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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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
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The Illustrations Team care for Kew’s collection of over 200,000 botanical illustrations. This world class resource includes the work of 18th century masters such as Georg Dionysius Ehret, 19th century illustrators, such as the prolific Walter Hood Fitch, and contemporary artists contributing to current publications.
The team also have responsibility for Kew’s historical images, its portrait collection of eminent botanists, and its many art and artefacts – including the ingenious folding chair reputedly used by Sir Joseph Banks aboard the Endeavour, and collection of wax orchids beautifully crafted by the 19th century artist Edith Blackman.
Tulip ‘Baquet Rigaux optimus’, by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770)
Marilyn, Illustrations Curator, manages the section of staff, and is assisted by Lynn, Assistant Curator, Julia and Marie, Illustrations Assistants, and Trishya, Library and Illustrations Assistant. The team is also fortunate to receive help from its volunteers, who play a crucial role in assisting with the many tasks required to maintain the illustrations and identify material, in order to respond to the numerous enquiries generated by this resource.
The section deals with a wide range of queries – from botanists studying an illustration for identification purposes, to authors and artists researching a particular illustrator or plant. Some illustrations are the first cited reference for a named plant, and serve as type illustrations in much the same way as the type specimens in Kew’s Herbarium. We all feel privileged in our work and never know what treasures we will uncover when researching the next enquiry!
Appointments can be made to access the illustrations collection, for those with a genuine research need; members of the public can see examples on exhibition in Kew’s Shirley Sherwood Gallery, which opened in 2008. The gallery provides a fantastic showcase for Kew’s artworks as well as the many beautiful illustrations which form the private collection amassed by Dr. Sherwood.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
- Julia -
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The Directors' Correspondence team really enjoyed the recent tropical flower and orchid displays as part of this year's Tropical Extravaganza and thought it might be appropriate to highlight the correspondence of an avid orchid hunter we came across in the Asian Directors' Correspondence. It's quite unusual for us to find very large items in the collection, but at the start of a volume we uncovered a highly detailed hand drawn map. To allow us to photograph the map without damaging it a member of our preservation team carefully unfolded, flattened and carried out repairs along the fragile creases. A little research revealed that the map was from a Mr C.S.P. Parish.
Detail of a map by Parish of a collecting trip c.1859. The hand drawn map depicts an area of Burma from Beloo Gyoon (Bilugyun) Island in the West to the 'Shan Country' in the East. Geological and botanical features have been added. DC Vol. 56 .f1. (Image: RBG Kew)
Charles Samuel Pollock Parish was born in Calcutta, India in 1822. Educated at Oxford University, with a Bachelor of Arts he entered into the ministry and in 1852 was sent to Moulmein, (now Mawlamyaing), Burma. Initially Parish sent plants to his correspondents in England for identification, particularly to Kew's first Director Sir William Jackson Hooker and another well known botanist, John Lindley. In his correspondence Parish initially demonstrates a great interest in ferns and mosses, which he eagerly collected and examined. Whilst out hunting for mosses he came across a new orchid which Lindley named Porpax parishii in his honour, and so began Parish's lifelong interest in this family of plants. At one point he tells Hooker that he has over 100 orchid species growing in his compound.
Charles Samuel Pollock Parish (1822 - 1897) (Image: RBG Kew)
Parish made an annual tour to Tavoy and Mergui and explored many 'terra incognita' with a gentleman named Major Tickell, a keen ornithologist. Several of Parish's letters provide detailed accounts of collecting trips and the difficulties he encountered from inaccessible limestone rocks, using elephants as orchid bearers and being permitted very little leave from his official duties for his botanising. In one unhappy instance he records the loss of seven cases of plants on board a steamer in the Ganges. The cases contained seeds and drawings representing everything he had collected on his trips to the Shan states and Tavoy district. Many of these species he believed he would never find again. On another occasion he records the sad loss of one of his knowledgeable and faithful collectors who died on a recent trip to the jungle. The collector set a fire to drive a wild pig out of its lair, but the flames engulfed the tree that he had climbed to get out of the way.
In spite of setbacks Parish made a host of new plant discoveries including Cymbidium tigrinum, found in the Tenasserim Mountains. Species of Coelogyne, Habenaria, and Vanda are named in commemoration of him, as well as Parishia, a nonorchidaceous genus from Malaya. We also have a number of Parish's plant specimens in Kew's herbarium including c.45 type specimens.
As well as providing detailed accounts of his plant collecting Parish's correspondence also contains more light hearted remarks on the botanical works of the day. For instance he enjoyed reading an account of the Durian fruit given in a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace but feels that a record should also be given by somebody who dislikes the fruit: Parish is repulsed by its smell, said to resemble rotting onions or turpentine, and notes that if hung in a closed painted room for a day, then any dirt can easily be removed from the walls afterwards!
Parish was a talented painter and illustrator and often transmitted sketches to Hooker to aid the identification of his specimens. In 1871 Parish came to England with a large collection of his drawings and presented these to Kew and they are part of our Library, Art and Archives collection today. In 1878 Parish retired and returned to Somerset, England, continuing his interest in orchids and botany in general. He died quietly in his sleep in 1897, at the age of seventy-five.
A watercolour sketch of the orchid Drymoda picta observed at Moulmein, November 1869, from Parish's 'Drawings (coloured) of Orchidaceae (executed chiefly at Moulmein between the years 1856 and 1874)' (Image: RBG Kew)
- Katherine -
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Recalling one of his expeditions in ‘Travels of Malaya’, written in 1912, Henry Ridley writes that:
“I camped once for ten days in the forests… a few hundred yards away was a track so covered with fresh footmarks of elephant rhinoceroses, tapir deer pig and tiger that it was impossible to put down a stick without touching one of these.” (HNR/4/24)
"Janet" the tiger, an image found amongst Ridley's papers in the Archives (Image: RBG Kew)
This passage shines a light into a different side of the collections held at the archives here at Kew, showcasing the extraordinary wonder of the natural world encountered by plant hunters, beyond the botany! ‘Travels in Malaya’ (HNR/4/24) provides a unique insight, which allows us to see the world through the eyes of the intrepid explorer and botanist at the turn of the twentieth century. Michele recently posted a blog post about the plant hunters of Kew, in which she highlighted the courageous and devoted nature of these individuals who endured extended periods of time in lonely and physically challenging environments.
Ridley, Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888-1911, spent a great deal of time exploring the surrounding territories. During his travels, it seems that he took a great interest in wildlife. Even at home he showed a keen interest in the animal kingdom. It is said that “until he became bedridden he was a never-failing observer of the birds in Kew Gardens.” (ODNB)
Image of Ridley feeding a tapir (Image: RBG Kew)
We are fortunate that as well as being a ‘versatile and entertaining conversationalist’, Ridley enjoyed and had a talent for expressing his reminiscences to others. Another animal encounter, this time with tigers, is duly recorded in his notes and begins:
‘I will now give some account of the most superb and beautiful mammal in the world, the great cat known as the tiger...’ (HNR/4/24)
Ridley's Travels of Malaya, HNR/4/24 (Image: RBG Kew)
Ridley’s ensuing description of the tigers in the Malay Peninsula are just one of many poignant accounts found in his papers, particularly in light of the plight of the many wild and now endangered species in the world’s forests today. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who last year celebrated the ‘Year of the Tiger’ with a campaign to save the endangered species, threatened by poaching and deforestation. The comparison between what Ridley saw in Malaya and what one might see today after a night camping in the forest may be quite striking!
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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.
- Archives team
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