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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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Digging through the Directors' Correspondence: Letters from the Archaeologist M. Aurel Stein

By: Virginia Mills - 02 Nov 2011
Read about our trip to the British Library's International Dunhuang Project, the amazing scrolls discovered by archaeologist M. Aurel Stein, and some of Stein's letters that we recently unearthed from the Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive collection.
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The International Dunhuang Project

Recently, the Directors' Correspondence team decamped to the British Library to see some of the material they hold on the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich, which has been digitised as part of a collaborative project with RBG Kew and other institutions. Watch out for more news and blogs on the Wallich and Indian Natural History project coming soon.

We were also lucky enough to visit the  International Dunhuang Project: a collaborative project digitising manuscripts and artefacts from Dunhuang and other sites on the Silk Road. This well established project has partners in China, Japan, Germany, Korea, Russia, France, USA, Sweden, India, Ireland and the UK allowing related but widely dispersed historical documents, photographs and relics, and treasures of all kinds to be brought together into a single digital collection of over 322,000 images and still growing!

Black and white photograph of bundles of manuscript rolls from the walled-up temple library, Dunhuang.

Bundles of manuscript rolls from the walled-up temple library, Dunhuang. Digitised by the International Dunhuang Project. © The British Library.

Sir Marc Aurel Stein 

At the beginning of the 20th century archaeologists began to excavate numerous sites along the Silk Road that had long been buried under the desert sands. One such archaeologist was Aurel Stein (1862 to 1943). His most famous acquisitions came from the 'Library Cave' at Dunhuang, and include the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest dated printed book (A.D. 868). The British Library's Stein collection contains over 45,000 manuscripts as well as paintings and photographs taken by Stein on his travels all over central Asia.


Photograph taken by Stein in March 1908 of him and his researchers (and his dog Dash II) at Ulugh-mazar, China.

Photograph taken by Stein in March 1908 of him and his researchers (and his dog Dash II) at Ulugh-mazar, China. Digitised by the International Dunhuang Project. © The British Library.


Letters from Stein in the Directors' Correspondence

Inspired by our trip to the British Library we looked up Stein within our very own DC collection and found a rather more modest two documents, which we thought were interesting none the less.

The letters from Stein in the DC collection date from October 1903 and concern ancient cereals which Stein found preserved within the ruins of ancient dwellings at Khotan, buried under drift sand in the Taklamakan desert. He explains that documents from the same site have allowed him to determine that the ancient city was ruined at about A.D. 269. Stein is interested to know whether the historic cereals are materially different from those grown in the area in the 20th century. Stein's labourers, from the nearest Oasis towns, had no difficulty in recognizing all but one of the cereals. This one was however familiar to one of Stein's party from the Kangra district in India, who identified it as a root used as a condiment. The fact that there was an Indian man within Stein's own party who recognised this condiment, apparently from an Indian plant, which Stein was digging up in China over 1500 years later, is just one small but striking illustration of how far reaching was the trade that once brought exotic commodities along the Silk Road.

Extract taken from a descriptive list enumerating the ancient cereal grains found by Stein and sent to Kew for identification.

Extract taken from a descriptive list enumerating the ancient cereal grains found by Stein and sent to Kew for identification. Annotations on the right hand side show that the experts at Kew identified one of the cereals as Panicum miliaceum, a form of millet still grown for livestock feed today. © RBG, Kew

Stein also enquired of Kew whether there was any truth to the stories that wheat had been grown from ancient seeds found in Egyptian tombs. If you are interested in finding out whether these enduring stories are fact or legend you can read the answer given by Kew's experts at the Millennium Seed Bank: how long can seeds live?

- Virginia -


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A gallery for the nation

By: Sian Davies & Joanne Seaton - 24 Oct 2011
A new exhibition and a community art project - find out what's coming up next in Kew's galleries!
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Marianne North and Joseph Hooker – a gallery for the nation

November sees the opening of Joseph Hooker: Naturalist, Traveller and More at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in the centenary year of his death. Hooker’s life is celebrated in this new exhibition which highlights his career as a botanist and plant hunter alongside his family and personal connections. Amongst his notable acquaintances was Marianne North, who spent many years travelling to exotic and remote parts of the world painting the flora and fauna she encountered. Throughout her journeys Marianne remained in contact with Kew, a place she used to visit with her father and where Sir William Hooker first introduced her to specimens she could study. In turn she depicted a number of plants that were previously unclassified, some of which now carry her name, notably the Nepenthes northiana which was unknown to western science until she painted it during her visit to Borneo and Java in 1876. In her diary Recollections of a Happy Life Marianne explains:

"I painted a portrait of the largest (pitcher plant), and my picture afterwards induced Mr. Veitch to send a traveller to seek the seeds, from which he raised plants and Sir Joseph Hooker named the species Nepenthes Northiana."



Pen and ink portrait of Sir Joseph Hooker by T. Blake Wirgman (1886)

It was her longstanding acquaintance with Kew and Sir Joseph Hooker which enabled her to "leave something behind which will add to the pleasure of others" in the form of a gallery to display her donated works. On 11 August 1879 she says:

"... having missed a train at Shrewsbury one day and having some hours to spare, I wrote off to Sir Joseph Hooker and asked him if he would like me to give them to Kew Gardens, and to build a gallery to put them in, with a guardian's house. I wished to combine this gallery with a rest-house and a place where refreshments could be had tea, coffee, etc."

A busy Marianne North Gallery

Her gallery opened to the public in 1882 and although Marianne didn’t get the tea and coffee she had wished for, she did receive a letter personally signed by Queen Victoria acknowledging her generosity and ‘gift for the nation.’

Community art project - ‘Psyche’

The Marianne North Gallery is enjoyed by visitors and researchers alongside schools and community groups. This summer as part of her role as Community Outreach officer at Kew, Jana Haragalova has been working with a number of groups on a special collaborative art project inspired by Marianne’s life and travels.

Colourful artwork in progress!

Guided by artist Sofie Layton, members from Feltham Arts, the Avenue Club and young people from the Marjory Kinnon School participated in a series of creative workshops. These explored a range of wax batik and screen printing techniques to produce colourful leaves and butterflies which will be combined to create a sculpture evoking the spirit of the Victorian adventurer. Titled the ‘Psyche’, it will be displayed in the entrance of the Marianne North Gallery from November and in the Temperate House in early 2012.


Detail of batik leaves to be used in the sculpture

This project is part of Kew’s Community Outreach & Engagement programme which is made possible by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It complements other sessions including the interactive Travelling Trunk workshops where participants have the opportunity to handle unique Victorian objects and learn about life and travelling in the 19th century as well as ESOL gallery visits. For further information about how to request a gallery workshop or a Community Outreach visit, please contact Jana Haragalova at or on 020 8332 5696.

- Joanne and Sian -

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Discovering your family tree at Kew Gardens

By: Stephanie Rolt - 17 Oct 2011
With researching our family history becoming an increasingly popular pastime, Stephanie describes how the archives at Kew could help you to delve into the lives of your ancestors.
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Hello, I’m Stephanie, the new Archives Graduate Trainee at Kew. I’ve been working here for about a month now, and one of the most interesting aspects of my job so far has been helping people to research their family history.

Resources for family history research at Kew

Kew’s archive holds a number of resources which the archives team are able to use when dealing with enquiries into family history. Such enquiries usually come from people whose ancestors once worked at Kew. We have records relating to employees at all levels – not just the Directors and famous botanists, but also records of student gardeners, Herbarium staff and members of the Constabulary. Unfortunately we have no staff records for the royal period in Kew’s past, so we can only offer help if the ancestor worked at Kew from the 1840s onwards.

LAA_Member of the Kew Guild

Members of the Kew Guild 1884, a Society that still exists for Kew staff today

We hold a number of useful staff records from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including staff lists from 1883-1993, which make it possible to track an individual’s progress throughout their time at Kew, for example by indicating that they were promoted to a new position. We also have military records, which list the men and women who were called up for service in both World Wars, giving details of what they did and where they were stationed. For certain individuals we may still have their staff files, which often include a copy of their job application, and it’s even possible that we may hold a photograph of a previous employee.

John Smith’s Record Book

One of the earliest and most interesting items used for family history research at Kew is John Smith’s Record Book. This book was compiled by John Smith (1798-1888), Curator of Kew, and lists the names of Kew employees from the 1840s to the 1860s. What is most remarkable about this book is the wonderful selection of comments (not always complimentary!) which Smith provides about many of the individuals listed, which really gives a personal insight into both John Smith and the individuals concerned. To take an example, Smith stated of a certain William Robertson that he was “An excellent man”, going on to say “It is a pity we cannot keep such a man” (p. 208).

LAA_John Smith's Record Book

The story of George Smith unfolds in John Smith's Record Book

George Smith

Included in John Smith’s record book is the lamentable tale of George Smith, a Kew gardener apparently wrongly dismissed for stealing plant cuttings, a crime which Princess Mary of Cambridge is said to have later admitted to once she heard that George Smith had lost his position. George Smith was fortunately offered his job back. Sadly, a number of men who signed a “threatening letter” demanding that George be reinstated lost their jobs permanently.


If you believe a relative of yours may have worked at or corresponded with Kew, then do get in touch! If you provide us with their full name and the rough dates they would have been employed at Kew, as well as any further information if you have it, we can let you know if we hold any relevant records. Who knows what you might discover about your ancestors?

- Steph -


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Early 20th century plant hunting in Taiwan

By: Katherine Harrington - 19 Sep 2011
Find out about the experiences in Taiwan of botanical collector William Robert Price through the letters he sent back to Kew Gardens at the turn of the last century.
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains an insightful series of letters from William Robert Price (1886 – 1975), then a young botanist visiting Formosa (now Taiwan). In early 1912, Price set out to accompany Henry John Elwes (1846 - 1922) the renowned plant collector and lepidopterist (the study of moths and butterflies) and later co-author of the Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry. Elwes had just been on a tour through Malaysia and Java and was attracted to Formosa by the close resemblance of the flora and fauna to that of Sikkim. Formosa also harbored one of the few forests in the world Elwes had never seen.

The Mount Morrison expedition, Formosa, 1912

The Mount Morrison expedition, Formosa (Taiwan), October 1912. Price (front, centre) wears traditional Japanese footwear: cahan (cloth gaiters) and Waraji sandals

Troubled times

At this time, parts of the island of Formosa were unworkable as the aboriginal tribes were at war with the Japanese. Tribes on the east coast of the island, where steep cliffs and the absence of harbors made it almost inaccessible in the rainy season, remained very hostile. A mass of forest clad mountains in the north and central parts of Formosa had also been the scene of deadly warfare with the Japanese military police. A guard line was cut through the forest extending over 350 miles, with fortified posts and block houses at short intervals to prevent attacks on Japanese camphor collectors.

Price and Elwes spent four months touring the forests and accessible regions of the island, especially the Arisan forests, collecting plants and investigating the local forestry. Price agreed to stay on in Formosa to collect plants after Elwes left for Japan in the summer of 1912. In a letter to Kew's then Director Sir David Prain he remarked, "I go off to the east coast, where savages, malaria and plague are rampant! So I am in for a fine time" [archive ref: DC 152/64a].


A view of Mount Tandai, attributed to Price

A view of Mount Tandai, north east of Mount Morrison, with a species of Pinus in the foreground, from Price's papers, 1912

New heights

Price also visited Mount Morrison, the highest peak on the island which was previously unexplored by European botanists. Today, Mount Morrison, originally named after the Missionary who discovered it, is known as Yushan or the Jade Mountain. In a letter to Prain, Price wrote, " The mountains too fascinate, & the more one travels in them, the more one wishes to penetrate, the more one penetrates the more hopeless it seems of ever seeing more than a few isolated glimpses of them" [archive ref: DC 152/73].

Detail of a map by Price of the island of Formosa showing Mount Morrison

Detail of a map by Price of the island of Formosa (Taiwan) showing Mount Morrison, rising to 13,000 feet

Collections at Kew

During his Formosa visit Price collected 1133 plant specimens. He sent a set to Bunzo Hayata who was working on the flora of Formosa, and is known as the founding father of Taiwanese botany for producing the Iconum Plantarum Formosanarum. Price also sent plant specimens to Kew, including seeds of Taiwania and the orchid Pleione pricei that was named in his honour.

While in Formosa, Price reported to Prain that he had 'broken out' into anthropology, but he hoped he had given botany his equal attention. I searched our economic botany catalogue and found that Price sent items such as these Waraji sandals (below), cloth fibres and a walking stick to Kew's museum.

Waraji sandals made from Abutilon rope fibres

Waraji sandals made from Abutilon rope fibres sent to Kew by Price. These are now part of the Economic Botany Collection (catalogue number 65375)

When I searched through our Archives collection I was also excited to discover Price's original Formosa collecting diary. In fact, Price re-visited Formosa in the 1960s and recorded the changes he observed on the island as well as the very warm welcome he received. In later life he came to Kew to work in the Herbarium and Library and always maintained his interest in the flora of Taiwan.




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Curse of the bamboo flower

By: Charlotte Rowley - 22 Aug 2011
A letter in the Directors' Correspondence archive describes how the deadly prediction of an old Chinese proverb about bamboo flowering came true.
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"When the bamboo flowers, famine, death and destruction will soon follow." 

This is a traditional saying from the Mizo people who occupy the hill state of Mizoram in north-east India. Given that their ancestors are thought to have originated from north-west China it is possible that this is the 'Chinese proverb' referred to in a letter from John Mitford Atkinson in 1898, which has recently been digitised as part of the Directors' Correspondence project. At the time, Atkinson was the Principal Civil Medical Officer and Superintendent of the Government Civil Hospital in Hong Kong and was battling to eradicate the plague that had devastated the colony. Atkinson was writing to John Gilbert Baker to send him some seeds of a bamboo obtained from Macau (China). He writes of a Chinese proverb which states that when the bamboo flowers, it means either 'pestilence or famine'. He observes that curiously enough, in the years that the bamboo flowered in Hong Kong - 1894, 1896 and 1898 - plague epidemics ravaged the colony. So could there be some truth in this old saying?

John Mitford Atkinson

John Mitford Atkinson (1857-1917).

Hong Kong plague

The bubonic plague epidemic reached Hong Kong from southern China in 1894, and the effects were devastating. The disease raged for 30 years and resulted in over 20,000 deaths with a mortality rate of over 90%. It was during the Hong Kong plague epidemic that Dr Alexandre Yersin was able to identify the bacterium that caused the disease which enabled him to develop an antiserum. He was also able to show that the pathogen was present in rodents, identifying a means of transmission. But what does this have to do with bamboo?

Men removing the dead from an infected area of Hong Kong

Men removing the dead from an infected area of Hong Kong.

Attack of the rats

Many bamboo plants exhibit mass flowering at intervals of up to 130 years depending on the species. In Mizoram, bamboo forests of Melocanna baccifera cover over 26,000 square kilometres and flower en masse every 50 years. The flowering produces such a vast quantity of seed that the rat population explodes, resulting in a 'rat army' of mythical proportions. Once all the seed has been eaten the rats move onto crops, destroying local agriculture and causing widespread famine. This once in a generation event last occurred in 2004 and allowed scientists the opportunity to properly study the phenomenon which had previously only been heard of in anecdotes.

Bamboo flower

Bamboo in flower (credit:  Mogens Engelund)

Prophetic proverb

Interestingly, the two bamboo species in Hong Kong (Bambusa chunii and B. flexuosa) last flowered in 1994-1995 and based on historical evidence are estimated to have a 50 year flowering cycle, which corroborates Atkinson's observations of the flowering years. The bamboo therefore may well have exacerbated the spread of the plague by providing abundant food for the rat population in an already widely unsanitary environment, leading Atkinson to make the connection between the epidemics and bamboo flowering. As it turns out, that old Chinese proverb contained a deadly prophecy. 

- Charlotte -


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