information.
Selecting the colours
All of the samples show a similar structure with a white ground and one or two paint layers. This was one clue that has led us to believe that Marianne North used a limited palette and favoured certain colours. This is also shown by the fact that these colours recur in many of her paintings. These favourites are cobalt blue, lead white and the red dye Madder.
Cross section from painting no.121 ‘A Bank of Quaresma and Trumpet Trees, Brazil’ showing layers of green, pink and red paint, with the white ground on the lower edge.
Marianne North did not use black paint very frequently and this explains the vibrant appearance of her paintings. She preferred to use blue, green or orange to tone down strong colours. Having a restricted palette would also reduce the amount of materials she would need to carry on her travels.
Applying the paint
The cross sections also reveal a lot about Marianne North’s painting techniques. For example wet paint was applied over a wet layer indicating a ‘wet-in-wet’ painting technique. This can be seen where the colours are mixed in the cross section and there are no visibly defined layers.
Cross section from painting no. 728 ‘She Oak Trees on the Bendamere River, Queensland, and Companion Birds’ taken from a green area showing mixing of the colours, indicating that paint has been applied over a layer of wet paint. Pigment particles are also visible.
Having only one or two paint layers also indicates that she may have mixed the colours on her palette before applying it to the painting, instead of building up colour gradually in layers. However, thickly painted areas may have been produced with an application of paint mixed directly on the paper.
Sketching the composition
Some of the paintings were also photographed under infrared light. This can reveal ink lines that are covered by paint. Detailed areas of under-drawing and handwritten notes were detected using this method. These sketches and notes are most likely to be made graphite or ink. This confirms that Marianne North sketched out a composition first and added the colour later, similar to those found on the back of some paintings. It has also been revealed that she re-worked her compositions and even painted entirely different compositions over drawings.
Painting no. 673 ‘Leaf and Inflorescence of a Gigantic Aroid, Java’ photographed under normal light (left) and photographed under infra red light (right) highlighted to show a completely different composition in the under-drawing including a vase.
Through this research it has become evident that Marianne North’s technique did not change greatly over the thirteen years that she was painting. She developed a very distinctive and consistent style early on and maintained this throughout her astonishing painting career.
- Emma -
- Find out more about the Marianne North Gallery.
- Read about Marianne North and her links to Kew.
- What's on at Kew Gardens - Exhibitions
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The 19th century has been described as a time when medicine took a great leap forward: the science of microbiology became firmly established, anaesthetics were developed for surgical procedures, antiseptics were introduced to operating theatres, hospital facilities were improved and nursing became a profession. However, it is also true that in the 19th century many substances - now known to be harmful – were still being used routinely as medicines and were likely to kill, rather than cure a patient.
Henry Trimen Esq. (1843 - 1896). The Camp, Sunningdale, December 1, 1892
The Directors' Correspondence collection from Asia contains a series of letters from Henry Trimen, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon [Peradeniya, Sri Lanka] from 1879 to 1896. During his 16 years in Ceylon, Trimen wrote over 170 letters to Kew, in which he discussed botany, botanical nomenclature, horticulture and the day-to-day business of running the Botanic Gardens. However, Trimen's health suffered greatly in Ceylon and a small proportion of his letters make reference to these issues and the treatments he received to try and relieve his suffering.
Trimen's health problems
Extract of a letter from Henry Trimen to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, describing the treatments he has used to alleviate his eczema [DC 163 f.426-427]
- Oct 1888: In a letter to the Director of Kew, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, Trimen complains of an 'eczematous eruption on the inside of the thighs', which made walking painful [DC 163 f.424-425].
- Nov 1888: Trimen thanks Thiselton-Dyer, for his hints on eczema, noting that he tried the 'acetate of lead without effect' and is now going in for a 'constitutional treatment' of arsenic and mercury [DC 163 f.426-427].
- Jan 1894: Trimen comments on his complete loss of hearing, he has tried inhaling Chloride of Ammonium to no effect and one doctor did nothing but sweat him with pilocarpine[DC 163 f.507-509].
- March 1895: Trimen writes that he is desperate for a change, he has lost many teeth, his digestion is poor and he is suffering from cramp and poor coordination [DC 163 f.527-528].
- March 1896: Trimen comments on the increase in his 'nervous malady'. He describes himself as more of an invalid than ever, noting that he cannot move across the room without help; he has lost the power in his leg muscles and his bladder irritability is 'very tiresome' [DC 163 f.532].
- May 1896: Trimen notes that his paralysis is getting worse [DC 163 f.535]: he gets about the garden using a Japanese jinricksha (see image below) and has taken to wearing the native sarong for convenience.
Rickshaws or 'jinrikishas' from Japan, 1897 (Source: Wikimedia commons). Trimen's paralysis forced him to resort to using this mode of transport to get around the Gardens.
Trimen died in October 1896 at the age of 53. An obituary written by Sir William Thiselton-Dyer [RBG Kew Biographical Pamphlet collection: 800 P920], states that the nature of Trimen's malady 'completely baffled his physicians'. With the benefit of hindsight, and from the information contained in Trimen's letters, we can speculate that the deterioration in Trimen's health and his eventual death may actually have been a result of the lead, arsenic and mercury he was given to alleviate his initial problem with eczema.
Toxic heavy metals
Lead, arsenic and mercury are all toxic heavy metals, chronic exposure to which can result in serious health problems. For example, all three heavy metals are known to cause gastrointestinal disorders; lead poisoning can result in retraction of the gums, tooth loss, fatigue, neurophysiological impairment and muscle weakness; arsenic has neurotoxic effects; both arsenic and mercury poisoning can cause hearing loss. Trimen's letters suggest he suffered from all of these symptoms.
Adding insult to injury
Sadly, in his last letter to Kew, dated 30 August 1896 [DC 163 f.539], Trimen describes how his doctors continued to try and relieve his symptoms. Over the previous 10 days a new doctor from Kandy had been treating him: 'with much energy; it has been enemas, catheterizing, starvation, electricity &c without cessation'. Ironically, this intensive approach appears to have given him some respite and he describes himself as 'much improved'.
- Helen -
- Trimen's letters have been digitised as part of the Asian DC digitisation project
- Trimen's letters are available to view on the JSTOR Plant Science Website
- The Digitisation of the Directors' Correspondence collection is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- Search for publications by Henry Trimen on RBG Kew's Library Catalogue
- Type specimens collected by Henry Trimen can be found on RBG Kew's Herbarium Catalogue
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Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains many millions of items within its collections. Find out about the diverse teams who look after these collections and make them accessible.
- Archives team
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