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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In the Reading Room
If you're thinking of visiting the Reading Room at Kew, make sure not to miss the small (nine pictures) but beautifully formed display of illustrations of festive plants from the Collection.
At Christmas-time, a variety of plants are central to the festivities: the holly wreath, poinsettia centrepiece, the sprig of mistletoe above the threshold and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all Yule-tide traditions, the Christmas tree have had a long affiliation with winter revelry in both Christian and pagan customs.
The unifying feature of most plants that have an association with Christmas is that they remain green throughout winter, offering hope during cold, meagre times, and solace that spring will come again.
Holly is a traditional decoration in Christmas wreaths, and there are many stories relating its red berries to the blood of Christ, and its foliage to the Crown of Thorns, but its association with the winter season predates Christianity; the Druids for example supposedly used it in their ceremonial headdresses. The bright red berries and verdant foliage symbolise new growth in the depths of winter. The fact that it was evergreen meant that it was believed to possess magical properties, and so was kept in the home during the winter months to protect against evil spirits.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium), watercolour on card, Ann Webster, 1950s
The tradition of decorating a fir, pine or spruce at Christmas was first documented by the Estonian Chronicler, Balthasar Russow (1536-1600), who had observed the practice in Latvia in the 16th century, and it soon spread across Europe, although it was largely confined to Protestant areas.
By the 17th century, German Christmas trees were decorated with gingerbread and gold-covered apples, paper roses and sweets. The tradition was introduced to Britain during the early 19th century, but its popularity was established by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who in 1841 installed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, recalling Victoria’s heritage, and her husband’s childhood in Germany.
By the 1840s the wealthy middle classes began to follow suit, and in 1848, a print of the Royal Family appeared in the 23rd December supplement of the London Illustrated News and, at its centre, splendidly decorated and lit abundantly with candles, is the Christmas-tree.
The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is probably the most commonly-used Christmas tree in modern Europe, but the silver fir (Abies alba) and Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) are also popular.
Fir (Abies), graphite and watercolour on wove paper partially drummed onto card, W. Richardson, ca. 1880s
Native to Central America, the Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl and used the flowers to produce a purple dye, while the sap was made into a fever remedy.
In modern times, the plant gained popularity after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico in 1825, cultivated and sent live specimens to American botanic gardens. But its particular association with Christmas stems from a Mexican fable. A young girl, too poor to afford an offering at Christmas Mass, was told by an angel to gather weeds. When she placed them at the altar, they were transformed into crimson star-shaped flowers.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima syn. Poinsettia pulcherrima), watercolour on paper, General John Eyre, 1850s
During the 1920s, renowned poet of the New York Harlem Renaissance movement, Claude McKay (1889-1948), wrote the poem Flame-Heart, which uses the imagery of Caribbean fruit and flowers, including poinsettia, to evoke a sense of longing for home, undoubtedly drawing on European pastoral-style, but also endeavouring to develop a new, Jamaican-centred account of the tradition.
So much have I forgotten in ten years
So much in ten brief years! I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special, startling season
Of the pimento's flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.
I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But cannot recollect the high days when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow by-road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple.
I have forgotten--strange--but quite remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.
A Merry Christmas from all at Library, Art and Archives.
- Lynn -
Christmas and New Year closure
- The display is free to view in the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room until the end of Monday 23 December. The Library, Art & Archives will then be closed from Tuesday 24 December 2013 to Wednesday 1 January 2014 inclusive. We re-open on Thursday 2 January at 9am, and the display will be viewable until Friday 10 January.
- On non-holidays and weekdays the Library is open from 9am to 5pm. All are welcome to visit and access is free!
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Digitising Joseph Hooker
Joseph Hooker's groundbreaking expedition to India and the Himalayas (1847-51) kept him away from home for over three years. The letters he wrote during that time are being digitised and will be made available online from next year as part of the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project.
Travelling in unexplored lands and scouring remote wildernesses for plant treasures, Hooker seems to have been in his element. Indeed, in his letters he says he will not be satisfied until he has travelled the whole world:
"I wish to see the Andes & every other part of the world as much as I should no more be satisfied as a traveller by Borneo than I was by the Antarct[ic] Exped[ition]. or am by the Himal." [JDH/1/10/175-179]
Christmas away from home
But how might he have felt about being away from friends and family when his first the festive season away, Christmas 1847, rolled around? Well, his mother might have been a little put out to hear that her son was having such a jolly time during the first months of his journey to India that he was not thinking about his family at all. In fact he forgot about Christmas altogether as he confessed in a letter to her from Ceylon [Sri Lanka]:
"Our Chaplain was an excellent one, & performed the service & preached well; he startled me by the announcement of the following Saturday being xmas; for I had latterly kept no count of the weeks and months." [JDH/1/10/25-28]
Extract of a letter from Hooker to his mother, 4 January 1848
No doubt Hooker was overtaken by the thrill of setting out on a new expedition, mind fixed on the exciting adventures ahead - and new plants to be found.
He does allow that his loved ones might spare a festive thought for him, though. To his fiancée Frances Henslow he wrote on the assumption that she was missing him too much to enjoy Christmas:
"I dare say you thought of us on Christmas day & so we all did of England & English friends... I wished Lady D[alhousie]. many Happier Christmases, & flattered myself that I was not far wrong in wishing you the same. " [JDH/1/10/29-31]
A not so merry Christmas on the high seas
Hooker certainly wasn't a happy traveller that first Christmas away in 1847, which was spent uncomfortably on board the steam frigate Moozuffer:
"You I hope were more comfortable than we; for to add to the many discomforts of the present voyage... we had adverse winds & a rolling sea....[we] have to pig it out in the ship's armoury, a dirty place, next to the Engine, intolerably hot & smothered with Coal dust. We lie on mattresses on the deck; & it is all we can do to turn out tidy for meals in the cabin" [JDH//10/29-31]
Example of a 19th century steam frigate
The Christmas fare on board ship wasn't up to his standards either:
"Of Roast Beef we have none; but the more easily compassed Plum pudding was present."
In fact Hooker really wasn't a fan of Indian food at all. In a letter to his friend, the botanist and one time Director of Calcutta Botanic Garden, Nathaniel Wallich he wrote:
"In only one thing I am deceived by all you Indians in England; & that is the cookery -- which is in every respect villainous & atrocious. Your stews, pillafs, & curries I abhor & eschew, et hoc genus omne. Wines are invariably bad, ascending in scale of inferiority with the quality & price."[JDH/1/10/82-83]
The heart of a traveller
I may be in danger of painting Joseph as just some crotchety, complaining old humbug, but mostly he was an enthusiastic traveller. He was certainly willing to endure any hardship to collect plants, braving the monsoons, treacherous cane bridges, rock slides and dense uncharted jungles, lack of provisions and altitude sickness to accumulate his extraordinary collections:
"I have been here three days & again I am out of food... I had not the day a morsel of bread or meat only Tea & a case carrots... We went 2 miles through the densest scrub... rounded another cliff in the bed of the river which was up to our middle & the current very strong... A mile further we could stand out no longer... The rocks & cliffs were impracticable, the snow beds too slippery, & the icy torrents we crossed every few yards bitterly cold... The ground covered with beautiful spring flowers... These explorations are very hard work, but I get such lots of plants that they are always abundantly profitable & I am in rare health." [JDH/1/10/175-179]
Hooker's sketch of a cane bridge and Mount Tukcham, improved by Fitch, Hooker's Himalayan Journals
The ideal Christmas present?
I wish you all a very adventurous Christmas. Do come back in the New Year when Joseph Hooker's Indian correspondence will be launched online.
In the meantime, if you want to know more about Joseph Hooker - or are looking for the perfect stocking filler! - Kew publishes a sumptuous illustrated book about his life and travels, Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer, available to buy online.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project, please contact me at email@example.com.
- Introducing the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project
- Find out more about Joseph Hooker
- Search Kew's online archive catalogue
- Celebrate Christmas at Kew
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Kew's paper conservators Emma Le Cornu and Eleanor Hasler had to think big when treating a linocut of the Pagoda by Edward Bawden. Here they explain how this damaged artwork was returned to its former glory in the conservation studio.
The pagoda print
Accustomed to conserving and re-housing smaller items on paper, Emma and I were pleased to work on something large scale when Edward Bawden’s 'The Pagoda, Kew Gardens' was brought to the studio for treatment. The print is a large colour linocut and is one of a series of fifty that Bawden produced in 1963.
The print of the Pagoda before treatment
Edward Bawden (1903-1989) created numerous striking illustrations, designs and paintings throughout his career, many of which were reproduced in posters, prints and book covers. He had a strong interest in both gardening and architecture and, consequently, an affiliation with Kew developed, with Bawden often using the Gardens for subject matter. In 1936 he was commissioned to design a London Underground poster for Kew Gardens. He used the relief printing technique of linocut to create the image.
'Kew Gardens' by Edward Bawden 1936 (Credit: the Estate of Edward Bawden)
Why the print had deteriorated
It is his large scale linocuts that Bawden is most famous for, especially his later prints, including 'The Pagoda, Kew Gardens'. By applying very thick layers of printing ink, he could create bold, opaque blocks of colour to create striking and inventive images.
It was these thick areas of printing ink, however, that caused problems for the Pagoda print here in the Library, Art and Archives. Previously housed in a lightweight wooden frame, the unmounted print was attached to the top edge of the backing board. When the inappropriate hinging tape finally gave way, the print sagged and was pressed up against the Perspex. Due to the very slow-drying nature of the oils in printing inks, the media on the print was still tacky and so adhered to the Perspex, causing ink and paper loss in the image area.
Conserving the print
Prior to the print being brought into the studio, some of the ink had been removed from the Perspex using liquid nitrogen. This chilled the ink enough to remove it from the Perspex and then it was re-adhered to the print. When Emma and I received the print, large losses in the media were still evident and the paper was still distorted and damaged from being crumpled in the frame. The paper was also discoloured, mainly at the edges, which indicated the support was acidic and would benefit from having the overall pH raised.
As we are usually able to wash artworks in the sink in the conservation studio, we had to adapt our techniques for this large print. In order to remove the soluble acidity in the paper we humidified and then washed the print, using blotting paper to draw the water through the paper. By adding an alkali to the wash water we raised the pH of the paper and also removed a surprising amount of discolouration. The print immediately looked brighter, with a greater degree of contrast between the ink and paper.
The distorted thick ink layers meant that the print would not lie flat so we decided to line the back of it with a thinner Japanese paper which would serve two purposes:
- the damaged paper would benefit from the added support of an overall lining
- the print would be gently pulled flat as the lining dried
The print dried slowly in a chamber so that tensions remained even
Using a karibari board
The humidified print, with lining paper adhered onto the back, was smoothed out onto a board and then the edges of the lining paper were pasted down at the edges so that as the print dried, tensions were kept even and the artwork was remained flat.
This method of flattening and drying artworks is traditionally used for the lining of Japanese scrolls, the drying board itself is called a karibari board. Where there were losses in the media, we decided to in-paint so that the image would be continuous. We tested a number of different options for in-painting as we not only had to match the colour of the missing ink but also characteristics such as opacity and sheen as well.
Colour matching and in-painting the areas of loss.
The Inspiring Kew exhibition
The print is now mounted onto conservation grade board and is ready to be framed and displayed in the upcoming exhibition ‘Inspiring Kew’ at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in 2014. It will be displayed along with another of Bawden’s prints, ‘Kew Palace’, also in the Illustrations Collection, to show how Bawden was enthused by his much loved visits to the Gardens.
Make your own lino print
Transport for London have created a microsite where you can find out more about Edward Bawden, about the technique of linoprinting, and design your own Kew Gardens Poster!
- Emma and Eleanor -
- Explore the view from the top of the Pagoda
- Take a look at Kew’s latest video, celebrating National Tree Week 2013, featuring the Pagoda.
- Learn more about Eward Bawden on the Tate website
- Current exhbitions at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
- Explore the Illustrations Collection in the Library, Art & Archives
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The idea behind the reindeer
In 1907 a medical missionary to Newfoundland and Labrador, Wilfred Grenfell, introduced 300 Lapland reindeer and three herder families to the north coast of Canada. Until then, the people of Labrador were reliant on harp seals for food and savage dogs for draught animals. The rapid extermination of harp seals had left little food available and the draught dogs were so savage they had been known to kill Inuits and whole flocks of sheep.
Grenfell wanted to help the people of Labrador and believed by importing reindeer, a sustainable source of meat, milk, clothes and bedding could be provided. The reindeer could also be used as draught animals, meaning people no longer had to rely on the vicious dogs.
Woman in formal dress sitting near a reindeer herd [1909?] (The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, VA 118-40.4, International Grenfell Association photograph collection)
Sir William MacGregor
After meeting Grenfell, the Governor of Newfoundland, Sir William MacGregor, became very interested in this idea and started his own botanical research into the availability of lichens and mosses in the area as a basis for reindeer food. He went on several collecting trips around Labrador (mainly to Anse Sablon and the Chidley peninsula) as well as receiving various collections from members of Grenfell's mission.
Having been friends with Kew's third director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, he decided to send these collections on to Sir David Prain, Thiselton-Dyer's successor. Kew Gardens was heavily involved in the determination of these specimens and concluded that at least four species found in Labrador would serve as a food supply for reindeer. As these lichens were common in the area, it was estimated that there was enough food to support over 3 million reindeer.
There are several letters in the Directors' Correspondence from MacGregor, referring to these specimens and to Kew's involvement in the Reindeer experiment. MacGregor also sent a press cutting from Newfoundland's Evening Herald, regarding the lichen and moss specimens which had been sent to Kew. Kew Gardens was, and still is, considered the highest authority for botanical matters.
"What I most desire to know is the value of the mosses & lichens in that district as food for the Reindeer. It would be of vast advantage to Labrador to have that animal introduced & bred there" (Archive ref: DC 201 f.67); Press cutting (Archive ref: DC 201 f.68).
At first, the experiment appeared to be successful and was widely pubilcised, for example in this article in the New York Times. However, the Lapp herders were finding the climate too cold and one family left after just the first year. The others soon followed and the herding was left to locally trained men. By the fourth year, the herd had increased to 1,000 reindeer but had begun to face increased poaching and abandonment by the locally trained herders.
Ten years into the experiment, the herd was drastically reduced and the remaining reindeer were shipped away to Millertown. Grenfell still regarded the experiment as a success but, unknown to him, the reindeer carried a parasite. Although there is no direct evidence that the reindeers passed this parasite on, it affects caribou in Newfoundland up until this day and this is the only place in the world where caribou are known to carry the parasite.
Reindeer swimming in a lake (From the International Greenfell Association Lantern Slides Collection, credit: the Maritime History Archive)
There are so many interesting stories and insights into the past to be found in Kew's archive of letters. By digitising them they can be accessed by people all over the world. See what you can find among the Directors' Correspondence by searching under 'Free Text' on the JSTOR Global Plants website.
- Jess -
- Browse the Directors' Correspondence online at JSTOR Global Plants
- For advice on using the JSTOR Global Plants website, see the blog post Celebrating the launch of JSTOR Global Plants
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Project
- For the latest news from the DC project follow us on twitter @KewDC
- More about Wilfred Grenfell on Wikipedia
- More about Sir William MacGregor on Wikipedia
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Explore your archive
This week sees the launch of the nationwide Explore Your Archive campaign, complete with colourful poster!
Poster for the Explore Your Archive campaign
John Smith’s list of gardeners at Kew
Across the country many archive services are hosting special events and talks to promote the treasures they hold and encourage the public to discover their past. I am going to take this opportunity to write about one of my favourite items in our Archive collections – John Smith’s List of Gardeners at Kew.
This small, unassuming volume was created by John Smith, Curator of the Gardens from 1841 to 1864, to record the hiring (and firing) of gardening staff. He includes details about the particular skills, knowledge and character of the men under his employment, and often notes where they moved on to after leaving Kew. These added details mean that we can gain real insight into the men who worked at Kew as well as the way John Smith liked to manage his gardeners.
John Smith, curator of Kew Gardens, 1841-1864
Sometimes the notes Smith has made are quite intriguing. Here he writes of the gardener George Bond that he is ‘a good and industrious workman but wants sence [sic], does very sily [sic] actions as regards his private affairs. He I fear will not succeed as a Gardener'.
John Smith's notes about George Bond
Smith seems to value the men who aim to ‘improve’ themselves while at Kew, and even offered prizes for the gardeners with the best private collections of plants. Charles Baxter received one of these prizes ‘having collected and named about 400 species’. Unfortunately, we know the ultimate fate of Baxter, as Smith recorded that he died during an expedition up the Niger river.
John Smith's notes about Charles Baxter
Researching family history
We regularly receive enquiries from people researching their family history who discover that their ancestor was a gardener at Kew. As this is the only record we have of the gardeners at this early period, I always keep my fingers crossed that I will find their name in John Smith’s list, and be able to tell their great-grandchildren a bit more about them. Although sometimes they might be quite shocked by what they discover!
Swedish gardener Knut Forsberg worked at Kew for only a year before being discharged for ‘improper conduct viz stopping away from his duty and insulting the Foreman and Curator’. Of course, we only hear the curator’s side of the story, but it would appear the two men did not end on the best of terms. Smith adds that Forsberg ‘threatened voilence [sic] on me’ and signs his name against it for good measure.
John Smith's notes about Knut Forsberg
There are thousands of archive services across the UK and Ireland and each one is unique. Whatever you are interested in; there will be an archive that contains untold stories to inspire you.
- Lorna -
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Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
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
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
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