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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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Kew's Library celebrates the Olympics

By: Fiona Ainsworth - 29 Aug 2012
A special Olympic-themed display has just been completed in the Library Reading Room.
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Visitors to the Library, Art & Archives’ Reading Room can enjoy the displays in the windows of the Wolfson Rare Books Room. At the moment we have an Olympic-themed display, with three plates from the monumental Flora Graeca, showing the olive (Olea europaea), the laurel (Laurus nobilis) and a view of the Acropolis and city of Athens as it was in the late 18th century. 

Flora Graeca

Flora Graeca is one of the most significant botanical works ever produced: ten volumes in total which took 34 years to publish, it was the most expensive Flora ever produced, due to the many wonderful illustrations by artist extraordinaire Ferdinand Bauer. He accompanied Oxford botanist John Sibthorp on an expedition to mainland Greece between 1786 and 1787. Bauer was both highly accomplished and practical: he used a colour chart with numbers for different colours and letters for shading. To minimise the amount of paper he would have to transport around Greece, he made sketches of two or three species per page, using both sides of the paper. He covered his sketches in numbers and letters based on the colour chart, in a painting-by-numbers style, so that a botanically accurate painting could be made afterwards – sometimes many years later.


 Olympics Reading Room display inc. Flora Graeca & Masumi Yamanaka's painting            

The first window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing a late 18th century view of the Acropolis and city of Athens in Sibthorp's Flora Graeca, and Masumi Yamanaka's painting which uses plants to interpret the Olympic rings

The plates on display from Flora Graeca have been chosen for their symbolic value: olive branches were used to make the victory crowns and laurel was one of the plants used in garlands of honour. The Olympic Games have their origins in ancient Greek religious festivals, where the symbolic use of plants was a common feature. 

Olympic rings

To continue the Olympic theme, we also have Kew’s latest staff photo, taken on 30 May this year, with staff standing inside the giant floral representation of the Olympic rings currently on show outside the Orangery. To complete our display, we are thrilled to show a recent painting by artist Masumi Yamanaka, showing her interpretation of the Olympic rings. Masumi has formed the five rings from five plants, chosen for their symbolic meaning and colour: olive (Olea europaea), laurel (Laurus nobilis), poppy (Papaver), lemon (Citrus limon) and Muscari, the black, green, red, yellow and blue rings respectively. Masumi took fewer than 48 hours to produce this lovely picture.

Olympics Reading Room display inc. Flora Graeca and the Olympics Kew Staff Photo

The second window of the Olympics Reading Room display showing the olive and laurel plates from Flora Graeca and also the staff photo taken inside the giant Olympic rings at Kew

To visit the Reading Room and see the display, please contact us by email ( or telephone (020 8332 5414); we are open Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm.

- Fiona -


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Reflections on a year at Kew

By: Stephanie Rolt - 15 Aug 2012
Archives Graduate Trainee Stephanie Rolt reflects on some of the highlights of her year at Kew in her final blog post
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I can’t believe that my year at Kew is almost over – it has absolutely flown by! Although I will be sad to leave the fascinating archive and the beautiful gardens, I am really excited about embarking on my future career as an archivist. I feel I’ve learned so much this year and have had so many opportunities to experience what working in an archive is really like, both at Kew and further afield.

I’ve really enjoyed being able to experience so many different aspects of archival work, including answering enquiries, supervising readers, retrieving documents, managing reprographics orders, cataloguing, repackaging, giving tours, producing displays and, of course, writing blog posts about the collections. I’ve also had the chance to learn about modern records management, which in turn has helped me to understand how some of our documents became archives in the first place. Additionally I’ve been given the opportunity to work with Kew’s conservators and digitisers, who do so much great work in helping to preserve our archives and in making them accessible.


Jubilee Reading Room display

Part of the Jubilee Celebration Reading Room display produced by the Graduate Trainees during their year at Kew

Touring other archives

I’ve also had the chance to visit other archives, including the National Archives at Kew, the Surrey History Centre, the archives of the Natural History Museum, the National Theatre and even Unilever up in Port Sunlight. It has been interesting to compare collections and practices at archives of different sizes and types, and to talk to other trainees and archivists about their experiences in this small profession.

My next step is to study towards a post-graduate Diploma in Archive and Records Management at University College London. It’s necessary to have a Diploma or Masters in this area to become an archivist, and several universities in the UK offer relevant courses, some via distance learning. Hopefully my year at Kew will have given me lots of practical experience to draw upon whilst on the course.

But although it’s farewell from me, don’t forget to look out for blog posts by the new Graduate Trainee in the autumn.

- Steph -


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Brocken Spectres and Circular Rainbows

By: Helen Hartley - 03 Aug 2012
Many weird and wonderful subjects have been uncovered while digitising Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection. Read about a 19th century botanist's awe-inspiring encounter with a 'Spectre' in Jamaica's Blue mountains.
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Before we started contributing to this blog, our team published some of the more interesting finds from the Directors' Correspondence in Kew's staff magazine VISTA. We came across some of these stories recently and thought they were deserving of a wider audience.


 Unusual Phenomenon

This story was originally highlighted by our friend and one-time team member Lindsay Rosener and it describes the unusual phenomenon that one 19th century plant hunter, William Fawcett, encountered during his time as Director of the Public Gardens and Plantations in Jamaica.

In 1887, Fawcett wrote to RBG Kew's Assistant Director Daniel Morris, describing a circular rainbow and Brocken Spectre he observed one afternoon, while walking near Strawberry hill, in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC 210/126].

The "faintly coloured" circular rainbow he witnessed appeared "on the white mist which was driving up the valley". Fawcett measured the sight using his "pencil held with outstretched arm" and his letter to Morris includes a sketch of his impression of the rainbow, along with notes concerning the colour of its rings, which ranged from "yellowish white" to "reddish".


 Fawcett's sketch of the circular rainbow

Fawcett's sketch and notes of the circular rainbow he observed while walking in Jamaica's Blue Mountains [archive ref: DC210/126].

Brocken Spectre

Fawcett writes that while measuring the rainbow, he noticed that his "black shadow was doing the same, & every gesticulation I made, could be distinctly seen against the white mist." The black shadow in question was a 'Brocken Spectre', 'broken bow' or 'mountain spectre'. This is an optical illusion in which the observer's shadow appears magnified upon the surface of the clouds.

Although Fawcett recognized the shadow as his own, he describes how "awe-inspiring" such a vision would be to someone without such understanding and suspects that contemporary portrayals of small brained giants, such as 'Jack and the Giant Killer', may stem from the shadows' unusual proportions: "The head was small, the eyes being of course in the centre of the circle, but the limbs in proportion to their distances, grew large, & the legs were of an immense length."


 A beautiful example of a Brocken Spectre taken from Stob Dubh in the Scottish Highlands. Photographed by Gordon Anderson

A beautiful example of a Brocken Spectre and circular rainbow taken from Stob Dubh in the Scottish Highlands. Photograph reproduced with kind permission from Gordon Anderson, GA Highland Walks.

Bad Omen

The Brocken Spectre, first described in 1780 by Johann Silberschlag, derives its name from the 'Brocken' peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The circular rainbow observed by Fawcett is often seen in conjunction with the Spectre and is referred to as a 'glory'.

As is the case with many strange phenomena, the sighting of a Brocken Spectre was once thought to be a bad omen: possibly because one poor climber was said to have been so startled at the sight of this weird giant in the clouds that he stumbled and fell to his death!  Thankfully, Fawcett – a man of Science – was well enough informed not to suffer the same fate.


- Helen -



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Gardeners and tigers and scares, oh my!

By: Emma Latham - 15 Jun 2012
It's not just plant talk and garden gossip in the Directors' Correspondence; there are some letters which recount exciting (and rather scary!) events too, such as the late 19th century tiger attack in the Calcutta Botanic Gardens.
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There can be few things more terrifying than a tiger attack and when faced with such a situation, you would surely thank your lucky stars if you lived to tell the tale. A European assistant working at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Calcutta  [Kolkata] in 1879, named Adolph Biermann, experienced just such an encounter and the incident is described in two separate letters in the Directors' Correspondence.

Tiger on the loose!

The first letter is from Sir George King to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, and he gives his first-hand account of how the tiger escaped from the personal menagerie of the former King of Oudh[Awadh], in which he saw it swim across the river and enter the Gardens. He himself went unnoticed but approximately 15 minutes later the tiger encountered the unfortunate Biermann. At the time of King's writing, Biermann was recovering from the attack but it was acknowledged that he had narrowly escaped with his life. It is worth noting that King relates the news of the incident in the context of his lately being very busy due to a lack of helping hands! 

Sir George King, Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta.

Sir George King, Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta

The attack is also related by George Alexander Gammie in a letter to a Mr Smith. Gammie seems somewhat more sympathetic than King, stating Biermann to be 'most unfortunate' and having had 'a very narrow shave of his life'. He also goes into rather more gruesome detail about the attack itself, describing the way in which a fair part of Biermann's scalp was torn off and the skull underneath exposed, amongst other injuries. Gammie goes on to say that Biermann was leaving for Europe on sick leave a little later in the year.

An excerpt from George Alexander Gammie's letter describing the attack.

 An excerpt from Gammie's letter describing the attack

Personal viewpoints

It is always interesting to see how an event is recounted from different perspectives, and these letters serve as an example of one of the reasons the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project is such a fascinating one. I have only been working as part of the team since March, but have already come across some very interesting material in amongst the specimen despatch notes and requests for seeds and suchlike. Such items highlight the importance of these letters from a historical perspective, as well as a botanical one. This unfortunate encounter between a naturalist and a tiger is one such example; giving an insight, however subtle, into the priorities and viewpoints of the authors as they depict the same subject matter in different ways. 

Stripes in the news

A further account of the attack can be found in a local newspaper report of the time, which goes into great detail with regards to the nature of the tiger's escape, its movements and encounters with other people, the efforts to contain and destroy it and its subsequent death by the gun of a Mr Wace. The tiger, one of two that escaped and referred to in the article as 'Stripes', also attacked others before being shot, including one hunter who was not expected to survive his injuries. The reporter claims the escape was the result of 'a keeper having incautiously left the door of their cage open while cleaning it'. Of course one can speculate on the wisdom of personally keeping a wild animal such as a tiger as something of a pet! The article's narrative is fairly dramatic and suspenseful and provides another angle on the incident in addition to the anecdotal evidence of the letters.

Pet tiger of Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, first Scientific Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, also had a captive tiger, pictured above. Her name was Janet.

Biermann himself, though he survived, did not live to tell the tale of his encounter for very long, as he contracted cholera and died the following year. But thanks to this archive material, we have some very interesting evidence of a quite unexpected and very unfortunate event.



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Jubilee celebrations

By: Debora Hodgson, Stephanie Rolt - 08 Jun 2012
Read about a special display that has been produced for the Library Reading Room to celebrate Her Majesty's connections with Kew.
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In honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee the Graduate Trainees have produced a display for the Library Reading Room to celebrate Her Majesty’s connections with Kew.

Historic Royal Connections

Kew’s royal connections extend back to the early 18th century when King George II and his son Prince Frederick began to develop two separate estates which were later joined to create the Royal Botanic Gardens we know today.

Kew and the Queen

Since her coronation, Her Majesty the Queen has visited the gardens on many occasions for both public and private events. She helped Kew to celebrate its bicentenary in 1959 by planting a walnut tree (Juglans regia), and Kew Palace hosted her 80th birthday celebration in 2006.

Queen Elizabeth celebrating Kew's bicentenary in 1959
Queen Elizabeth celebrating Kew’s bicentenary in 1959

Her other visits have included opening the Queen’s Garden and a new Herbarium wing containing the Library in 1969. In 1982, she reopened the Temperate House, which had been under restoration for five years, and visited the Marianne North Gallery. In 2004, in recognition of Kew’s UNESCO World Heritage status, the Queen unveiled a plaque in the Nash Conservatory.

The Queen signing the Director’s Visitor Book in 1982
The Queen signing the Director’s Visitor Book in 1982

The Queen’s Beasts

Have you ever wondered why ten stone beasts stand guarding the Palm House? They are actually replicas of the heraldic figures representing the Queen’s ancestors which were placed outside Westminster Abbey on the day of her coronation. They help to reinforce Kew’s royal identity.

The Queen's Beasts

The Queen’s Beasts

So as part of your Jubilee celebrations, why not visit the Library Reading Room from the 31 May to learn more about the Queen’s relationship with Kew and to see some of the fascinating books, archives and illustrations that are on display.

- Deborah and Stephanie -


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