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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Wenceslas Bojer and the coco-de-mer
Continuing from last month's Mauritius based correspondence; we recently digitised a series of letters from Wenceslas Bojer, a naturalist who helped to establish the Natural History Society of Mauritius and worked extensively in Madagascar and Africa.
Writing in January 1852 to then director Sir William Jackson Hooker, Bojer advises that he has a beautiful germinated plant of the celebrated double coconut from the Seychelles. The double coconut, also known as the coco-de-mer or sea coconut (Lodoicea maldivica), is a palm endemic to islands in the Seychelles. The plant is renowned for having the largest seed in the plant kingdom at 40 to 50 cm in diameter and weighing up to 30 kg! After germination the giant nut becomes hollow and can be washed out to sea. In this way many drifted to the Maldives where they were gathered from beaches and valued as an important trade and medicinal item.
A coco-de-mer seed on display in Kew's palm house
Mythical tree from the bottom of the sea?
Until the true source of the nut was discovered in 1768, the double coconut was believed by many to grow on a mythical tree at the bottom of the sea! Magical properties were ascribed to the nuts, and European nobles in the sixteenth century had the nut shells polished and decorated with valuable jewels as collectibles for their private galleries. Legend has it sailors who first saw the nut floating in the sea imagined that it resembled a woman's disembodied buttocks. This association is reflected in one of the plant's archaic botanical names, Lodoicea callipyge Comm. ex J. St.-Hil., in which 'callipyge' is from the Greek meaning 'beautiful rump'.
Tom Hare's wicker sculpture of the coco-de-mer nut is on display outside the Nash Conservatory
Bojer had for some 20 years tried to obtain a growing plant of the double coconut. In his letters he promises to send the plant, as his correspondent had expressed his hearty wish to obtain one for Kew's Palm House in a letter from 1849. Bojer discusses the potential problems of sending the item, which in its cask weighs two tonnes. He jests that if the Captain brings it successfully home he should be awarded the cross of St Patrick by Her Majesty. He promises to have the cask consolidated and a glass dome made for it like Paxton's Crystal Palace in miniature.
Hooker accepts Bojer's offer to send the eight foot tall plant. Bojer worries about being able to transport it under glass, as he had intended, should the plant get any bigger. He ships the palm on board the 'Queen of the South' in October 1852. Despite heavy rain the giant cask was placed on board safely. It was impossible to cover the plant with glass because a second leaf came out, but, as it was well rooted, it arrived safely in November. Bojer had been concerned having heard that the 'Queen of the South' was detained for weeks to make repairs to its machinery and consequently it arrived in England in the midst of winter.
Unfortunately Bojer's plant did not survive at Kew. James Duncan, director of the Botanic Garden in Mauritius, wrote to Kew in 1857 having prepared replacements to send. The Directors' Correspondence team are still working through the Asian correspondence collection to find if Duncan's double coconuts did in fact arrive safely.
A painting by Marianne North of the Coco de Mer Gorge in Praslin, with a distant view of Mahe Silhouette and the Cousins, Seychelles (Painting 474)
A species under threat today
Today the coco-de-mer is rare and protected. Past over-harvesting of the nuts for sale to tourists altered the structure of the wild population. Remaining populations are also threatened by fire and encroachment by invasive plants. Trade in the seeds is now closely controlled, but poaching remains a problem. You can see this vulnerable plant today in Kew's Palm House.
All of Kew's African and Latin American Director's Correspondence is available to view online via JSTOR Plant Science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
Search the Herbarium Catalogue for the double coconut palm, Lodoicea maldivica.
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My name is Liz and I’ve been a volunteer archivist at Kew since September. Working here holds a magnetic appeal for me, and I’ve been spending two days a week in the Archive, and one day a week with the Digitisation Team.
I’ve just completed my first assignment in the archive, which was to accession and repackage two cardboard boxes of mysterious files. A note on the boxes revealed they’d come ‘From the furniture store’ and the contents had been frozen (to kill any insects), however beyond that nothing was known about them. I love archival detective work, and this challenge was a gift.
A memo from the collection dated 1908, complete with a stain from a rusty paperclip!
A closer examination of the files revealed that physically the records had suffered: they were dirty and every paperclip and staple had rusted, leaving copious, indelible rust marks and a fine sprinkling of rust dust in between pages. Each day as I worked I produced a small pile of twisted decayed metalwork, removed using a specially designed scalpel-like implement. Nicking a finger was an everyday hazard!
It became clear from reading the correspondence and memos that the files had once formed part of the Kew Museum filing system. The only other similar system dates from the 1950s, and as these files spanned 1875-1934, the significance of the collection was becoming apparent. Many memos and letters were from J Masters Hillier, Keeper of the Museum 1901-1926, and by examining his painstaking annotations, it was possible to piece together the relationship between the Museum and the Director’s Office, and establish how different departments at Kew co-operated to answer enquiries.
Many bulletins and newspaper cuttings from the early 1900s were included in the files, mainly relating to economic products (e.g. coffee, rubber, and cotton) from around the world. While some were quite dry, others told tales of deceit and intrigue. An article dated 3 August 1911 suggests that Brazil had intended to monopolise the rubber industry by forbidding the export of rubber plants and seeds. Their attempt was reportedly foiled however by Mr H A Wickham, who in 1876 covertly collected 70,000 seeds from the shores of the Amazon. Due to their perishable nature, he took them straight to Kew, arriving by hansom in the middle of the night, where the seeds were sown at once. A year later, 1700 of these plants were introduced to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where the rubber industry went on to flourish. In another article, barrels of raw rubber were reportedly intercepted as they were smuggled from India, their tops studded with coffee beans to disguise their true contents.
Daily Telegraph supplement on the rubber industry, 1929
With regards to the mango, in 1782 HMS Flora captured a French ship sailing from Mauritius, carrying a collection of named and numbered plants, including a consignment of young mango trees. The ship was taken as a prize to Jamaica, where the trees were planted. All the numbers became mixed up or lost apart from one mango tree which bore the label ‘Number 11’, which flourished and its fruit became a lucrative export and a local delicacy, available from sellers all over the island. It’s still known locally as the Number 11 today.
- Liz -
- If you would like to read more about the history of economic botany at Kew, including the Museum and its Keepers, please have a look at ‘Two centuries of Economic Botanists at Kew’, an article by G E Wickens, available on-line
- To see the collection that Liz describes above (QX 10-0029), or any other archival collection, please contact the archives
- Read more about the history of rubber
- Find out more about volunteering at Kew
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains items written in languages other than English. Normally we rely on the help of volunteers - usually willing friends or colleagues - to translate them for us. However, in a continuing struggle to improve my French, I decided to take on the translation of some printed documents sent to Sir William Jackson Hooker from Mauritius.
Extract from the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1831
The proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1830 to 1833 were sent to Hooker while he was a Professor at the University of Glasgow. The Society was established in 1829 by the naturalists Charles Telfair, Julien Desjardins, Louis Bouton, François Liénard, Wenceslaus Bojer and Jacques Delisse. The first meetings were held at the home of Telfair, the Society's President, but links were soon made with scientific societies in Africa, India, Australia, and Europe and, within a year, many eminent scientists around the world could be counted among the Society's corresponding members.
Charles Telfair and Wenceslaus Bojer, President and Vice-President of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.
The proceedings of the meetings are full of information on weird and wonderful scientific discoveries of the time. Descriptions of newly discovered plants and animals were given; meteorological and geological observations were discussed; members read essays on anything from marine algae to a case of liver fluke found in the stomach of a cow.
Illustration of Colvillea racemosa Bojer from Vol 61 of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, a description of which was read at a meeting of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.
My favourite passage was a discussion of Nauscopy: the ability to predict the arrival of ships before they are visible on the horizon. This 'science' had gained popularity in Mauritius at the end of the 18th Century when a Monsieur Bottineau successfully predicted the arrival of ships, claiming that he could see the effect they had by looking at disturbances in the atmosphere. The subject was raised at a meeting of the Society by a Mr R. Barry, who cited observations made by Captain Scoresby in Greenland; the Society agreed to examine the matter further [DC Vol.53 f.44].
Objects of Natural History
No 19th Century society of Natural History would be complete without some bizarre specimens. Many stuffed or preserved birds and animals were received at the meetings. A resident of Mauritius donated a young female dog with six legs, preserved in alcohol; apparently the poor animal had lived for several days! Human specimens, particularly skulls, were not uncommon: Captain Foreman of Sydney kindly donated the mummified head of a New Zealand chief. Captain John Briggs, also of Sydney, presented the rib of a New Zealand woman obtained from a cannibal feast in which he had been invited to take part. Mr Briggs also presented a young boy he had taken under his wing, having rescued him from a sacrificial death in New Zealand [DC Vol 53 f.48]. I think the boy was alive when he was 'presented', but perhaps this is where my knowledge of French let me down!
Mauritius Natural History Museum
In 1846, the Society changed its name to The Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius. Objects donated to the Society, supplemented by the personal collections of Julien Desjardins and Louis Bouton, became the basis of the Mauritius Natural History Museum. The museum today is situated next to the Jardin de la Compagnie in Port Louis and is famous for another unusual specimen: the only complete skeleton of a dodo.
- Helen -
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As we are conserving Marianne North's paintings (see my previous post), we are discovering some really exciting clues which provide information about how Marianne North worked, the conditions she worked in and the materials she used.
Predominantly Marianne North sketched in ink before applying oil paint. Evidence of this has been uncovered on the backing boards and the backs of the paintings themselves. Most of the inscriptions we find are in either ink or pencil and relate to place and plant names. However sometimes we find whole sketches!
This ink sketch was found on the back of painting number 8 and is a preparatory sketch for painting number 19. The sketch shows that Marianne North wrote notes about the colours whilst sketching, suggesting that she completed the actual painting at a later stage.
Back of painting number 8 Front of painting number 19
The sketch below is one I have recently uncovered during backing removal. The painting on the front is totally different, and I haven’t been able to match the sketch to anything in the gallery – any keen eyed suggestions are welcome!
Back of painting number 287
Some of the sketches and inscriptions are on the back of the very boards we are removing. A few of these we have been extremely lucky with, as they have come away in a single layer or detached from the painting relatively easily. Others have required more interventive processes, to separate the board layers without losing original historical information. There are even a few paintings with inscriptions and labels adhered between the paper and the board. These can be extremely difficult to remove intact but is a challenge that we enjoy and have proved successful at!
A label and some ink text adhered between the board and the paper
A label and some ink text on the back of a board
Everything we do during the treatment of the paintings is documented and photographed. The hidden finds are digitised so they can be used as part of the interactive displays in the gallery when it is officially re-opened.
Sketches and inscriptions are not our only hidden finds. Some only become apparent when viewed through a microscope, for example fibres from clothing, hairs from brushes and from Marianne North, we have even found seed cases and pieces of insects, but that is another post altogether!
- Helen -
The Marianne North Conservation team give free demonstrations on the project and Marianne North once a month. The gallery itself is currently closed while the original paintings are re-hung and some minor work is carried out on the building. The next talk will be on the 26 November, 2.30pm, in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery.
- Find out more about the Marianne North Gallery
- Discover how you can play a part in safeguarding the future of the Marianne North paintings
- Read about Marianne North and her links with Kew
- Meet the exhibitions and gallery team
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This year we have had a number of successful events in the the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. During our exhibition ‘Old and New South American Botanical Art’ we had Kew artist Stuart Simler working with us. Stuart devised a South American landscape inspired by the paintings from the two collections which we had on display in the gallery - the Mutis Collection and the Sherwood Collection. Following on from this Stuart hosted a workshop which involved participants of all ages working collaboratively to create a large scale piece. Stuart took advantage of the gallery's glass frontage to display this work so that the light shone through creating a great effect.
In addition to Stuart's work with us, Dr. Shirley Sherwood visited the gallery in July to give a talk about the exhibition and to take part in a book signing event. This was well attended by people who were keen to hear about the works on display.
The piece created as part of Stuart Simler's workshop on display in the gallery
In August this year, we installed the new exhibition in the gallery ‘Bulbmania - Flowers from the Kew Collection’ alongside ‘Portraits of a Garden’ from the Brooklyn Florilegium Society and Dr Sherwood’s ‘Hidden Treasure’ exhibition. We opened this exhibition with another workshop from Stuart Simler, who continued the theme of his previous workshop. However, on this occasion he used Kew as the backdrop to a landscape of bulbous plants. Children and adults alike had the opportunity to develop their work individually again, finally creating a large scale piece with the Temperate House and the Treetop Walkway as inspiration.
The piece created during Stuart Simler's second workshop with the public
In September, Kew held its first book launch in the gallery, with botanical artist Billy Showell introducing her new book ‘A to Z of Flower Portraits’. This was a very successful event with many people coming to the Gardens specifically to see Billy. A few weeks later, we followed up on this success with the launch of Wendy Hollender’s book ‘Botanical Drawing in Color’. Wendy, who has her work on display in the gallery, also gave visitors a demonstration of her technique. Wendy is a member of the Brooklyn Florilegium Society and unusually creates her works using colour pencils.
Botanical artist Billy Showell launching her new book: 'A to Z of Flower Portraits' in the gallery
Throughout the year we have also had the Conservators from the Marianne North Studio delivering their monthly talks. These take place on the fourth Friday of every month. The next is on Friday 26 November, and will be held in the gallery itself. The Conservators give visitors the opportunity to see the tools they use in their role, along with some of the original works they are conserving. Visitors can ask questions and learn more about the conservation process and Marianne North herself.
We are always developing new ideas and events for the gallery. We post details on the Kew website and on the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art webpage. Alternatively for more details on any upcoming events please telephone the gallery on 0208 332 3622 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jessica, Joanne & Sian -
- Find out more about the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
- Discover more about the current exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery: ‘Bulbmania - Flowers from the Kew Collection’.
- Learn more about the Marianne North Gallery and the Marianne North paintings conservation work taking place.
- Discover how you can play a part in safeguarding the future of each Marianne North painting.
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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.
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