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 FIFA World Cup 2010 being hosted in South Africa means that this region is very much in the limelight at present. However, Kew’s Archives show how this fascination with South Africa started much earlier in the botanical world.
We hold a huge amount of material relating to South Africa at Kew. In this post, I'm going to highlight an example from the early 19th century when Joseph Banks was sending plant collectors to far flung shores using royal money. In my second post later on this month, I shall focus on the Zambesi Expedition led by David Livingstone, at the height of the Victorian era.
Cape of Good Hope: James Bowie’s Expedition 1814-1823
Entries for April 1822 in Bowie's journal (KCL/4/2)
The early plant collectors had as much of a thirst for discovery as a desire to find new plants. Their journals record not only flora, but also their journeys, the landscapes and indigenous people encountered. James Bowie (ca 1789-1869), was a gardener at Kew and was instructed by Joseph Banks in 1814 to sail to the Cape of Good Hope to collect plants for Kew's collections. Bowie writes:
“The arrival of the peace treaty with France and the certainty that … ships will sail as they were used to do without being subjected to any uncertain delays makes me anxious to see the establishment of foreign collectors resumed … no places are so productive as the Cape of Good Hope … the plants of this country are beautiful in the extreme and suit the conservatory.”
We have 2 diaries for Bowie’s expedition to South Africa: the first one covers the period 1814-1821 and the second, entitled ‘A Journal kept at the Cape of Good Hope by James Bowie H.M.B.C.’ covers the years 1821-1823. Both are primarily collecting journals, concerned with the flora encountered but also include occasional comments about people and places.
Haemanthus albiflos by Sydenham Edwards, 1810. Painted for Curtis' Botanical Magazine. Bowie collected specimens of this plant.
Bowie's journals always start with a brief description of the day’s weather, sometimes the temperature and wind direction, followed by a detailed description of plant collecting activities and any other events. Plant collecting in the Cape region was hard physical work and not always very fruitful (a bit like the football!). Bowie describes his plant collecting:
“In hopes of procuring novelties, I this morning ascended one of the highest parts of the mountain to the North East, but after a most toilsome walk, and encountering many difficult precipices, I only procured two orchidea [orchids] and a species of Hamenthus [Haementhus or Paint Brush] … during the time I was employed on the mountain the wind was very boisterous and I was in some danger of being blown from the more exposed parts by its violence”.
Coming soon: I’ll be blogging again shortly to tell you about the Zambesi Expedition.
Want a break from the football? Interested in South Africa? If you would like to see our documents relating to botanical collection in South Africa, or to find out more about the Archives, please get in touch with email@example.com
We don’t yet have an online catalogue, but details of many of our catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogue.
2 comments on 'Coming home - Plant collecting in South Africa in the 1800s'
Directors' Correspondence digitisation team
Latin American achievement
There has been a lot going on in the Directors' Correspondence digitisation team of late. We recently celebrated the end of the digitisation of the Latin American Directors' Correspondence collection, which our team completed within the two year time frame set out for the project. We are, therefore, pleased to announce that the complete collection of Kew's Directors' Correspondence from Latin America is now available to view online via the JSTOR website. A significant achievement!
The team have worked hard over the last two years, not only to digitise the collection, but to raise the profile of the project: writing articles for the staff magazine and, more recently, for the Library, Art & Archives blog. I would like to thank them for their hard work - it has been a privilege to be part of such an enthusiastic team.
The end of the digitisation of the Latin American correspondence coincided with a change in the team's environment: we moved out of two small basement offices, into a larger, lighter and airier room on the ground floor! On a sad note, the end of the project also coincided with us losing a member of our team. Lindsay Rosener decided it was time for her to return to the US. We were very sorry to lose Lindsay – she is a great person, with an exuberant personality, who contributed greatly to our success and to the lively atmosphere in the office. We wish Lindsay the best of luck with whatever she decides to take on next.
Embarking on Asia
Our new digitisation officer, Charlotte Rowley, joined us at the end of May and is settling in well. It's a good time for Charlotte to start, as we have now embarked on the next phase of our project: to digitise the Directors' Correspondence collection from Asia. In the first two volumes of correspondence, we have come across letters written to Kew from India, Indonesia, Mauritius, China, Turkey and the Ukraine! Within these volumes I was intrigued to find letters from correspondents whose names would not seem out of place in a William Boyd novel: Philip Furley Fyson and William Popplewell Bloxam.
Philip Furley Fyson (1877 – 1947), was a botanist who worked in India and was author of several illustrated volumes on the flora of the South Indian hills. In 1914 he wrote to Kew asking for help in the identification of specimens to be included in his work: 'The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-Tops'. In his letters, Fyson also refers to Sir Alfred Gibbs Bourne, director of the Indian Institute of Science, and Lady Bourne, the botanical artist whose illustrations were used in the aforementioned Flora. Lady Bourne's letters to Kew are found in the same volume of correspondence.
William Popplewell Bloxam (1860 – 1913) was a chemist who, on behalf of the Government of India, worked on methods of improving the manufacture of natural indigo. Bloxam wrote to Kew in 1907, from the Clothworkers' Research Laboratory at the University of Leeds, to elicit help in separating a mixture of dried indigo leaf from Madras (now Chennai) into its constituent parts. He had managed to obtain an extraordinarily high yield of indigotin from the sample and was anxious to know which species of Indigofera might be responsible for the result. In fact, it was Bloxam's extraction process that had accounted for the increased yield of indigo and his results showed that the manufacture of indigo in India was running at only 25% efficiency. Unfortunately, Bloxam's results were not received well in India and the report he published in 1908 on the process of indigo manufacture was largely ignored (see 'Plantation Science: improving natural indigo in colonial India, 1860-1913', by Prakash Kumar in The British Journal for the History of Science, 2007, 40: 537-565).
Illustration: 'Indigofera tinctoria (indigo)' by George Bond (c.1806-1892). Photograph by Paul Little. Copyright ©RBGKew
We look forward to finding many more such characters within the Asian correspondence and promise to share these with you over the coming months.
- Helen -
1 comment on 'Crossing continents - The next phase of digitisation'
Imagine a jumbled collection of books, pamphlets, photographs, letters and notebooks. What would you do with the collection? How would you know what treasures of information were contained in it? How would you organise it and allow others to explore it? These issues are taken on and solved by archivists as they catalogue collections within their archive, and I am here to tell you about my experiences of cataloguing one of the newest collections in the Archives at Kew.
A large proportion of the lifetime’s work of the grassland ecologist Reginald Rose-Innes arrived in 7 large boxes in late 2009. Delving into the boxes I was struck by the variety and richness of the material, and realised I had set myself quite a challenge for my first cataloguing project!
Before I could organise or catalogue the collection I needed to know what was there; initially I put together a list of all the items in the boxes and discovered they contained around 170 items! I was then able to establish an arrangement for the collection. I divided the material into four main series; those being personal papers and correspondence, research notebooks, printed material including reports and off-prints, and photographs - and I organised each series and further sub-series chronologically. I then wrote the catalogue entries which meant identifying dates, titles and a concise description of each item. This was the most time consuming part of the project but also the most enjoyable. Looking at each letter, notebook or photograph in turn allowed me a huge insight into the career and personal life of Rose-Innes.
Photograph of Reginald Rose-Innes (Reg is on the left)
Once I had catalogued the collection I was able to complete its physical arrangement. I numbered each item to allow for easy identification in the future, and carefully removed metal fastenings. I then repackaged papers into archival quality folders, and photographs into melinex sleeves, and finally placed the collection in acid free boxes. These measures will prolong the life of the collection and allow others to discover it for many years to come.
A selection of the papers from the collection.
Cataloguing a collection in this way allows researchers a brief glimpse into the vast quantity of information contained within it and provides clues as to which items may be of most interest to them. The material in this collection will not only hold interest for those carrying out grassland research but also others with interests in history, geography and anthropology.
I hugely enjoyed cataloguing the Rose-Innes collection; I discovered a down-to-earth individual who was passionate about his field of work, and held great admiration for those who inspired him and his colleagues. Throughout the project Reginald’s sense of humour brought his papers to life, and I end with a snippet from one of his letters -
‘We partook of hot coffee, which was good and boiled beans seasoned with garlic – which were frightful. “Them beans is good food” said Gilbert – “stick to your ribs”. I swallowed mightily and said I’d never tasted better.’
- Hannah -
The Rose-Innes catalogue exists in Calm, which we hope will be available on the web by 2011. In the meantime paper copies of the catalogue list, which includes a brief biography, are available by request. Visitors are welcome to book an appointment to view the items from the collection in our Reading Room.
5 comments on 'Making order out of chaos - Cataloguing the Rose-Innes papers'
There’s more to a Marianne North painting than a pretty plant!
I am part of the team working to conserve the Marianne North paintings and through a series of posts we hope to share some of the incredible things we are finding during this project. Our team is working hard to meet the target to restore all 832 paintings in just two years. As you can imagine this is extremely sensitive work which involves a steady hand and lots of concentration. We are all paper conservators and our varied interests and backgrounds have really helped the team work well together - from photographers, art historians and artists to a mathematician!
The Marianne North project is an incredible opportunity for any conservator as it is unusual to be able to work on one artist’s collection continually, so this is a real treat for us and chance to learn so much about one person, the collection and how it was created.
Paintings by Marianne North - North American Carnivorous Plants; Foliage, Flowers and Fruit of Sacred Lotus in Java; Foliage and Flowers of a Tropical American Shrub and Honeysuckers
All the paintings are examined, photographed and recorded – possibly the most important part of preservation. Our treatment records will provide future data for conservators and curators with information about the methods and chemical treatments we have used and why we have used them. This information can be used to help maintain the historical and cultural value of the collection.
Beginning the conservation
The paintings that are being conserved are oil paint on a pre-prepared paper, the majority of which were adhered to a poor quality mount board which aimed to prevent the paper from sagging in the frames. The boards and the adhesive used have degraded in time and become acidic, which ultimately puts the paintings at risk. The majority of our time is spent removing these boards which we pare down with scalpels – a very labour intensive task working layer by layer, from the back of the board to the back of the paper and can take between one and four hours per painting.
A selecion of conservation tools Removal of old backing board
Each of us see the treatment of a painting through to completion and are often working on five or six different paintings at any one time. This means that we can vary our work load. Paring down more than one large painting a day is really hard work on our wrists and hands, so it is really important that we can break up repetitive movements with other treatments like surface cleaning, pH testing or documentation. We use an alkali solution to raise the pH of the paper to neutral, attach new archival quality boards and clean them. All paintings will go back into their original frames which have been cleaned and restored.
The Marianne North Conservation team give free informal talks on the project, Marianne North and their hidden finds once a month in the Marianne North Gallery. You can find out more about these events on Kew's what's on pages.
- Helen -
- Learn more about the Marianne North paintings conservation
- Find out more about the Marianne North Gallery
- Discover how you can play a part in safeguarding the future of each Marianne North painting.
- Read about Marianne North and her links with Kew
0 comments on 'Welcome to the Marianne North Conservation Studio'
My name is Caroline and I work one day a week with the Directors' Correspondence digitisation team at Kew. Digitising the letters is fascinating and intriguing: no two letters are the same and every botanist has a different story to tell. They often had to leave their loved ones behind and contend with natural disasters, political unrest and hostility from the native population. If this wasn't enough to struggle with, infection and disease were also constant dangers, as highlighted through the experiences of one botanist stationed in Dominica.
We work with the original letters to summarise them and make them available online.
Suffering from 'ground itch'
George A. Ramage (1864-1933) collected plants for the West Indian Commission to Dominica. It is from here that he corresponded with Kew and, in a letter sent in August 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.419-420), he complains of becoming afflicted with 'ground itch', which has prevented him travelling to St. Lucia.
Ground itch affects the feet and is characterised by blister-like eruptions and severe itching caused by the entry of hookworm larvae into the skin. Ramage complains of both legs and feet ballooning to twice their size and leaking 'watery serum'. Ramage did not, however, do himself any favours when plant collecting, which left him vulnerable to infection.
A letter written on 17 June 1889 (DC Vol. 212 f.429-431) details Ramage's expenses whilst in Dominica and he is keen to stress that he saved money wherever he could: he 'used neither alcohol or tobacco' and 'went into the forest barefooted'. Whilst he must be commended for being thrifty, had he worn shoes, he would have certainly avoided the undesirable consequences of ground itch.
The infection was cured when a local doctor supplied a lotion of acetate of lead, which is no longer used in the modern age due to its high levels of toxicity. Not only did Ramage have to contend with infection, but also with the possibility of being poisoned by his treatment!
More problems in St. Lucia
Ramage did however, make it to St. Lucia, but his problems did not end there, as he records in a letter to Kew on 6th December 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.421) that he was struck down with a fever and had to be carried in a hammock through the 'swampy abandoned cane land'. In a letter dated 23 January 1889 (DC Vol. 212, f.424), Ramage apologises for his poor collection of plants as he has been unable to undertake any forest collecting for two months because of fever and dysentery.
Unfortunately, it all proves too much for Ramage, as he concedes he is no longer fit for forest collecting. He is pleased to hear someone has been sent to replace him, however, not before he has finished collecting in Dominica and St. Lucia. Ramage explains that he enjoys the tropical climate but that he would like to find 'some less trying occupation'.
Ramage finds love
Eighteen months later, in a letter written on 10 September 1890 (DC Vol. 212, f.371), Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls writes that Ramage seems settled and is going to apply for the post of Curator at the Botanical Station. Nicholls attributes this change in Ramage to his recent nuptials as he writes 'his recent marriage to a person old enough to be his mother has strangely enough improved him vastly'!
Extract of a letter from Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, 10 Sep 1890 commenting on Ramage's new wife (DC Vol. 212, f.371).
Ramage's example highlights the stark reality facing many botanists who collected overseas: whilst the tropical climate was favourable, the threat of disease and infection was never far away and could ultimately end a man's career, if not his life. Thankfully however, Ramage seems to have achieved his happy ending.
- Caroline -
- See images of herbarium specimens collected by George A. Ramage on Kew's Herbarium Catalogue
- Find out what else our correspondents sent to Kew whilst on their travels.
- For more specific information on Kew's archive holdings visit the Archive's webpages.
- JSTOR subscribers can view the Directors' Correspondence from Africa and Latin America on the GPI website.
- Search the Natural History Museum's online library catalogue for Ramage's watercolour drawings.
4 comments on 'Misfortune in paradise'
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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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