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 19th century has been described as a time when medicine took a great leap forward: the science of microbiology became firmly established, anaesthetics were developed for surgical procedures, antiseptics were introduced to operating theatres, hospital facilities were improved and nursing became a profession. However, it is also true that in the 19th century many substances - now known to be harmful – were still being used routinely as medicines and were likely to kill, rather than cure a patient.
Henry Trimen Esq. (1843 - 1896). The Camp, Sunningdale, December 1, 1892
The Directors' Correspondence collection from Asia contains a series of letters from Henry Trimen, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon [Peradeniya, Sri Lanka] from 1879 to 1896. During his 16 years in Ceylon, Trimen wrote over 170 letters to Kew, in which he discussed botany, botanical nomenclature, horticulture and the day-to-day business of running the Botanic Gardens. However, Trimen's health suffered greatly in Ceylon and a small proportion of his letters make reference to these issues and the treatments he received to try and relieve his suffering.
Trimen's health problems
Extract of a letter from Henry Trimen to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, describing the treatments he has used to alleviate his eczema [DC 163 f.426-427]
- Oct 1888: In a letter to the Director of Kew, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, Trimen complains of an 'eczematous eruption on the inside of the thighs', which made walking painful [DC 163 f.424-425].
- Nov 1888: Trimen thanks Thiselton-Dyer, for his hints on eczema, noting that he tried the 'acetate of lead without effect' and is now going in for a 'constitutional treatment' of arsenic and mercury [DC 163 f.426-427].
- Jan 1894: Trimen comments on his complete loss of hearing, he has tried inhaling Chloride of Ammonium to no effect and one doctor did nothing but sweat him with pilocarpine[DC 163 f.507-509].
- March 1895: Trimen writes that he is desperate for a change, he has lost many teeth, his digestion is poor and he is suffering from cramp and poor coordination [DC 163 f.527-528].
- March 1896: Trimen comments on the increase in his 'nervous malady'. He describes himself as more of an invalid than ever, noting that he cannot move across the room without help; he has lost the power in his leg muscles and his bladder irritability is 'very tiresome' [DC 163 f.532].
- May 1896: Trimen notes that his paralysis is getting worse [DC 163 f.535]: he gets about the garden using a Japanese jinricksha (see image below) and has taken to wearing the native sarong for convenience.
Rickshaws or 'jinrikishas' from Japan, 1897 (Source: Wikimedia commons). Trimen's paralysis forced him to resort to using this mode of transport to get around the Gardens.
Trimen died in October 1896 at the age of 53. An obituary written by Sir William Thiselton-Dyer [RBG Kew Biographical Pamphlet collection: 800 P920], states that the nature of Trimen's malady 'completely baffled his physicians'. With the benefit of hindsight, and from the information contained in Trimen's letters, we can speculate that the deterioration in Trimen's health and his eventual death may actually have been a result of the lead, arsenic and mercury he was given to alleviate his initial problem with eczema.
Toxic heavy metals
Lead, arsenic and mercury are all toxic heavy metals, chronic exposure to which can result in serious health problems. For example, all three heavy metals are known to cause gastrointestinal disorders; lead poisoning can result in retraction of the gums, tooth loss, fatigue, neurophysiological impairment and muscle weakness; arsenic has neurotoxic effects; both arsenic and mercury poisoning can cause hearing loss. Trimen's letters suggest he suffered from all of these symptoms.
Adding insult to injury
Sadly, in his last letter to Kew, dated 30 August 1896 [DC 163 f.539], Trimen describes how his doctors continued to try and relieve his symptoms. Over the previous 10 days a new doctor from Kandy had been treating him: 'with much energy; it has been enemas, catheterizing, starvation, electricity &c without cessation'. Ironically, this intensive approach appears to have given him some respite and he describes himself as 'much improved'.
- Helen -
- Trimen's letters have been digitised as part of the Asian DC digitisation project
- Trimen's letters are available to view on the JSTOR Plant Science Website
- The Digitisation of the Directors' Correspondence collection is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- Search for publications by Henry Trimen on RBG Kew's Library Catalogue
- Type specimens collected by Henry Trimen can be found on RBG Kew's Herbarium Catalogue
3 comments on 'Kill or cure? The perils of nineteenth century medicine'
Recent events in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art have included the end of our first selling exhibition, new exhibition installation and gallery event with artist Masumi Yamanaka.
Botanical art demonstration
To mark the end of our exhibition ‘From Eye to Hand’, we invited Kew artist Masumi Yamanaka to the Gallery to provide visitors with a free botanical art demonstration. Masumi brought along several examples of her work to demonstrate the different techniques and skills involved in botanical illustration and spent the day painting a live specimen. Despite the weather, the event was well attended by those keen to observe and learn more about this beautiful and specialised art form.
This is part of a wider series of gallery events; we are currently planning events for later in the year so look out for further details on the gallery web pages.
Masumi at work
A successful first selling exhibition
In June we installed our latest exhibition ‘Plants in Peril’ in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. Since the Gallery opened in April 2008, we have hosted a changing programme of exhibitions featuring works from the historic Kew Collection, the contemporary Sherwood Collection as well as collaborations with solo artists and societies. This was our seventh installation after the end of a successful first selling exhibition, which featured works from associated Kew artists alongside artists from Hampton Court Florilegium Society and the Leicestershire Society for Botanical Illustrators. Everyone involved with the planning and execution of ‘From Eye to Hand’ has been very pleased with its popularity, which was confirmed by the positive feedback we received from visitors.
Wrapped paintings, awaiting collection
Each installation process follows a similar structure; depending on the number of components to an exhibition, the out-going paintings are prioritised, removed from the walls and are prepared for packing. The condition of each painting and its frame are checked, with the reports prepared on original arrival into the Gallery, and only then can they be collected or couriered back to their owners. Every wall requires repairing, cleaning and repainting and there are the large amounts of vinyl lettering that has to be picked off by hand.
Removing vinyl lettering
The new paintings will arrive, usually from more than one source, such as Kew’s library, Dr Sherwood’s Collection (held off-site) or from an external institution. On their arrival the collections are catalogued and condition reports are collated before the exhibition layout is determined. Considerations such as size, colour and style of the paintings are key factors when arranging the layout. Once the paintings are hung, the final elements are completed which includes labelling them, applying the vinyl wall text and information panels, as well as installing the showcase material primarily from Kew’s Library Art and Archives and the Economic Botany Collection. Finally, a specialist lighting company is brought in to ensure that the light levels are customised to each exhibition and are set to a level of 50 lux to protect the artwork on display.
Attaching mirror plates to new paintings
For details on our gallery events or current exhibition please visit our webpage or contact us on 020 8332 3622 or email us.
- Joanne -
0 comments on 'Time for a change'
What is #AskArchivists Day?
#AskArchivists Day is an international twitter event happening on 9 June 2011, in which Kew's archivists will be taking part. The event encourages the public to use twitter to ask archivists questions and is similar to the #askacurator day held in September 2010. This is the first #AskArchivists Day to be held and many archives from all over the world will be taking part.
The day gives you the chance to ask archivists anything! You can ask questions about items held in the collection, the history of an organisation, how to become an archivist, what an archivist does etc. Remember though, as you will be using twitter to ask these questions, you will need to limit them to 140 characters!
How to ask Kew's archivists questions
First, you will need a twitter account. You can sign up to twitter here. It’s free and easy to use.
Once you have signed up, you will need to tweet us, using the @ sign e.g. "@KewGardens – How big are your archives? #AskArchivists". If you already follow @KewGardens on twitter, you can click the 'mention' or 'reply' options to tweet us.
If you include the #AskArchivists tag, everyone following the event can see your question and the answer.
What subjects will be covered?
You can ask us anything you want about our collections or about what we do in the Library, Art and Archives here at Kew. Examples include:
- What we hold in our collections
- Tracing your botanist/horticulturalist ancestor
- What an archivist does
- How you can access our collections
- Our digitisation project
- How you can find out about the history of Kew Gardens
We look forward to hearing from you on Thursday 9 June!
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What is oral history?
Oral history is fast becoming a means of recording past memories which would otherwise be lost forever. Many people have led interesting lives, professional and personal, often intertwined, and whereas Kew staff have often published papers on their work, or spoken casually about it, many have memories which they do not think of sharing with others. Oral history can also supplement the written historical record or fill in the gaps of the archive.
Oral historians largely use a set of interviewing techniques to elicit and record people talking about their memories of past experiences. This is not a new practice; we should never forget that long before the term ‘oral history’ was used, people in various cultures and societies have used and perpetuated oral traditions and oral histories as a part of their daily lives.
Diana and Roger Polhill, retired Herbarium Botanists, recount their experiences of an African Expedition.
The history of Kew's project
In 1975, a series of ad hoc audio interviews of ex members of staff and prominent botanists was started. The very first was Eric Court’s ‘Reminiscences of the buildings of Kew for which he worked as a carpenter for 42 years’, as interviewed by John Simmons. Others followed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since 2007, I have continued this project of interviewing ex-members of staff across the Gardens, from as varied a background as possible, but this time switching to film as opposed to sound recordings. Our photographer, Andrew McRobb, looks after the technical side of the project, carrying out filming, editing and taking care of sound issues.
The aim of the project is not just historical; I wish to make the public aware of the variety of tasks carried out by the staff at Kew, as well as the work carried out behind-the-scenes, in a way that is easily understood by all.
Researching interview questions
Any interview always involves a certain amount of research, and I rely on a variety of sources such as the Kew Guild Journal, a publication created by the Kew Guild, which is an association for staff and students, established in 1893. This records trips and publications of staff throughout the years, as well as other items of news. I also rely on other members of staff; many will remember facts and anecdotes about their colleagues which they themselves might have forgotten, or are too modest to relate! Another good source of information are the Archives themselves, which sometimes contain papers deposited by the interviewee providing a good insight into their past activities, as well as the Library catalogue for publications.
An example of interviewees
Interviewees have come from varied backgrounds and include retired botanists from the Herbarium, who have recounted a number of fascinating stories. For instance, there is the story of the husband and wife team, who whilst on a botanical expedition to Africa in the 1970s were held at gunpoint and in their interview they explain the stratagem they used to get themselves out of this delicate situation. There is also the story of one of our retired Gardeners, now a Volunteer Guide, who left his homeland in France to come and work at Kew in 1964 aged 17 and spent the next 43 years looking after the Arboretum.
Pat Smallcombe, retired Gardens Supervisor, and now Volunteer Guide, tells how he left his French homeland to become a Kew Gardener in the 1960s.
If you are interested in coming to view these fascinating stories and many others, or would simply like more information on the project, please contact the Archives.
- Michele -
- Discover Kew's Archives.
- The Making of Oral History – How Oral History developed in Britain and abroad.
- Find out about the Oral History Project at the Natural History Museum ‘ Museum Lives’.
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Harry Veitch and Chelsea
The Director's Correspondence contains letters from several members of the Veitch family, famed for the Veitch & Sons Nurseries, a name synonymous with horticulture for much of the 18th century, when it enjoyed a reputation as the leading plant nursery in the world. It is especially fitting to remember Sir Harry Veitch this month ahead of that most anticipated of horticultural events: the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Sir Harry was instrumental in establishing the show at its current home in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. From 1862, the RHS held a 'Great Spring Show' at their garden in Kensington, and from 1888 to 1911 the show moved to Temple Gardens. In 1912, the show was cancelled to give precedence to the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, which by the offices of Harry Veitch was held at Chelsea. This proved to be such a successful site that the RHS still holds its show there today.
Sir Harry James Veitch (1840-1924). Knighted in 1912 for services to horticulture.
John Gould Veitch in Japan
As we continue to digitise the Directors' Correspondence concerning Asia, we have come across letters from John Gould Veitch, Sir Harry's brother. J. G. Veitch was one of the first plant collectors to visit Japan. Foreigners were not admitted into Japan until 1853 and just seven years later, at the age of 21, J.G. Veitch arrived in Nagasaki determined to collect new and exotic plants to send back to his family's internationally renowned nursery. His movements within Japan were highly restricted so he began by gathering plants from the owners of private gardens in the area. However, he soon received an invitation from the Consul General of Japan, Rutherford Alcock, to join the first British ascent of Mount Fuji.
Diagram by J.G. Veitch showing the predominant vegetation on Mount Fuji [DC 57 f.4]
The Directors' Correspondence collection contains several letters from Rutherford Alcock, including one from July 1860 in which he anticipates the arrival of J.G. Veitch who he hopes will help him with his botanical collections (Alcock was already sending plants to England for both RBG Kew and the Queen) [DC 57 f.3]. Later that year Alcock writes: "By a piece of great good fortune just as I was about to start on an expedition to ascend the far famed Fusiyama [Mount Fuji]...to learn something of the botany of the mountains of Japan, a son of Mr Veitch of Chelsea arrived, and I immediately attached him to my suite". [DC 57 f.5]
This was also a piece of great good fortune for Veitch as it allowed him to be the first to collect and send back valuable seeds and cones from the conifers of Mount Fuji for Veitch & Sons to raise for commercial purposes. For example, the consignment he sent back to his family's nursery contained Larix kaempferi, the Japanese larch, which has remained popular in Europe, and is used as a material for bonsai. The Directors' Correspondence also contains Veitch's own list of 'The more striking trees and shrubs' observed on their journey as well as Veitch's notes on the agricultural crops, vegetables and fruits of Japan, which were sent to RBG Kew by Alcock [DC 57 f.4].
The Veitch legacy
J.G. Veitch introduced many new plant species from Japan, but by that time, the Veitch nursery was already famous for the introduction of new and rare plants. 'Hortus veitchii' records that the House of Veitch introduced: 232 orchids, nearly 500 greenhouse plants, 118 exotic ferns, about 50 conifers, 153 deciduous trees, 72 evergreen and climbing shrubs, 122 herbaceous and 37 bulbous plants from all corners of the world!
Herbarium label from a specimen of Aglaonema commutatum var maculatum in the Kew collection. The label is from Veitch's Royal Exotic Nursery, King's Road, Chelsea and records that the specimen was collected by 'Veitch' in 'Manilla'.
This year, from the 24 to 28 May, the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea will once again be resplendent with the world's finest blooms and ambitious show gardens - including Kew's own garden in partnership with the Times. We can't wait to see what new delights the nurserymen and growers will have on display, following in the footsteps of the pioneering Veitch & Sons.
- Ginny -
Find Out More...
- If you have a subscription you can view the Directors' Correspondence content as it goes online at JSTOR plant science
- Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected by various members of the Veitch family all over the world
- Check out some of the other recent posts on the Library, Art & Archives blog
- Find out more about Kew at the Chelsea Flower Show
1 comment on 'From Chelsea to Mount Fuji, the legacy of Veitch Nurseries'
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
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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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