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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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David Nash sculptures arrive in the Gallery

By: Joanne Seaton - 01 Jun 2012
Read about the Gallery Team's exciting preparations for the David Nash exhibition.
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On Monday 14 May 2012 we were the excited recipients of the sculptures by David Nash, which are to be on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art as part of David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery which opens at Kew on 9 June 2012.

The sculptures will be exhibited in the Gallery alongside some of his two dimensional works and films associated with the sculptures themselves, while more of his sculptures will be placed within the wider Gardens, including some situated in the Temperate House.  

The sculptures started arriving at the gallery at 9.30am after they were brought down from David Nash’s studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales 

David Nash sculpture and digger

The sculptures needed to be transported to the Gallery using machinery

The sculptures were all individually wrapped and transported through the gardens on forklift trucks and tractors. Many of David Nash’s two dimensional works for the Gallery had arrived the week before, so for the first time we began to see the sculptures alongside the new drawings that Nash has completed during his time at Kew so far.

Gallery space

The two dimensional works were already in the gallery so the space was ready to receive the sculptures

It took until lunchtime for all the sculptures to come into the Gallery. They were brought in one by one on bases or inside frames using trolleys. The reception area was filled with about half a dozen sculptures while some were taken straight into the space. 

Gallery reception area

The Gallery reception area

They were then placed inside the Gallery and unwrapped by Nash and the team. Some of the 2D works were also being unwrapped alongside the sculptures and the relationship between the drawings and sculptures began to emerge.

The "Two Ubus" being raised to an upright position

The 'Two Ubus' being raised to an upright position


David Nash placing the 'Two Ubus' so the cross as the top

David Nash placing the 'Two Ubus' so the cross as the top

The works by David Nash being exhibited in the Gallery all vary in size and shape, with a couple of sculptures comprising more than one element. All the works are of wood, and untreated, apart from a small number which have been burnt to achieve a blackened appearance, a characteristic feature of much of Nash’s work.

 'Incised Pyramid Sphere and Cube' seen through 'Two Ubus'

'Incised Pyramid Sphere and Cube' seen through 'Two Ubus'


The Gallery reception area will display 'Family Tree' and 'Palm Egg'

The Gallery reception area will display 'Family Tree' and 'Palm Egg'

The final placing of the sculptures and the hanging of the two dimensional work took a few more days, along with the installation of the two films that will be running in the gallery. It has been an exciting but very different few days in the Gallery with plenty to do working alongside David Nash and the team.

David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery will open on 9 June 2012 at Kew Gardens. In the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, David Nash’s work will be displayed alongside the exhibition Portraits of Leaves and Fungi – paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection until April 2013.

- Joanne -


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Formosa and Mycology... Cataloguing Kew's Archives

By: Stephanie Rolt - 16 May 2012
Read about the papers of William Price and Arthur Pearson that have recently been catalogued by our Archives Graduate Trainee, Steph.
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As part of my traineeship in the archives here at Kew, I have been learning how to catalogue the archive’s collections to internationally recognised standards. Cataloguing collections makes them more accessible to users, because we have a detailed record of what each collection contains. I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know some of Kew’s collections better, which allows me to provide a more informed service for readers. Recently I have catalogued the papers of two botanists – William Price and Arthur Pearson. Read on to find out more about these two individuals, and about some of the challenges I faced when cataloguing their papers.

William Price papers

William Robert Price (1886-1975) studied Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on to work in the Herbarium at Kew. Here he met Henry John Elwes, and the two of them travelled to Formosa (now Taiwan) in 1912 to collect plant specimens for the Herbarium.

Price's photo of the Herbarium

Price's photo of Kew's Herbarium (archive ref: PRI/2/2)

Price’s papers consist of a diary and collecting lists relating to his Formosa trip, and two autobiographical works about his life and career. These autobiographies contain pictures of the Herbarium at Kew as it was in Price’s day, as well as photographs of the places he visited on his travels. Price really was an excellent and amusing story teller, and his works are a joy to read. I particularly enjoyed his anecdotes about his work in the Herbarium and the individuals he worked with. The story of how Price came to work in the Herbarium at Kew is told with particular humour:

'I presented myself one day in November 1909 at Mr. Hill’s (then the Assistant Director of Kew) office, with an urgent request to him : “Can I be an Assistant at the Herbarium?”. His answer was: “No”, and I went home very cross. But I persisted and returned with the same request and received the same answer, returning home crosser! However, either because Mr. Hill couldn’t think of any other way of getting rid of me, or because he was a kind man... I received soon after a charming letter... offering me the job of Temporary Assistant at £1 a week.'

Arthur Pearson papers

Pearson's fungal forays notebook

One of Pearson's notebooks listing the fungal forays of the British Mycological Society (PEA/2/1)

Arthur Anselm Pearson (1874-1954) was an amateur, but highly respected, mycologist (someone who studies fungi) who was actively involved with the British Mycological Society  and attended many of their forays (trips to collect and record fungi). The British Mycological Society still exists today, and I found their website very useful whilst cataloguing Pearson’s papers. It helped me to learn more about mycology (a topic I was previously unfamiliar with!) and the society that was such an important part of Pearson’s life. I also talked to mycologist colleagues at Kew to help me understand the content of Pearson’s correspondence and mycological notes. Hopefully these papers will prove useful to anybody interested in the history of fungal recording and the British Mycological Society.

Can you help? A bit of a mystery...

Whilst I was looking through Pearson’s papers I noticed that some of the correspondence was not in fact Pearson’s at all, but comprised letters from various individuals to a man named W. D. Buckley. The content of the letters indicated that Buckley, like Pearson, was a mycologist. Very little is known about W. D. Buckley here at Kew, so if anybody out there has any information at all about his life or career, we would love to hear from you!


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Conservation of Fortune's Chinese tree portraits

By: Emma Le Cornu - 30 Apr 2012
Read about the conservation work which has been carried out on some beautiful watercolour tree portraits from Kew's Illustrations collection.
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I am a paper conservator based in the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives department, concentrating on items from the Illustrations collection. Among the varied artworks in the collection I recently treated a group of 23 Chinese tree portraits painted in watercolour on Chinese paper. This blog post describes some of the problems I encountered and the methods I used to conserve them.

About Robert Fortune

These watercolours were painted by an unknown artist who was engaged by the 19th century botanist, Robert Fortune, on his last journey to China in the 1850s. The majority depict a conifer with human figures painted at the base of each tree. An inscription inside the front cover of the portfolio explains further:

‘Chinese portraits of conifers all done by a native Chinese artist engaged by Robert Fortune.... The artist stipulated that he would only make the pictures if allowed to put a human figure in each...’

The watercolours came to me housed in a leather covered portfolio. Each watercolour was attached along the top edge to a thicker portfolio page and numbered.

Portfolio of watercolours prior to treatment

Portfolio before treatment, 765 x 558mm

Problems involved

The condition of the watercolours presented a number of problems. Most evident was the very thin, weak Chinese paperon which they were painted, making them extremely vulnerable to further damage. They were much too fragile to be handled, viewed or exhibited. A few of the watercolours had severe tears caused by poor storage methods and rough handling. The paper had also yellowed very noticeably, most likely due to exposure to light or the degradation of additives in the paper. A small number of the watercolours had also been exposed to damp indicated by severe water staining in the form of dark tide-lines along the edges.


'Keteleeria fortunei' watercolour painting before treatment         'Juniperus chinensis' watercolour painting before treatment

No. 2 ‘Keteleeria fortunei‘ (765 x 558mm) before treatment showing tears across the whole sheet and no. 22 ‘Juniperus chinensis’ (765 x 558mm) before treatment showing water damage along the left edge.

Aims of the treatment

The conservation treatments I was to carry out were primarily aimed at stabilising the condition of the paintings, and preventing their further damage and deterioration. This would entail removing them from their current housing, repairing  structural damage, and re-housing them in accessible and safe mountings so that the items could be viewed and exhibited. As paintings which could potentially be exhibited as artworks, their appearance and the integrity of the images also needed to be considered.


Treatment started with the photography and documentation of each watercolour followed by testing of the pigments and inks after which they were removed from the portfolio pages. Tears were repaired from the back using Japanese paper strips and wheat starch paste as an adhesive. Japanese paper is very strong whilst being very lightweight. Wheat starch paste is also strong but is easily reversible and does not discolour with age. The water stains could not be removed as the required treatment would be too harsh for the fragile paper and so they were left as part of the paintings' history.

      'Platycladus orientalis' watercolour painting before treatment      'Platycladus orientalis' watercolour painting after treatment

No. 1 Platycladus orientalis’ (650 x 345mm) before and after treatment viewed with transmitted light, showing tears repaired using thin strips of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste

Lead white

A very distinctive problem concerns the pigment lead whitewhich quite often darkens on exposure to pollutants in the atmosphere, changing from white to black. Most of the watercolours had been affected in this way, although largely confined to the human figures, especially the faces. After careful consideration it was decided to treat the blackened lead white to re-instate the original image whilst also stabilising it by converting the black compound to a more stable white pigment.

'Juniperus chinensis' watercolour painting before treatment      Juniperus chinensis watercolour painting after treatment

No. 22 ‘Juniperus chinensis’ detail showing blackened lead white, before and after treatment


The watercolours were finally hinged into new window mounts enabling their safe storage in Solander boxes in the Wolfson Rare Books Room and can now easily be put into frames if required for display.

The watercolour paintings after treatment hinged into new window mounts

After treatment hinged into new window mounts

It was a pleasure to work on these charming paintings and to overcome the challenges presented by their fragile paper and pigments. The watercolours can now be accessed safely and can be exhibited to be enjoyed by others.




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Aitchison and Asia in the Directors' Correspondence

By: Katherine Harrington - 19 Apr 2012
Uncovering the plant collecting experiences of a 19th century surgeon naturalist through his correspondence with Kew.
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James Edward Tierney Aitchison

We encounter many different sorts of plant collectors in the Directors' Correspondence collection - from avid amateur enthusiasts to surgeon naturalists. In the latter category is James Edward Tierney Aitchison (1835-1898) who had a 30 year correspondence with Kew from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

A portrait from Kew's collection of J.E.T. Aitchison  sent to Mrs Thiselton-Dyer, wife of a former Director

A portrait from Kew's collection of J.E.T. Aitchison sent to Mrs Thiselton-Dyer, wife of a former Director

Aitchison was born in Neemuch, North West India, in 1835. He read medicine at the University of Edinburgh and entered the Honourable East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon in 1858. He published articles on the plants of Punjab, Sindh and Lahal and sent his first collection of dried plants to Kew in 1862, the same year that he married Eleanor Carmichael.

In 1872 Aitchison was appointed the British Commissioner to Ladakh, India. At this time Ladakh was a crossing point for the most important trade routes in Asia from Turkestan, Tibet, Punjab, Kashmir and Baltistan. Aitchison used his experience there to compile a Handbook of the Trade Products of Leh, a kind of A-Z guide to every conceivable sort of goods from 'Anár' – from the fruit of the pomegranate, Punica granatum, to 'Zirishk' – a fruit from Baltistan analogous to European Zante currants.

A black and white illustration of the Bazaar of Leh, in Ladakh from Robert Shaw's 'Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar' (1871)

An image of the Bazaar of Leh, in Ladakh, from Robert Shaw's 'Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar' (1871)

Working as a botanist

In 1878 Aitchison accompanied Lord Roberts into the Kurram Valley (North West Pakistan) and served with the 29th Punjab Regiment for two years during the period of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, attached to the field force as a botanist. Aitchison also collected plants whilst appointed to a Delimitation Commission settling the boundary of north-western Afghanistan in 1884. He published accounts of his botanical and zoological work from this period in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. To give you an idea of the scale of his collecting he reported that during his Afghan Delimitation attachment he brought c.800 species comprising c.10,000 specimens back to England. 

An image of the type specimen of Prunus aitchisonii (Rosaceae)  from Kew's herbarium collected by Aitchison in 1879

The type specimen of Prunus aitchisonii (Rosaceae) from Kew's Herbarium, collected by Aitchison in 1879

Difficulties collecting

Aitchison wrote to Kew primarily to request accurate plant identifications, for further information and to describe particular plant species and landscapes. In addition he often discussed the problems he faced while plant hunting...

"We go on towards Allykhe, I will try and do my best, but fighting and botany do not amalgamate", Camp Kurram, 11 Apr 1879 [archive ref: DC 154/49-52 NWI]

In a letter from Khusan in 1884 he writes;

"Just a line, we have halted here for 7 days after our very long march some 770 miles...this rapid marching in to the lateness of the season gave one no chance of collecting as everything was dried up & all fruit disappeared... We are far too late for anything unless got by accident – not a leaf or a fruit to be got growing on its own stem - & besides up to this all our communications with the people have been restricted most carefully on every subject..." [archive ref: DC 154/89 NWI]

Aitchison found isolation from the local people for political reasons difficult as he was especially interested in finding useful plant products and identifying their correct sources. He also struggled to obtain the right sorts of equipment for botanical collecting and wrote to the then Director of Kew, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, wondering if it would be asking too much for Hooker to propose that the Government reward him for his work [archive ref: DC 154/74-75 NWI] as he had been refused his Batta (extra allowance) because botany in the field was not a Military Duty.

Having collected his precious specimens Aitchison had to ensure their safe transit to England. In 1893 Aitchison wanted to send the then Director Sir William Thiselton-Dyer a large specimen of a branched date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, from Multan (Pakistan) [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]. He had to send it in four pieces, each six foot in length. The vessel that transported the wood to Liverpool caught fire and Aitchison was only too thankful that the sections were not thrown overboard.

An extract from a letter detailing the transmission of a  specimen of Phoenix dactylifera to Kew including a sketch of the wood

Extract from a letter detailing the transmission of a specimen of Phoenix dactylifera [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]

The exchange of useful plants

Throughout his letters Aitchison discusses identifying new and useful plants. For instance while in Gulran (Afghanistan) he finds there is a great deal of liquorice from which the native people made an extract by boiling down the roots in whey, using the resulting liquor to treat coughs and colds [archive ref: DC 154/86-87 NWI]. He also found a curious plant, which was very small but which grew an enormous taproot in sand and was used to make paper. He was certain it could succeed on their 'Scotch Links' [archive ref:  DC 154/3 NWI].

Aitchison was also keen to introduce new economic crops and timbers which he thought would grow well and wrote to Kew asking variously for sugar maple, strawberry, gooseberry, and Vancouver and Canadian pine seeds. Several of his letters discuss the introduction of hops into Kashmir by the Murree Brewery for beer production, which he considered a sign that British interests in Kashmir were 'looking up' [archive ref: DC 154/38-39 NWI].

Later life

On his retirement Aitchison settled in Scotland and unsuccessfully contested a seat in parliament for Clackmannan and Kinross for the Liberal Unionists. C.1892 he moved to Leyden House at Mortlake intending to work up his copious notes for a Flora Indiae Desertae with the help of Kew. Sadly he passed away in 1898 aged 63, before this could be achieved. Several plant species are named in his honour including Rubia aitchisonii and Berberis aitchisonii.

Aitchison's digitised letters will shortly be accessible via the JSTOR Plant Science website where many of his plant specimens can also be viewed. In his letters Aitchison mentions that his wife illustrated some of his plants and I am keen to discover if we have any of her illustrations here at Kew.



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Preparing for the Joseph Hooker exhibition

By: Emma Le Cornu - 29 Mar 2012
Read about how the Preservation section prepared for the Joseph Hooker exhibition.
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The Joseph Hooker - naturalist, traveller and more exhibition opened at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in Kew Gardens in November 2011.

Preparing for an exhibition requires input from a range of specialists and I am going to talk about my involvement from the Preservation section.

As conservator of the Illustrations collection I was needed to help in preparing illustrations for framing. Many of the pictures had been attached to poor quality backing paper or herbarium sheets, with the original watercolour and a printed version, usually a lithograph, attached to the same sheet.

Removal of the backing sheet

For exhibition the pictures needed to be remounted and framed. Most of the illustrations were left on their original backing if they were in good condition and of good quality. Those with very poor quality or damaged backing papers were removed from them prior to mounting. This also allowed the removal of any discoloured adhesives.

Image: 'Rhododendron Hookeri', lithograph alongside original illustration  

 ‘Rhododendron hookeri’ lithograph alongside the original illustration in graphite and watercolour attached to a herbarium sheet (265 x 420mm), before treatment, showing adhesive staining in the corners and tape residue along the edges.

In the past, the illustrations had been attached to the backing, usually by the four corners, using various types of adhesive including animal glue. Some of these adhesive spots have darkened considerably with age causing irreversible staining visible on the front of the paper in the corners. By removing the adhesive from the back we can prevent any further staining and re-attach the illustrations to new backing with an archival quality adhesive.

Photo showing removal of backings and adhesive

Removal of the poor quality backings and adhesive

Window mounts

The illustrations were then mounted into window mounts made from museum quality mount board. To keep multiple illustrations attached to herbarium sheets together, a mount with multiple windows was used.

A window mount is composed of a solid backing board hinged to a top board with windows cut to display the images. The illustrations were hinged into the mounts with tabs made from Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Japanese papers are very strong whilst being very thin, making them ideal for use in paper conservation to repair tears and hold sheets of paper in place within a mount. Wheat starch paste is a very strong adhesive which does not discolour or lose its strength with age.

Photograph showing illustrations being hinged into window mounts

Hinging into window mounts

Framing the illustrations

Once the illustrations are hinged into the window mounts, they are ready to be framed. The Kew Illustrations department has a standard frame size and design for the works to be exhibited. There were around 50 artworks to be framed and this was carried out by two conservators over two days. Framing can be a very time consuming task, ensuring clean glass inside and out and the removal of any fluff that might creep onto the mount and image. The mounts were secured into the frames with hardboard backing and sealed with tape. They were then wrapped in polythene sheeting and taped securely to keep them protected during their journey across the Gardens to the gallery.

Exhibitions of illustrations at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art provide an excellent opportunity to assess the condition of parts of the collection that may not receive attention otherwise and prompt their conservation if need be. It is also very fulfilling to take part in enabling original images to be seen by the public.


Joseph Hooker - naturalist, traveller and more (Sat 12 November 2011 - Mon 09 April 2012)

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