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 Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project
I've been working on the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project for a few months now, digitising and transcribing the letters of Kew's most renowned Director and all-round scientific polymath: Joseph Hooker. Digital images of the letters along with transcriptions will be made available online for the first time on a new Kew microsite which is scheduled to go live for a pilot phase in January.
There are thousands of letters to and from Joseph Hooker in Kew's extensive archive but for the pilot phase of the project we have selected one series: Joseph Hooker's Indian letters. Even within this one series of correspondence I have found that Hooker's letters home reflect a broad diversity of scientific interests. Hooker's primary concern was botany but his letters also display a keen interest in geography, geology, zoology and anthropology to name but a few.
Hooker in the Himalayas
Joseph was in India from 1847-1851 trekking through the sweltering plains and climbing in the remote Himalayas. He went partly to satisfy his own curiosity about exotic floras and to collect specimens for Kew Gardens, but also with instructions from Charles Darwin to observe the distribution of animals and from naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who was interested in plants at altitude. Hooker reported what he'd observed in long letters to many illustrious correspondents: for example, he wrote to Professor Wheatsone, a pioneer of spectroscopy, describing an unusual occurrence of an aurora in India. Another notable correspondent was John Stevens Henslow - a fellow botanist and mentor to Darwin, who was also Hooker's father-in-law. Joseph married Henslow's daughter Frances on his return from India and in the Kew archive we are lucky enough to have personal letters from Hooker to his family, including his wife-to-be as well as his parents and sisters, in addition to his important scientific correspondence. All contain fascinating observations from a keen-eyed scientist blazing a trail to seldom-explored frontiers in the high Himalayas.
I have selected some extracts from the Indian letters which reflect both the broad variety of Hooker's scientific interests and some of the epistolary anecdotes he recounted to his different correspondents.
Hooker to Darwin
Hooker wrote several letters to Darwin from India. The following extract is from one dated 1848 in which he discusses the distribution of different species in India, including species of antelope divided by a river, different coloured squirrels found on opposite sides of mountain ranges, and the species of wild elephants:
"I find as, might be expected, that the Natural features of this vast area separate different species in most cases, & that sometimes the limits of the latter, though defined, are apparently not subject to any evident law but to caprice... One of the most striking instances of the prevalence of races in districts is afforded by the Elephant, of which there are three distinct wild Indian varieties; confined to the three separate but similar forests they respectively affect" [JDH_1_10_52-54]
In the same letter he continues more lightheartedly:
"I may add that I have been riding a Sylehet [elephant] daily for the last month & a noble beast she is, a grand fellow to talk to your children about hereafter... it has to push on the waggons [sic] with its fore head... If Elephants have head--aches what splitting ones they must be." [JDH_1_10_52-54]
Extract of a letter from Hooker to Darwin in which he discusses the distribution & variation of species in India.
Click on the image to download a PDF file containing images of the entire letter or download a full transcription of the letter (pdf).
To his father - letters about collecting
To his father, William Jackson Hooker, himself then Director of Kew, Joseph wrote a long treatise about the species of plants he saw on his travels through India and about the specimens he collected, one of which gave him a rather unpleasant surprise:
"Arums are superb and very curious. One flowered in my room this morning & I was awoken by an insufferable stench, putting a therm[ometer]. into the spathe it rose to 9° above the temp[erature]. of the air at 7 am & now at 11 pm it is 4 degrees hotter than the air."
Hooker was a scientist to the core. On awaking to find the smelly bloom what else would a scientist do but proceed to take measurements of the phenomenon such as its temperature?
Hooker the artist
These are some of Hooker's sketches of Indian Arums, of the genus Amorphophallus.
He notes of one below that it smells like rotten salt fish. Hooker sent rough field sketches such as these back to Kew where they still form part of the Herbarium collection, consulted by botanists as scientific documents.
As well as live plants, Hooker collected items of economic botany for his father who had set up a museum to display useful plant products at Kew: any functional or decorative item that was made from plant material, any food stuff or materia medica was to be gathered for this museum:
"With regard to things for the Kew Museum I have done my best; (but the scanty population of the districts I passed over is against much exercise of the arts.) One of the most curious things procured (& I think ever seen) is a fine bellows made entirely of the leaves of a tree & used for smelting iron by the indigenes or aborigines of these parts. Nothing can prove their poverty more strikingly. The article is the size of a very large cheese, has a bamboo snout & is altogether a great curiosity. At the Fairs I invariably pick up beads worn when under a Vow or by the Brahmins, boxes & such like, & all the gums & drugs I can procure. The number of the latter are in Legions" [JDH_1_10_55-58]
Many of the medicinal and edible substances Hooker collected for the museum, as well as other curiosities such as the bellows described, are still part of Kew's economic botany collection. As the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project progresses we hope to be able to feature items from Kew's collections that complement the letters, such as Hooker's field sketches, his dried plant specimens and economic botany contributions.
Other family letters
In letters to his sister we see a much more whimsical side to Hooker. This illustrated extract is from a letter in which he caricatures his dog, named Kinchin after the mountain Kanchenjunga, as so smart he will soon be writing Hooker's letters for him! He also describes some mischievous antics of his faithful canine travelling companion.
"when up in the snows I was one day sitting writing in my tent...I looked out at a hole & saw "Kinchin" down at the kitchen"... his head - I shudder to go on - was in my dinner" [JDH/1/10/151]
Illustrated letter from Joseph Hooker about his dog Kinchin and featuring an illustration of the clever canine supposedly learning to write!
Writing to his wife-to-be Joseph Hooker was not above some of the complaints you might expect from a cantankerous tourist. In one letter alone he complains of his baggage being slow to arrive, the rainy and foggy weather, the difficulty of traversing steep roads, the dirty accommodation, and some of the more unwelcome wildlife:
"my legs with leeches, which swarm about the foot of the hills, bite through your stockings, & roll themselves up into little balls like thick-skinned gooseberries, & thus lie with impunity within your shoes" [JDH_1_10_67-68]
In Hooker's defence he may have found the travelling hard but it only took some treasured letters from home to restore his mood and he was willing to endure all the hardships for the privilege of exploring "the most extraordinary mountains in the world" and collecting their botanical treasures.
The first installment of Hooker's Indian correspondence, featuring images of the letters as well as full transcriptions, will be available on Kew's website from January. I hope you'll visit the site then to discover more of Joseph Hooker's exploits.
And if you want to find out more about Joseph Hooker right now, Kew publishes a sumptuous book about his life and explorations, 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer', available from the Kew online shop.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project please contact me at email@example.com.
- Buy 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer' at the Kew online shop
- Take a look at my earlier blog post introducing the Correspondence project
- Find out more about Joseph Hooker
- Search Kew's online archive catalogue
2 comments on 'Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.'
Isaac M Sutton
In our new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art - Botanicals: Environmental Expressions in Art, the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection - we will be displaying over 50 paintings from the American collector Isaac Sutton’s collection which have never been on show in the UK before.
Sutton’s collection has previously been exhibited at the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh, and at the New York Botanic Gardens, and features many well-known contemporary botanical artists including Beverly Allen, Rachel Pedder-Smith, Celia Rosser, Carol Woodin and Leslie Berge.
To introduce the exhibition and his collection we asked Isaac M. Sutton some questions about his motivations for collecting:
Botanical Art collector Isaac M. Sutton
Can you tell us a bit about your collection? How many paintings do you have?
"I started collecting botanical art in 1998 after viewing Dr. Shirley Sherwood's ground breaking first exhibition in New York. I was captivated by the beauty of the paintings and decided that I would like to own and hang similar paintings in my homes. To me collecting is not only about the depth and breadth of a collection in a certain genre of paintings, it is also and mainly about displaying and living with beauty, using the paintings as part of decor. The collection began modestly and after a while I began to gravitate to larger pieces of art. Certain artists became favourites. As the collection matured I began to seek out paintings that were different, either in subject and/or style. At present there are more than 250 botanical art paintings in the collection with additions being made yearly, albeit at a slower pace than before."
The paintings have arrived and been unpacked in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery
What first encouraged you to start collecting botanical art?
"Dr. Shirley Sherwood's pioneering work in the revival of contemporary botanical art was the main impetus for me to start collecting in this field. Dr. Sherwood made it easy - the artists and organisations that are involved in this field were clearly listed in the back of her catalogues. For a first-time collector her catalogues also served as vouchsafe for any purchase of an artist within them. I always thank Dr. Sherwood for bringing beauty to the forefront of the art world and encouraging all of us to pursue this field."
More of the paintings that will be on display in the exhibition
How do you go about choosing art for your collection?
"First and foremost I must like the painting. I next inspect the technical aspects of the painting. Lastly I analyze the composition of the piece. If one of the last two criteria makes an impression on me it is then that I consider adding a piece to my collection."
The Sutton Dogwood by Katie Lee will be on display
Why did you want your collection to be exhibited at Kew?
"In travelling this exhibit I wanted to share with the art and botanical world some true masterworks of the botanical art genre. To that end Kew and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art are a must destination. Great Britain, and Kew specifically, are the capital or headquarters of botanical art. I also wanted the British public to view this collection, a public that appreciates and is a leading advocate of this genre."
Meet Isaac Sutton
Isaac M. Sutton will be giving a tour of this new exhibition on 23 October 2013 at 2pm. This event is free but booking is required. Please contact the gallery on 0208 332 3622 to book a place.
Botanicals: Environmental Expressions in Art, the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection will be on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until 19 January 2014. This exhibition will be shown alongside Black and White, in Colour until 5 January 2014 and Rory McEwen’s Legacy - Artists influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection until 14 January 2014.
- Joanne -
- Visit the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
- Find out more about the exhibition: Botanicals: Environmental Expressions in Art, the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection.
- Check out the details for the exhibition tour with Isaac M. Sutton.
- Discover other exhibitions currently taking place in the gallery including Black and White, in Colour and Rory McEwen's Legacy - Artists influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
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I have recently completed conservation of a large collection of botanical watercolours that were on a variety of supports including paper, vellum and a very fragile Chinese paper.
Ann Lee Collection
The Ann Lee collection contains 165 botanical illustrations. The collection is attributed to the 18th century botanical artist Ann Lee, with about two thirds of the items painted by her. The remaining approximately 60 items are Chinese in origin, painted on Chinese paper and most likely painted by Chinese artists.
Watercolour on vellum by Ann Lee, 1775, before treatment
There is little information available on the provenance of the collection. It is likely that it belonged to Ann Lee’s father, James Lee, nurseryman of Hammersmith, who supplied exotic plants to Kew. The Chinese watercolours may have been collected by James Lee as examples of exotic plants. The collection was presented to Kew in 1969.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, showing insects in various stages of development: Before treatment
All 165 items were stored in one slim box in paper folders. The majority of the collection was in a fair condition but with tears and creases around the edges as a result of poor storage and handling in the past. These required minor repairs, removal of tape, cleaning of dirt on the surface and re-housing in new mounts and boxes. However, about 10% of the collection was in an extremely poor condition with the supports in fragments and extremely brittle paper that would break into pieces if touched or moved.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, before treatment. The paper is very discoloured and brittle and has broken into fragments
Due to the nature of the Chinese paper, which is very thin and weak, I contacted experts in Chinese paper conservation at the Hirayama studio in the British Museum for advice on treatment.This resulted in collaboration between Kew and the British Museum. I took two of the most damaged watercolours to the Hirayama studio where I was given training by the Chinese paper conservator, then carried out the treatments under her supervision and with her assistance.
The watercolours were so damaged that the only treatment possible was to apply a lining to the back of the paper to hold it all in place. This was very challenging as the paper was so difficult to handle. The Chinese method was the best solution as it is very quick and does not use much moisture, which may cause the colours to run.
In the Hirayama studio at the British Museum, lowering the lining paper onto the back of the watercolour and brushing the back to ensure the paper is fully attached
However, it requires skill to place the lining onto the back of the watercolour in one go and there are no second chances. Two layers of Chinese paper are coated with glue, lowered onto the back of the watercolour then brushed over to make sure the papers are firmly attached. With many practice runs and with the assistance of the Chinese paper conservator, I was able to line the two watercolours successfully.
Smaller fragments needed to be fitted into place after lining. This was carried out piece by piece and fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. See how this was done on the video below (the process has been speeded up).
Now that the watercolours are lined they can be handled safely without any risk to the paper or the image.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist: After treatment in a window mount
The whole collection has now been re-housed in window mounts and in archival storage boxes and is available to researchers and to go on display.
- Emma -
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9 September - 21 October 2013
Come and see our Reading Room display and learn about the Kew Guild!
The Kew Guild was founded in 1893 with the aim of uniting “all Kew men in the bond of fellowship by means of a journal”, and was initially open to those who were working, or who had worked, in the horticultural departments of the Gardens. In 1898 membership of the Guild was opened up to any member (present or former) of Kew staff “in a position of responsibility”. Today there are about 500 members of the Guild, which continues to unite past and present staff, as well as encouraging the advancement of horticultural and botanical knowledge.
Kew Guild Dinner 1905, held at the Holborn Restaurant, London KGU/1/9/1/112
The Guild’s papers came to Kew’s Archives in 2005 and provide an unique snapshot of Kew life, as well as documenting the Guild’s own history. For example, from menus from the Guild’s annual dinner covering the period 1900 to the modern day we can see the tastes and culinary trends of the time. The archive includes very rich photographic collections which are of great use for those seeking images of ancestors who worked at Kew, as well as documenting the history of the Guild and the Gardens. A number of these images can be seen in the recently published “The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs”.
Documents such as membership books, accounting records, papers about scholarships and prizes awarded by the Guild, and correspondence are all held in the archive. Amongst these, personal stories can be found such as that of Winifred Young, the widow of a Kew student gardener, Thomas Young, who wrote to the Guild asking for a grant of money for her and her eight year old daughter. Young’s case went before the Kew Guild Committee and they were able to send her £10 (equivalent to about £350 now).
Part of the display
The display in our Reading Room covers the founding of the Guild and highlights some interesting stories and famous faces that can be found in the archive. Historic dinner menus, artworks, students notebooks, photographs, the Guild’s parchment grant of arms and original handwritten documents are all included.
All are welcome to visit the Reading Room to view the display and access is free!
- Kiri -
- Dates - 9 September - 21 October 2013
- Times - 9.00-17.00 Mondays - Fridays
- Location - Library, Art and Archives Reading Room, The Herbarium, in the Library, Art & Archives Building (off Kew Green)
- Map - The entrance to the Herbarium is through a black, wrought-iron gateway on the north side of Kew Green (download a map)
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The Directors' Correspondence , or 'DC' collection, contains original letters written to the Directors and senior staff of Kew between the 1840s and the 1920s, from plant hunters and botanical gardens all around the world. Our particular project delves into the North American correspondence and includes some interesting people and some fascinating discoveries.
Luckily for us, the DC collection was systematically organised to perfection before we started and had been divided into volumes. We index these volumes to make sure it's all there and log any letters which are missing or out of sequence. We also log extra attachments included, such as newspaper clippings or death certificates. We then data-base the volumes, giving each letter a unique identification, known as a KDC (Kew Directors' Correspondence) number.
As suggested by the title, we do actually digitise some stuff. We carefully photograph each letter as accurately as possible, using appropriate lighting to keep that 'old' look to them and to ensure the image is as close to reality as possible. This transforms our fragile archives secured away at Kew into an easily accessible digital copy to be accessed by anyone (via JSTOR Global Plants) from anywhere in the world!
New starters Jon and Jess (not forgetting the Victorian moustache!)
Creating metadata is the biggest part of the job and involves reading through the letters and summarising the content. In doing so we go for the most important and interesting information which includes the names of important people, places, plant species and any social and historical mentions. Gossip is always good!
Deciphering Victorian handwriting
One of the most difficult things is reading and interpreting Victorian handwriting. Paper was relatively expensive and it was common for authors to write very small and cram everything on as little paper as possible! For example, this extract below by Mr George Engelmann, botanist and notorious scribbler. This makes the job uniquely challenging but, when eventually deciphered, makes it very rewarding.
Example of writing by George Engelmann, 1879 [Archives ref: 199/157]
The ageing process can make it particularly difficult to read, bearing in mind that some of these letters are over 150 years old. Occasionally people have written in pencil or spilt ominous things on the letters making them almost impossible to read. Another example, this letter extract below by Lemmon. Can anybody tell us what it says?
Example of writing by John Gill Lemmon, 1887 [Archives ref: 199/281]
The world of plant hunting is an interesting one; there are so many intriguing and unusual stories. We have many first hand accounts of botanists exploring new regions and discovering exotic plants on their travels. After documenting their findings they sent them back, often with samples, artwork or photographs attached. Many botanists encountered dangerous terrain and diseases on their expeditions. They included lengthy descriptions of their voyages and described their illnesses in gruesome detail. There are, of course, many interesting stories about plants. One example we found was a letter regarding a particularly rare species, Shortia galacifolia, which was rediscovered by Asa Gray, who features heavily in our correspondence.
We have also come across some fairly enterprising botany, some experimental fruit, mention of the Suffragettes and of the Titanic disaster, a few deaths including a suicide, this grisly murder and so much more waiting to be discovered!
- Jon and Jess -
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Get in touch with the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Buy 'The Plant Hunters' by Carolyn Fry from Kew's online shop, exquisitely illustrated with facsimile items from Kew’s archive
- Follow us on twitter @KewDC for project updates, fun quotes and further stories from the Directors' Correspondence project
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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
Suffragettes at Kew: Fascinating stuff. Love the old headlines. . by: Neil
History of art in the Directors' Correspondence: the painting of an iconic Kew image: Hooker is my favourite Fellow, He was a lab bench man and it is fitting that he should also be celeb ... by: Brian S. Hartley FRS
Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.: Hi Judy, thanks for your lovely comment supporting the work of the project. Your great grandfather w ... by: Virginia, RBG Kew archive
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