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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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Travel the world and explore the past at Kew

By: Stephanie Rolt - 19 Jan 2012
Discover the wealth of documents held at Kew’s Archives which can help us to create a picture of the lifestyles of travellers and explorers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to travel to India, China or South America over 100 years ago? What you might have eaten? How you might have travelled? And where you would have slept? Kew’s Archives  are full of letters, notebooks and other forms of documentation which can help us to understand what daily life really was like for the adventurers of the past.

The travels of Charles Wilford

LAA_Charles Wilford invoice

Charles Wilford's bill for goods purchased from SW Silver & Co (Archive ref: KCL/13/1)

Some 19th century travellers appear, by modern standards, to have travelled in extravagant style. The Archives contain documents relating to a number of expeditions organised by Kew to collect plant specimens from abroad. One of these expeditions to Japan and China was undertaken by Charles Wilford between 1857 and 1860, and the documents relating to it include an invoice from S. W. Silver & Co., a company who supplied clothing and equipment to travellers. The invoice includes items such as:

  • 1 x Best Hair Mattress and Pillow (we are unsure what 'best' means)
  • 1 x Enamel Basin
  • 2 x German Silver tea spoons

Invoices such as this paint a vivid picture of the style in which collectors like Wilford might have lived whilst they were travelling.

The travels of Francis Kingdon-Ward

Other explorers also clearly enjoyed home comforts on their travels. The papers of Francis Kingdon-Ward, who traveled throughout south-eastern Asia in the first half of the 20th century, include a bill from Fortnum & Mason’s export department for goods sent to Kingdon-Ward for an expedition to India. The bill includes: 

  • 12 x tins Heinz Baked Beans
  • 6 x bottles HP Sauce
  • 4 x 10 lb tins Cadbury’s Mexican Chocolate
  • 1 x Abyssinian Table [This appears to have been a type of table used for playing bridge!]

Kingdon-Ward continued to travel into the 1950s and, remarkably, the archive contains a collection of material samples sent to Kingdon-Ward for possible use in a tent he was having specially made for an expedition in 1952. It is a rare treat to be able to touch and so closely examine the types of materials used to make the equipment employed by travellers at this time.

LAA_Kingdon Ward Tent fragments

Samples of material for Kingdon-Ward's tent (Archive ref: FKW/2/24)

The travels of Charles Darwin

Some explorers, on the other hand, appear to have embraced the native lifestyle in the places to which they travelled. A notable such example would be Charles Darwin . The Archives hold 44 letters which Darwin wrote to his tutor Rev. John Stevens Henslow, who was Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. In one of these letters , written from Montevideo in Uruguay and dated November 12th 1833, Darwin describes how he travelled on horseback from Rio Negro to Buenos Aires. Darwin writes:

I am quite charmed with the Gaucho life: my luggage consisted of a Hammer Pistol & shirt & the Recado (saddle) makes the bed: Wherever the horses tire, there is your house & home.” 

LAA_Darwin to Henslow letter 12 Nov 1833
Excerpt of a letter from Darwin to Henslow, 12 Nov 1833 (Archive ref: DAR/1/1/20)

- Steph -


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Free events in Kew's Archives this January

By: Kiri Ross Jones - 06 Jan 2012
Join Kew's archivists to hear botanists’ and plant hunters’ stories about their travels and cultural encounters and go behind-the-scenes in the Archives.
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I’m Kiri, the head archivist, and thought I would let you know about some events that we are holding in January, which will offer you the unique chance to see inside our Archives! As part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign, join me and the other archive staff in our reading room to hear botanists’ and plant hunters’ stories about their travels and cultural encounters.

Photograph from the Ridley Collection

Photograph from an album in the Ridley collection (archive ref: HNR/1/4)

Go behind-the-scenes

You will be able to see original documents relating to figures such as Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and John Kirk and hear about their work. The events will also include a behind-the-scenes tour of our Archives and a chance to see some of our treasures. We are holding three sessions and although the first on the 20 January is already fully booked, we still have places available on the 26 and 28 January sessions.

Event details

  • Thursday 26 January 18.00 - 19.30
  • Saturday 28 January 11.00 - 12.30

The events are free and open to all, but places are limited and booking is essential.

To book a place, please e-mail


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Fascinating collection of Ray Cowell's illustrations comes to Kew

By: Lynn Parker - 20 Dec 2011
Read about a new acquisition of illustrations by artist Ray Cowell, who painted fungi in astonishing detail -  even including the teeth marks of hungry rodents!
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A passion for painting

The Illustrations Collection has recently acquired a large group of watercolours of mycological (fungi) specimens by Ray Cowell.

Ray was born in Hampstead and educated in Cambridge, and after leaving school worked in The Veterinary Physiology Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. In 1957 she married Eric Cowell, a botanist, and they began a life together that was periodically nomadic. During their travels Ray became passionate about painting the people and landscapes around her. A self-taught artist who always worked from life, she painted her first fungi in 1973 whilst on holiday in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest, and using a technique based on ‘gouache’, her passion for botanical illustration was galvanized. 

Ray Cowell at work on one of her illustrations

Ray Cowell at work on one of her illustrations

Ray's techniques

Ray used acid-free, grey paper, and would begin by sketching the outline of the fungus, filling it in with Chinese White, which would serve to heighten the colour. Colours were always mixed using primaries that she later added using fine brushes. This facilitated her minutely observed, meticulous, technique. She painted her fungi actual size using fresh specimens, and liked to incorporate the blemishes or damage that she found on the material, such as teeth marks from rodents, because she believed that this might hold some significance. 

Amanita echinocephala by Ray Cowell

Amanita echinocephala, gouache on paper. This specimen was painted on the site of a beech plantation in Cambridgeshire, October 1987.

Amanita echinocephala (syn. Amanita solitaria) grows on dry chalky soils, alongside birch and sometimes in beech woods. With an unpleasant smell and taste, this fungus emerges at the beginning of autumn.

Fame around the world

Ray worked in the UK, Holland, Romania, The United States, and in Australia where she was commissioned to paint for Flora Australiensis. She went on to contribute text and illustrations to publications such as The New Scientist, Natura, and Ca M’Interesse. Exhibiting around the world, her work may be found in collections as far afield as Europe, North America and Australia. But Ray wanted to share her skills and enthusiasm with others, and established several fungal illustration courses including one at Royal Holloway College. She was a mentor to others, including Kate Syme - an Australian who secured a scholarship to study with Ray, and is now a celebrated painter of Australian fungi. 

Amanita muscaria by Ray Cowell

Amanita muscaria, gouache on paper, painted on the Cambridgshire-Suffolk border, September 1982.

If you were asked to think of a toadstool, it would invariably be an image of Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. This red, white spotted fungus, archetypal of fairy stories, and historically associated with ‘faery folk’, is poisonous and an emetic, as well as a powerful hallucinogen.

From painting to poetry

Sadly, in later life, Ray Cowell suffered from ME and Lupus, becoming severely disabled, and as her health worsened, she was unable to produce the detail she required for her paintings, and she turned her creative ability to writing poetry. She died on 24 October 2010.

Boletus eduli by Ray Cowell

Boletus edulis, gouache on paper, painted in an area between Harling Drove, Norfolk and Wicken, Cambridgshire, November 1978.

Boletus edulis grows widely across the Northern Hemisphere in a mutualistic association with coniferous and broadleaved species. The fungus envelops the roots of the trees, exchanging otherwise hard-to-access nutrients from the soil for sugar produced by the plants through photosynthesis. Commonly known in English-speaking countries as the cep, penny bun, porcini, or sometimes King Bolete, this edible mushroom's flavour is concentrated after drying, making it a versatile, highly prized gourmet ingredient used extensively in many cuisines.

You can find out more about the cep mushroom in Dentinger, B.T. et al. (2010) Molecular phylogenetics of porcini mushrooms (Boletus section Boletus). Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 57(3): 1276-1292.


Kew’s Illustrations Collection continues to grow with purchases made through its modest acquisitions budget and through bequests and the sponsorship of artworks. If you have any queries about the Illustrations Collection please contact the team at

- Lynn -


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Meet Nathaniel Wallich through his digital archive

By: Helen Hartley - 02 Dec 2011
This week sees the publication of a new website, funded by the World Collections Programme, which reunites collections relating to the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich.  Find out more about the man himself in the Directors' Correspondence collection.
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Wallich and Indian Natural History

On 6 and 7 December Kew, the  British Library and the Centre for Art and Humanities Research (CAHR) at the Natural History Museum, are holding a joint conference in celebration of the 'Wallich and Indian Natural History' project, funded by the World Collections Programme.The three institutions have joined forces to reunite, online, many of their collections relating to the Danish Botanist Nathaniel Wallich and this resource will soon be available to the public.


Pastel portrait of Nathaniel Wallich

Pastel portrait of Nathaniel Wallich, RBG Kew Library reference MO 024 (Photographed by Emma Le Cornu, copyright RBG Kew)

The Directors’ Correspondence digitisation team are looking forward to attending the conference. We have become familiar with Wallich through the digitisation of over 170 of his letters for our own project. This was no easy task: Wallich’s handwriting was very difficult to read!  However, Wallich seemed to us a likeable and interesting character: a devoted family man, who openly displayed his anguish at the loss of a young child; a good colleague who enjoyed collaborating, corresponding and working with others; and a very opinionated man, with a dry sense of humour, who did not suffer fools gladly.

On leave from Calcutta

One significant series of letters in the DC covers the period 1829 to 1832. In March 1828 Wallich was granted a leave of absence from his post in Calcutta to recover his health and arrange the distribution of the East India Company's Herbarium. Wallich based himself in London and it was during this time that he published his most important work: Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. He met and collaborated with fellow botanists in London, and wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker, then Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow.


Illustration of Coelogyne Wallichiana from Plantae Asiaticae Rariores

Illustration of Coelogyne Wallichiana from Volume 1 of Wallich's Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

Flattery gets you everywhere

Wallich was determined to prolong his stay in England. This may have been due to his health and personal circumstances, but it is also clear from his correspondence that it would afford him the best opportunity to finish the Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. However, it was not easy to persuade his employers, the East India Company (EIC), to extend his leave. In one of Wallich’s letters he provides evidence to show that Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control, wanted the Company to get rid of Wallich and his salary altogether [archive ref: DC 52/92].

Faced with such opposition, Wallich decided that flattery would be the best course of action. He implored Hooker to give all credit for the receipt of the Indian plant specimens to the Court of Directors, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the EIC, as it was their "splendid munificence" [archive ref: DC 52/57a] that allowed Wallich to bring the specimens to England. Wallich goes so far as to say that in any publication regarding the specimens, his name should be left out "as much as possible in order that the honor & credit [bestowed on the Directors] may be more satisfactory to them" [archive ref: DC 52/56].

The tactic paid off. An extension of Wallich's leave of absence was granted at the beginning of 1831 on the assurance that he would complete both the distribution and publication of his Plantae Asiaticae Rariores by 1 Apr 1832. His relief and excitement at the news was obvious:


Extract of a letter from Nathaniel  Wallich

Wallich expresses his delight at having his leave in England extended [archive ref: DC 52/94].

Wallich returns to Calcutta

Wallich left England to return to Calcutta in October 1832. In his last letter to Hooker before sailing for India his anguish at having to leave is manifest:

"my distress is beyond all utterance – it is almost beyond endurance, and my nerves are deserting me. I am shaken to the very centre – can I possibly recover from all this? But the die is cast – must go ... Once more farewell – dear Hooker – write often to me – oh forget me not – my sole consolation will be to hear from all those dear beings I leave behind me.” [archive ref: DC 53/152]

Wallich's DC letters are available to view on the JSTOR plant science website. These digital resources, together with the collections available on the Wallich and Indian Natural History website, will bring Wallich back to life and allow generations of researchers to make the acquaintance of this interesting man and most revered botanist.

- Helen -



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Introducing our new Library Graduate Trainee

By: Debora Hodgson - 09 Nov 2011
Read about our new Library Graduate Trainee and all that her role entails.
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Hello, I’m Debora the new Library Graduate Trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for 2011/12. I have been working here for just over two months now and I’m going to tell you a little about myself and then about what I do at Kew.

For the past year I have been volunteering in two Libraries to gain library experience. The RHS Lindley Library at Wisley where I was the first library intern, and the library at the Watts Gallery, Compton. Whilst I was volunteering at the Watts Gallery I was involved with their project to set up and catalogue the Christopher Wood Library, specialising in books on nineteenth century artists which was created as part of the gallery's extensive refurbishment.

Why I wanted the role at Kew

I became aware of Kew's Library Graduate Trainee post through the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Graduate Trainee Directory. The position appealed to me because of the emphasis on cataloguing to a AACR2 and MARC standard. As I had done some cataloguing before, but not to this level, it also compliments my previous experience in less academic environments. My role as the Library Graduate Trainee involves cataloguing the new books that arrive for the Library, and then moving them through the new book display into the library collection. I also work regular shifts on the Enquiry Desk, helping to answer reader’s queries and retrieving the books they request. 

Book display produced by Debora

A book display I produced

What I'm learning

I have not found my lack of a science background a disadvantage. As part of my training, I have recently attended a one day botany course which has helped me to a greater understanding of plant structure. It was a fascinating course which included an explanation of how plants and insects are often vital to each other’s life cycles. This has enabled me to assign call numbers and subject headings more accurately.

During my introduction to cataloguing I have been amazed at the range of books that form the Kew collection. Books range from the discusson of Lycophytes in Louisiana to garden design. One of my favourite books that I have catalogued so far has been 'Jouets de plantes, Histories et secrets de fabrications' by Christine Armengaud, which features toys made out of different kinds of plants. 

Jouets de Plantes book cover

An interesting book I catalogued that demonstrates the ways in which plants can be used to produce toys

During my first few weeks at Kew I have had an introduction into the different areas of the Library alongside the new Archives Trainee, Stephanie. Everyone has been so helpful and patient and I am loooking forward to a really enjoyable and informative year.

- Debora -


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