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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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Behind closed doors - Kew's conservation studio

By: Sarah Cox - 10 Aug 2011
 In her farewell post, Sarah blogs about her final project at Kew, during which she gets a backstage pass to the conservation studio for a day!
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As one of my last projects as a Graduate Trainee in the Archives, I was given the opportunity to spend a day with the conservation team here at Kew, to find out more about the work they carry out on the Library, Art and Archives collections.

The day kicked off with an introduction to the projects that Ellie, the archives conservator, and Emma, the illustrations conservator, are working on (both were part of the team that recently completed the Marianne North Paintings conservation project). They explained to me the types of media that they are currently working with and the variety of methods they use to preserve them. 

LAA_Darwin letters conservation

Correspondence from Darwin to Henslow, in need of cleaning.

Ellie is currently working on restoring letters from our Darwin Collection. They are of huge historical value but are in urgent need of preservation. In order to ensure that they are available for use by future researchers, the letters need to be cleaned and re-housed into conservation sound packaging. Before the process of cleaning can begin, Ellie needs to make sure that all of the ink and pencil used on the paper is not soluble – she let me try this out by using a microscope to place a tiny drop of water onto the ink. I was surprised by the attention to detail and the patience that is needed to do this – to test one letter before it can even be cleaned takes hours! 

During my time in the conservation studio, I also had the chance to browse the curious assortment of tools used by the conservation team – from brushes and corrosive acids, to surgical razors and dentistry equipment; it is really a surgery for collections in need of care!!

Conservation tools

A conservator's tool kit!

It was really fascinating and inspiring to see how much work conservators put into preserving and restoring items of historical and cultural significance. The dedication required to carry out the work, and the attention to detail that is needed, is quite remarkable! For me, it has also been incredibly useful to see how conservation and archive teams work together to preserve collections. I really gained an insight into the mysterious world of conservation - a world that is normally hidden behind closed doors.

Farewell

I hope to be able to take this experience, along with everything else that I have learned during my year at Kew, with me into my future career. So this is goodbye from me - remember to look out for posts from the next Graduate Trainee to see what they get up to!

- Sarah -

 


 

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Marianne North's painting methods revealed

By: Emma Le Cornu - 28 Jul 2011
The Marianne North Gallery was officially re-opened earlier this year after conservation of the gallery and the paintings. Research and analysis into Marianne North’s painting materials and techniques has now also been completed, revealing the secrets behind her paintings and providing a fascinating  insight into her methods.
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Following on from my blog post last year we have made many new discoveries, which has revealed some fascinating insights into the artist’s working methods. 

The research was carried out in collaboration with specialists from the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. Analysis of plant derived material was also carried out by the Jodrell Laboratory, based at Kew Gardens.

Paintings were selected to cover all of the colours used from the majority of the countries that she visited. Very small samples, about the size of a pinhead, were taken from 43 of the 833 oil paintings on paper. These samples were then examined as cross sections viewed through a powerful microscope. This makes it possible to see each individual layer of the paint as it was applied, from the ground on the paper, through each layer of paint, to the top layer of varnish. These tiny samples have provided a vast amount of information.

Selecting the colours

All of the samples show a similar structure with a white ground and one or two paint layers. This was one clue that has led us to believe that Marianne North used a limited palette and favoured certain colours. This is also shown by the fact that these colours recur in many of her paintings. These favourites are cobalt blue, lead white and the red dye Madder.
 

Cross section from painting no.121

Cross section from painting no.121 ‘A Bank of Quaresma and Trumpet Trees, Brazil’ showing layers of green, pink and red paint, with the white ground on the lower edge. 

Marianne North did not use black paint very frequently and this explains the vibrant appearance of her paintings. She preferred to use blue, green or orange to tone down strong colours. Having a restricted palette would also reduce the amount of materials she would need to carry on her travels.

Applying the paint

The cross sections also reveal a lot about Marianne North’s painting techniques. For example wet paint was applied over a wet layer indicating a ‘wet-in-wet’ painting technique. This can be seen where the colours are mixed in the cross section and there are no visibly defined layers.

 Cross section from painting no. 728

Cross section from painting no. 728  ‘She Oak Trees on the Bendamere River, Queensland, and Companion Birds’ taken from a green area showing mixing of the colours, indicating that paint has been applied over a layer of wet paint. Pigment particles are also visible. 

Having only one or two paint layers also indicates that she may have mixed the colours on her palette before applying it to the painting, instead of building up colour gradually in layers. However, thickly painted areas may have been produced with an application of paint mixed directly on the paper. 

Sketching the composition

Some of the paintings were also photographed under infrared light. This can reveal ink lines that are covered by paint. Detailed areas of under-drawing and handwritten notes were detected using this method. These sketches and notes are most likely to be made graphite or ink. This confirms that Marianne North sketched out a composition first and added the colour later, similar to those found on the back of some paintings. It has also been revealed that she re-worked her compositions and even painted entirely different compositions over drawings.

‘Leaf and Inflorescence of a Gigantic Aroid, Java’ photographed under normal light                ‘Leaf and Inflorescence of a Gigantic Aroid, Java’ photographed under infra red light

Painting no. 673 ‘Leaf and Inflorescence of a Gigantic Aroid, Java’ photographed under normal light (left) and photographed under infra red light (right) highlighted to show a completely different composition in the under-drawing including a vase. 

Through this research it has become evident that Marianne North’s technique did not change greatly over the thirteen years that she was painting. She developed a very distinctive and consistent style early on and maintained this throughout her astonishing painting career. 

- Emma -
 


 

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Kill or cure? The perils of nineteenth century medicine

By: Helen Hartley - 08 Jul 2011
The death of the botanist Henry Trimen in 1896 was said to have 'baffled' his physicians, but evidence uncovered in Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive suggests his doctors may have killed him – accidentally of course!
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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

Portrait of Henry Trimen, 1 December 1892

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

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.

Photograph of Rickshaws or jinrikishas from Japan

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 -
 


 

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Time for a change

By: Joanne Seaton - 24 Jun 2011
Find out about the Gallery team's work and how they are preparing for the upcoming exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, at Kew Gardens.
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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.

LAA Masumi painting

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. 

LAA wrapped painting

Wrapped paintings, awaiting collection

Exhibition changeover

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.

LAA vinyl lettering

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

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 -

 


 

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#AskArchivists Day with Kew, 9 June 2011

By: Kiri Ross-Jones - 06 Jun 2011
Kiri explains how her team will be taking part in the international twitter event #AskArchivists Day and how you can tweet the team your questions.
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AskArchivists Day banner

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!

-Kiri-
 

Further Information


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