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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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Masterpieces, mishaps and memories: Mount Kanchenjunga in the Directors' Correspondence

By: Charlotte Rowley - 09 Mar 2012
Kew's own Sir Joseph Hooker was the first Westerner to explore the majestic Mount Kanchenjunga. Read about other stories surrounding this mountain, inspired by a letter from the artist and writer, Edward Lear.
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Lear's letter to Hooker

The Directors' Correspondence team recently digitised a letter by the artist and writer Edward Lear – most famous for his nonsense poems and witty limericks. In this letter, written from Darjeeling in 1874, Lear tells Sir Joseph Hooker, then director of Kew, how he has been making sketches of Kinchinjunga's outline and scenery for future paintings, and describes the area as a 'wonderfully beautiful place'. Mount Kanchenjunga is in the Himalayas, the majesty of which Lear depicted in his painting 'Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling', which is currently on display in the National Museum Cardiff.

Painting of 'Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling' by Edward Lear with Lear's signature below

'Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling' by Edward Lear, with an extract of a letter showing Lear's signature below

The area held fond memories for Hooker, who was the first Westerner to explore the mountain in 1848, collecting plants and recording his experiences in his Himalayan Journals published in 1854. Hooker's journals contain vivid and comprehensive observations made on his journey and plainly reveal his reverence for this landscape:

'The one quite unparalleled for the scenery it embraces, commanding confessedly the grandest known landscape of snowy mountains in the Himalaya, and hence in the world. Kinchinjunga (forty-five miles distant) is the prominent object'

'Kinchinjunga bore nearly due north, a dazzling mass of snowy peaks, intersected by blue glaciers, which gleamed in the slanting rays of the rising sun, like aquamarines set in frosted silver'  

 Lithgraphed illustration of Mount Kanchenjunga by W.H. Fitch taken from Hooker's Himalayn Journals

Lithograph of W.H. Fitch's watercolour of Mount Kanchenjunga taken from Hooker's Himalayan Journals                       

The wonder of exploration

In his letter, Lear describes how the immediate neighbourhood has altered greatly since Hooker was there, the destruction of timber making it more like Bournemouth or Torquay. Nonetheless, he is grateful to have had the opportunity to see so much of India after an unfortunate incident in which his sketching stool broke under him, rendering him unable to ride.

This letter is interesting not only because the author was well-known, but also because it demonstrates the relationship between early botanists and explorers and the locations they visited on their travels. We have often come across letters expressing immense regret at having to return home after the author develops a great fondness for their adopted homeland. Curious as to whether others were mindful of Hooker's connection to the mountain, I searched for further references to Mount Kanchenjunga in the parts of the collection that have so far been digitised.  

In the footsteps of Lamas

In a letter to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1862, Thomas Anderson, then Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, describes his journey to a glacier at the base of Kanchenjunga. He describes staying at 'Aloktong', a small hut erected for the Yukson Lamas on their annual visit towards Kanchenjunga to appease the mountain spirit. In fact, the mountain is of great spiritual importance to the Lepcha people of Sikkim who regard it as their guardian deity, believing that their ancestors were created from a handful of pure snow at the summit. It appears that there is further correspondence between the two men over who was first to reach the glacier, with Anderson conceding that it was Major Sherwill who got there first and apologising if Hooker had been misled.

Sketch map by Thomas Anderson showing Anderson's route to Kanchenjunga         

Sketch map sent with Thomas Anderson's letter showing his route to the glacier at the base of Mount Kanchenjunga

Misfortune on the Mountain

A more unfortunate account of an expedition to Kanchenjunga in 1881 comes from George Watt who, on his descent, had his 'good nature severely tried' when three of his men got onto a bridge consisting of a single plank which then gave way under them. He lost his photography equipment, undeveloped photographs and bundles of precious dried specimens of Rhododendrons and Primulas. Watt reports losing at least £100 but, as is fairly typical in such accounts, he does not mention the fate of the men.

To end on a nicer note, a letter from M.O. Muller from Darjeeling in 1871 gives further indication of Sir Joseph's fond recollections of the mountain, as he tells Hooker:

'I have sent your love to Kinchinjunga [Kanchenjunga] by the Deputy Commissioner who has just started his tour but I question much if it will ever reach, however when the wind blows strong from the south I will send a puff in the direction bearing your love.'
'Distant View of Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling' painting by Marianne North

'Distant View of Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling' by Marianne North



Related Links

  •  You can learn more about Sir Joseph Hooker's travels and see letters, photographs and sketchbooks from the collections at Kew in the current exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery
  • 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical trailblazer' by Pat Griggs and published by Kew, contains further information on Hooker's travels along with sketches, illustrations and photographs from the Kew archives
  • Visit Marianne North's paintings in the beautifully restored Marianne North Gallery
  • View the parts of the Directors' Correspondence that have so far been digitised on the Jstor Plant Science website 

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Inside the Preservation Studio

By: Debora Hodgson - 27 Feb 2012
Read about our Library Graduate Trainee and her behind-the-scenes work in the Preservation Studio.
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As part of my role as the Library Graduate Trainee here at Kew, I am lucky enough to get a taste of the different jobs in the Library, Art and Archives section. I recently spent a week in the preservation studio learning about the role of Jonathan Farley, the Senior Conservator, and helping him to conserve a pamphlet from the library’s collection, dating back to 1849. The pamphlet was entitled: Buildings and monuments, modern and medieval: being illustrations of the edifices of the nineteenth century..., and includes plans and illustrations relating to Kew. Full details about the pamphlet can be found in the library catalogue.   

Paper and patience

My week started off with Jonathan giving me a brief history of the development of paper and books. It was fascinating to hear how the processes and materials used for making paper did not change for thousands of years and how it was only when literacy levels increased in the 18th and 19th centuries that new paper making processes and materials were developed to meet the increasing demand.

Over the week I learned that a conservator has to have patience and also the ability to judge how much conservation a book should receive, as it is not possible to give every item the same amount of resources. A book of great importance to the collection because of its subject matter, author or age will receive more attention due to its significance and consequent interest to library readers.  

Conserving the pamphlet

We started the conservation process by thoroughly cleaning the pamphlet's pages. I learned that there are two types of dirt, surface and ingrained, and that you start with the lightest cleaning methods and work towards the more aggressive ones, so avoiding any unnecessary work. At each stage of cleaning the item is assessed to see whether anything further is needed or can be done to improve its condition.

Front cover of the pamphlet Debora helped to conserve after if had been cleaned                 The pamphlet cover after the two types of Japanese paper had been pasted on to prevent further disintegration

Image (left): the front cover of the pamphlet that Debora helped to conserve after it had been cleaned

Image (right): the pamphlet cover after the two types of Japanese paper had been pasted on to prevent further disintegration

After cleaning the pamphlet we pasted pieces of Japanese tissue paper on both sides of the front and back covers because they were quite fragile and were disintegrating. We then filled in any gaps where the paper had been lost.

After each stage the pamphlet was weighted down between blotting paper in order to allow it to fully dry out before we moved on to the next stage. Once the covers had been repaired we attached paper guards to each page and these were then glued together to form the different sections of the pamphlet. These sections were then sewn together and the outside cover glued on.

Once the pamphlet had dried the edges were trimmed.

The pamphlet Debora helped conserve as it looks now

The pamphlet Debora helped conserve as it looks now.

I really enjoyed my week in the preservation studio. The pamphlet I helped restore is now back in the library’s collection and is available for readers to use.

The conservators do an amazing job and I hope in my future career to be lucky enough to work in libraries that have conservators to help preserve the collections.



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Roses are red, violets are blue...and human heads are sign of good luck!

By: Virginia Mills - 13 Feb 2012
As Valentine's Day approaches, discover the unusual way Taiwanese aborigines went about attracting a partner in the 19th Century, and why plant collector Richard Oldham said the Taiwan mountains were too dangerous a place to collect.
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains many letters written by botanical collectors sent out by Kew to far flung parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The romance of the intrepid explorer

There is a certain romance to the idea of the intrepid explorer striking out into the unknown and collecting all manner of exotic plants and objects. However, some of the letters in our collection reveal that travelling in remote parts of the world was often far from romantic or idyllic, and could sometimes be downright grizzly.


Head hunting trophies displayed on a shelf.

Photo of arrangement of skulls by the Atayal people, from James Davidson's 1903 work 'The Island of Formosa, Past and Present'. This is how he describes the sight: "After exposure to the rain and ravages of insects and rats the trophies are soon reduced to glistening skulls; and to the stranger are the most striking objects"

The challenges of plant hunting

In the past, botanists often wrote back to Kew to inform their colleagues about why they were being prevented from doing their collecting work. Many of the challenges they described were similar to the sort of every day troubles we might encounter on our own modern travels. Money is tight, the transport is poor, the weather is causing delays – sound familiar?

Richard Oldham was frustrated by all of these mundane difficulties whilst collecting for Kew in China, Japan and Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the 19th Century - when these regions had still only relatively recently been opened to foreigners. But he also encountered a more unusual impediment in the form of the amorous practices of the Taiwanese indigenous people.

The perils of headhunting

In a letter to Kew dated 19 March 1864, Oldham explains why he cannot explore the mountains near Tamsuy (now called Tamsui or Danshui):

"As the spring is the season at which the young savages marry, it is yet unsafe to go as they always fight either with other savages, or Chinamen in order to get heads with which to celebrate their marriages, and it is possible they might take particular liking for the heads of foreigners. It will perhaps be safer to go during the summer".

Headhunting, the practice of taking someone's head after killing them, was a ritualistic part of life for most Taiwanese aborigines until the 1930's. In his 1903 account of the island, James Davidson says that the northern tribe, the Atayals, were the most active head hunters. Oldham was also staying in the North and it may have been these people he feared.

At this time, headhunting practices and their significance varied between peoples, but Davidson records that to the Atayals it was a prominent, essential and honourable part of society and served many functions - such as gaining favour with unmarried women, obtaining rank and bringing luck and protection. The heads themselves were kept in the open air on a narrow platform and never removed.

As Valentines Day approaches, we can be glad that our romantic rituals are more likely to involve displays of flowers and candles than dismembered heads. 

- Virginia Mills -


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Displaying the letters of Augustine Henry

By: Virginia Mills - 03 Feb 2012
The Directors' Correspondence team has just put some of the letters of botanist Augustine Henry on display in Kew's Library Reading Room. Find out why we chose him as our subject and how the display brings together material from many of Kew's behind-the-scenes collections.
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About Augustine Henry

The Directors' Correspondence team has recently digitised over 100 letters from the botanist Augustine Henry (1857-1930). Henry typifies a certain category of correspondent that we often come across in the collection: men who are sent out to unfamiliar lands in some official capacity, be it military, governmental, engineering, surveying etc. who find themselves amongst strange new flora and so develop an interest in botany and plant collecting.

Henry originally became interested in the sources of medicinal plants passing through his customs house in Yichang, China. Botany was a leisure activity for him but through his letters we can trace his development from amateur enthusiast to botanical heavyweight who, with the help of local officials and native collectors, amassed a collection of over 150,000 specimens representing 6000 species. Some 1700 of these were new to science and some are named after him.

Henry's first letter to Kew, dated 1885. 

Henry's first letter to Kew, dated 1885.

Writing from Yichang, Henry tells Kew's Director Joseph Hooker that: "a good number of medicines are grown about here, and there seems to be a fair number of interesting plants. As this part of China is not very well known to botanists...interesting specimens might be obtained." [archive ref: 151/578]

Documenting plant uses

As research material, Henry's letters are interesting as firsthand accounts of the plant hunting adventures of a prolific collector venturing into largely unexplored territory. But they also open a door to research within other Kew collections.

Henry sent seeds and specimens to Kew and many of those mentioned in his letters can be found in the Herbarium collections. As we were reading through the letters, however, we also came across numerous references to other material Henry was sending to Kew: items relating to commercially significant plants and the ways in which local people made use of them in their everyday lives.

Searching for such items in Kew's Economic Botany collection catalogue we found that many of the things Henry describes in his letters are still part of the Economic Botany collection. For example Henry writes of a "Morus sp. a wild Mulberry, the root bark of which produces a most excellent strong fibre, which is woven into cloth: & made into handsome game bags" [archive ref: 151/665-670]. Henry sent specimens of the bark, the fibre and the cloth made from it as well as one of the game bags he admired, so we can actually see the progression from raw material to useful product.

With the help of Collection Curator Mark Nesbitt we also found tools Henry sent which were used by the indigenous people to harvest a varnish from the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum); a knife to incise the bark, spouts to tap the varnish and mussel shells to collect it.

Tools Henry sent which were used by the indigenous people to harvest a varnish from the Chinese lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera); a knife to incise the bark, spouts to tap it and mussel shells to collect the varnish.

Tools used to collect sap from the 'Chinese lacquer' or 'varnish' tree', sent to Kew by Henry and now part of the Economic Botany Collection 

Reuniting letters with their objects

It was our desire to bring together these items and the original letters that inspired us to put on a display where they could be seen side by side. The roots of Coptis teeta (a traditional Chinese medicine) that Henry sent to Kew stored in tiny woven baskets can now be seen alongside his letter describing the traditional method of cultivating the plant:

"A rude staging about 400ft x 400 feet is erected on the mountain side, (6000 to 9000 ft alt.) composed of trunks and branches of trees driven into the ground about 4ft high & across the tops of these poles other branches are laid horizontally – so that the sun will only glimmer on the plants growing beneath - After 8 years growth the root is large enough and is then dug up and exported to all parts of China." [archive ref: 151/624-625]

You can also see the game bag and a pair of traditional Taiwanese sandals which Henry sent back to Kew in the Plants and People exhibition in Museum No.1. The sandals are made of fibres obtained from an Alpinia species. 

Having chosen examples of useful and commercial plants from the Economic Botany collection we set about looking for more varied material. Henry was also a linguist and writes in his letters about the language of the 'Lolo' or Yi people:

"The composition of words is ingeniously simple. A gun is 'fire-kit', gunpowder is 'fire-rice', a snare is a 'take-get', a bucket is '2 ears projecting', lightening is 'the sky winks'." [DC 151/725-730]

In Kew's archive we found Dictionaries of Chinese characters compiled by Henry as well as extremely long plant lists detailing the species he had collected and recording their various local names as well as scientific ones.

Final touches to the display

To bring some colour to the display the Illustrations team helped us to find beautiful figures of some of the plants Henry and his local collectors had gathered. We chose to display two, which also bear the name of their discoverer: Lilium henryi and Rhododendron augustinii. 

Part of Augustine Henry display - book containing an illustration of Lilium henryii alongside a letter about Coptis teeta and some samples of the roots

Part of Augustine Henry display - book containing an illustration of Lilium henryii alongside a letter about Coptis teeta and some samples of the roots

This display shows the research trails which are being opened by the digitisation of the DC and how they allow one to follow in the footsteps of plant-hunters-past as well as leading into explorations of the other diverse collections at Kew. 

The library is open to bona fide researchers by appointment. A written application to visit is usually required. See here for full details about visiting the Library. The digitised Augustine Henry letters will soon be available to view online at the JSTOR Plant Science website. 


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Promoting Voices of Oral History in the USA

By: Michele Losse - 31 Jan 2012
Michele, Assistant Archivist at Kew, blogs about her experiences at the American Oral History Society's annual conference held in Denver, Colorado, last October.
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In October 2011, I attended a five day oral history conference in Denver, Colorado, USA. My reasons for going were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how things were done on the other side of the Atlantic. Academics in American universities have recognised the value of oral history to such an extent that it has become a widely available academic subject there. In Europe, it still has its sceptics, although it is becoming more widely respected here. My other reason for wishing to go was to further my skills and information base for my current project, ‘Hidden Memories’, which involves interviewing retired members of staff here at Kew.

Extract of an interview from Kew's oral history project 

Oral History Association

The conference was organised by the Oral History Association. Speakers came from all over the United States and the rest of the world. The programme was themed around the topic 'Memories of Conflict and Disaster: Oral History and the Politics of Truth, Trauma, and Reconciliation', and offered space for a variety of oral history subjects. Workshops provided attendees with professional development options for every level of oral historian. Topics ranged from an introduction to the field of oral history, to learning about new technologies in publishing and how to apply the law to an oral history collection.

Social evening and film show

On the social side, Wednesday night consisted of a lively evening of short films, digital stories, poetry and previews with a special bourbon tasting sponsored by the Buffalo Trace Distillery! A number of oral history films were shown. ‘Quest for the Perfect Bourbon: Voices of Buffalo Trace Distillery', provided an insider’s look at life in the distillery and how world-class bourbon is made. ‘Mosaic: Voices of Women’s Suffrage’, was a filmed version of a play featuring the accomplishments of three American suffragists, in which a conversation is imagined comparing their experiences from the 1860s until 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed granting women the right to vote. The last film shown was ‘Packed: A Film About Fire, People, and Possessions’ about a fire in the Colorado mountains in 2010. It included interviews with the evacuees, in which they explained what they had chosen to take with them, not knowing if the possessions left behind would survive the massive blaze. 

A selection of items from Kew's oral history collection

A selection of items from Kew's oral history collection

‘Scientists in Difficult Times’

On the Friday afternoon, I chaired a panel entitled ‘Scientists in Difficult Times’ and also presented a paper about the oral history project at Kew ‘Hidden Memories’ with three other colleagues. Rob Perks from the British Library presented ‘Life Stories and the Audio-Video Debate: The Oral History of British Science at the British Library', Dr Peggy Dillon, from Salem State University talked about ‘Preparing for the Scientific Interview’, and Ronald E. Doel from the Smithsonian Institute spoke on ‘Documenting a Research Institution: The Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History and Video History Collections'.

It was an extremely interesting conference and I made some very useful contacts from all over the world, learnt about new techniques and ideas, and exchanged tips and information with other oral historians. 




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