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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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Marianne North: A different view

By: Fiona Ainsworth - 29 Mar 2011
Come into Kew’s Library, Art & Archives Reading Room to see our latest display in the Wolfson Rare Books Room.
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To mark the completion of the conservation of the Marianne North Gallery and all the paintings, and timed to coincide with the special event marking this on 29 March 2011, the Library, Art & Archives’ new display shows a different side to Marianne North from the more familiar one on view in the Gallery.

The Gallery is Marianne North’s chief legacy and, in our display, you can see the 1879 letter in which she proposed the building of it to Sir Joseph Hooker, as well as her own plan of the lay-out of the paintings. We also have a couple of letters, one to her maid Annie on the occasion of Annie’s marriage, and the other to a friend, Dr Allman, describing her efforts to get to a good position on top of a rock from which to paint – this letter comes with a little illustration of Marianne perched on this rock!

Photograph taken inside the restored Marianne North Gallery

Inside the restored Marianne North Gallery (Image: RBG Kew)


'Holiday snaps'

Kew is lucky enough to have paintings in addition to the ones selected for the Gallery, and you can see five of these in our display. They are more like holiday snaps of the local sights: she painted temples and other buildings and often, as can be seen in the Gallery pictures, animals. We have two featuring elephants; in one scene a herd are taking a dip in a river, which may be Lucknow: “I saw some odd things in Lucknow; one of the oddest, twenty elephants taking their bath, each with his attendant scrubber. I tried to paint this” (Recollections, vol. 2, p.24). The other painting shows the following scene: “[In Bhaunagar] then we paid a visit to the famous elephant which had been brought up with a goat, and could not bear to see anyone touch his friend or even her two kids. He pawed the ground, threw up his trunk, and roared with rage till she was free again, then stroked her with his trunk, and pushed the hay and green stuff towards her, allowing the little kids to walk over his feet” (Recollections, vol. 2, p. 80). Marianne had already had a closer encounter with an elephant. At Hardwar, “an elephant was put at my command; but one ride was enough. I did not enjoy his slow, slouching walk and high-over-every-bodyishness” (Recollections, vol. 1, p. 349).


Painting number 19

A Marianne North painting now returned to the Gallery following Conservation work (no.19) (Image: RBG Kew)


"A perfect home in the country"

Our display also includes two paintings of Alderley, the home in Gloucestershire she rented from 1886 for the last five years of her life – “a perfect home in the country ... and a garden to make after my own fashion”. She took particular pleasure in creating the garden, for which she received plants from, among others, Kew (“all sorts of foreign rarities” according to her sister Catherine) but the commoner plants seemed to delight her the most: “No life is so charming as a country one in England, and no flowers are sweeter or more lovely than the primroses, cowslips, bluebells, and violets which grow in abundance all round me here” (Recollections, vol. 2, p. 330, 333).

You are welcome to visit the Reading Room to see the Marianne North display, please just let us know if you are coming by email:, telephone: +44 (0)20 8332 5414 or by writing to Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, TW9 3AE.

- Fiona -


Further Information


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Richard Oldham: 'The Last Botanical Collector'

By: Charlotte Rowley - 23 Mar 2011
Learn about the hardships faced by the unfortunate botanical collector Richard Oldham on his journey around Japan, and find out what led to the end of his contract with Kew.
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This month, the Directors' Correspondence team has been reading through the letters of Richard Oldham (1837-1864), a gardener sent out by RBG Kew as a botanical collector in China and Japan. The collection includes a copy of Oldham's contract which required him to stay on board ships designated by Sir William Jackson Hooker. From the letters it is clear that this agreement did not end well, and Oldham was in fact the last full-time botanical collector to be employed by RBG Kew in this way – but was he the idle and wayward botanist that Hooker presumed him to be?

Photo of a section of Oldham's agreement with RBG Kew

Section of a copy of Oldham's agreement with RBG Kew, signed by himself and Sir William Jackson Hooker

Oldham's letters have given us a great insight into the trials and tribulations he encountered during his time in Japan; transport problems, bad weather, financial troubles and illness all hindered his collecting to some degree. Unfortunately his slow progress led Hooker to accuse him of being idle, perhaps expecting Oldham to take after his predecessor Charles Wilford, who was dismissed after he stopped sending specimens back from Japan. 

The problems of a plant collector

Oldham encountered many transport problems, at one point waiting four months to board his next ship and missing an opportunity to collect in Yokohama as a result. His plight was taken up by Henry Fletcher Hance, the British Vice Consul in Whampoa, who wrote to Hooker saying: "I cannot but think that his being bound to a ship ... has taken away much of his time, & that he would have done better could he stay for a whole season at one place". His travels were also fraught with danger owing to the political unrest in Japan at the time. He describes how it was not safe for him to visit Tokyo [then called Yedo] after a "vile and murderous" attack had recently taken place on the British Legation there.

Financial problems also added to Oldham's woes and he repeatedly complains about the high cost of living and unfavourable exchange rates in Japan. He tries to claim for expenses such as equipment, boats, specimen purchases and doctor's bills but stresses that he pays for wine and beer out of his own salary and that if he did not drink occasionally he would be "entirely unfit for further exertion". Unfortunately, in a strongly worded response, Hooker shows no sympathy and instead reprimands Oldham for not sending the necessary proof of expenditures in order to settle his accounts. On top of all this, Oldham suffered from sea sickness which affected much of his collecting while on board the ships. He also complains of neuralgia, rheumatic pains and of contracting smallpox in Amoy, which led to one of his collections being spoiled. Oldham eventually succumbed to dysentery and died at the age of 27.

Photo of a dried specimen of Scolopia oldhamii

The type specimen of Scolopia oldhamii collected from Taiwan by Richard Oldham in 1864 (Image: RBG Kew)

Shortly before he died, Oldham decided to leave the ship he was on and travel to Taiwan [then called Formosa] to further his collections. Hooker, however, took this as a resignation of Oldham's duties from RBG Kew and refused to fund him further, thinking that he intended to profit from the collections. Despite these many hindrances, Oldham sent back over 13,000 dried specimens from Japan and Taiwan and several species, such as Gypsophila oldhamiana and Scolopia oldhamii, are named after him. Other letters in the DC collection attest to his diligence and enthusiasm for his work - indicating that Hooker may have unfairly judged the last botanical collector.

Oldham's letters are currently being digitised as part of the DC digitisation project and will be available to view to subscribers on the JSTOR Plant Science website in the future.



Further information


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The history of working women at Kew

By: Michele Losse - 08 Mar 2011
In celebration of International Women's Day, Michele blogs about the employment of women at Kew. The first women gardeners were appointed in 1896.
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Lady gardeners of the 19th - 20th century

To coincide with International Women’s Day on the 8 March, I thought I would tell you about the history of women at Kew. The first women gardeners were appointed by the then Director, William Thiselton-Dyer, in 1896. They had qualified from the Horticultural College for Women at Swanley in Kent. Thiselton-Dyer was a strict disciplinarian and had introduced uniforms for gardeners as a symbol of status, as well as imposing order within the establishment. Thus, our first lady gardeners had to wear the same uniform as the men, so as not to distract their male colleagues when working alongside them.

Photo of Kew's first lady gardeners

Lady gardeners - Gertrude Cope, Alice Hutchins, Eleanor Morland (Image: RBG Kew)

The first of the lady gardeners were Annie M Gulvin and Alice Hutchins. The compilers of the Journal of the Kew Guild for 1896 had mixed feelings about their appointment: "Some of the work seems too laborious for them but this is their affair… Given fair play and no favour we do not object to anyone competing in the field of horticulture, be it prince or peer, retired army officer or young lady. The pity it is that in the case of women, marriage would terminate their gardening career". By 1898, Alice Hutchins had been promoted to sub-foreman (!) and Annie Gulvin had been replaced by Jessie Newsham and Florence M Potter.

The year 1902 was the last Kew had any lady gardeners, but the First World War saw their re-employment to replace the men who had gone to fight. Over 30 women gardeners worked at Kew until 1918; some stayed on until March 1922, when the employment of women gardeners was discontinued. Women were recruited once again during the Second World War to replace male gardeners. Many were employed until 1946, after which numbers were cut dramatically. From the early 1950s women students were recruited at the rate of one or two a year, until the 1970s when their number increased to become equal with male students.

Artists, specimen mounters and scientists

It is more difficult to trace the employment of women in the scientific sphere, such as the Herbarium and Jodrell Laboratory. There are no sources available prior to 1893, the date of the first publication of the Kew Guild Journal. Matilda Smith (1854-1926), a botanical artist, is the first and only female to appear in the 1893 Kew Guild Journal. She is mentioned as having been employed since 1878, when she was recruited by Sir Joseph Hooker, and worked for a further 43 years. The sole artist for many of these years, she drew botanical illustrations for Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Photo of Matilda Smith, a botanical artist

Matilda Smith, botanical artist

The majority of the women employed in the Herbarium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries appear to have already had links with Kew, mostly through their relatives. In 1894, Miss Ada E Fitch, ‘Specimen Mounter’, may have been the daughter of Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892), who was a botanical artist at Kew from 1841 to 1880. In 1905, she was joined by a Miss C E Hemsley, 'Sub-Assistant' in the Herbarium, who may have been the daughter of William Botting Hemsley (1843-1924), Keeper of the Herbarium from 1899-1908.

The employment of women in scientific roles steadily increased in the early 20th century, especially after 1915. In the 1950s, female scientists obtained a more prominent role, especially as they became allowed by law to stay on after they married. Today women are actively involved at Kew in a variety of roles and of course continue to be, from gardening to archiving!


Further Information

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Adventure and discovery around the world with the plant hunters

By: Michele Losse - 18 Feb 2011
Plant hunters frequently travelled across the world to discover new plants for science. Discover some of their adventures here with stories from Kew's Archives.
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The Archives team at Kew has been hosting tours and talks as part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign on the subject of plant hunters, and my blog contributes to this event.

Plant hunters were botanists and horticulturalists who were willing to take risks to travel the other side of the world, sometimes for several years, to discover new plants for science and to ornament people’s gardens. They had a real passion for discovery and plants and I’m going to introduce you to a few of these remarkably intrepid travellers. 

Joseph Hooker in the USA; Colorado Expedition in 1877 with Dr. and Mrs. Asa Gray amongst others

Joseph Hooker in the USA; Colorado Expedition in 1877 with Dr. and Mrs. Asa Gray amongst others  

Introducing Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour’s voyage to the South Pacific (1768-1771), was appointed as an informal director to the Gardens by George III in 1773. Banks sent the first Kew collectors around the world, including Francis Masson, Allan Cunningham and James Bowie. Their love of plants and willingness to explore unknown shores, despite obvious dangers, resulted in many specimens being shipped to Kew from all over the growing British Empire. Under Banks’ supervision, Kew became one of the foremost botanical gardens in the world, during the golden age of plant hunting.

William & Joseph Hooker

Others in the 19th century followed in their footsteps, even though the Gardens, now a public institution, could not afford to send plant hunters as Joseph Banks had done. However, the Empire was well established and the thirst for new plants was far from quenched. Kew still contributed to expeditions by lending either expertise or botanists and gardeners to others’ expeditions. Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), the son of Sir William Hooker (Kew’s first public Director) and later himself Director at Kew, took part in several expeditions. The first voyage was in 1839-1843 onboard HMS Erebus, an Antarctic expedition, and he later travelled to the central and eastern Himalaya (1847-1849), having obtained a government grant for the trip. In Sikkim, Hooker and his travelling companion, Archibald Campbell were arrested for border violation, only being released when the British Government, threatened to invade Sikkim. Hooker collected c.700 species in India and Nepal and added 25 new rhododendrons to the 50 already known, helping to create a rhododendron craze amongst British gardeners.

20th century plant hunters

In the 20th century, Kew used its own botanists to bring plants back from around the world, and self-made plant collectors still sent plants to Kew. Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958), often referred to as the last of the great plant collectors, sent 120 plants to Kew. He explored regions such as Yunnan in China, Burma and Tibet in the 1920s and 1930s. He was so enthused by Burma’s landscapes that he later returned with his second wife Jean in 1953/4. However, he found the country much changed and some of the habitats he had so admired had been destroyed to make way for agriculture.


Frank Kingdon-Ward's Diary for the Lohit Valley Expedition 1950

Frank Kingdon-Ward's Diary for the Lohit Valley Expedition 1950 FKW/1/25 (f 4)

His diaries make a fascinating read and are far from being dry, scientific writings. He was interested in everything, and talks about the geography, weather, plants as well as native people encountered in an anecdotal manner and with great humour. He also published numerous books about his expeditions which are still widely available today.

Plant hunters were individuals of great courage and determination, equipped with passion and devotion, sometimes enduring weeks of loneliness and physical hardship, bringing back with them the extraordinary plants which can be seen in our gardens today.

- Michele -

Further information

See our interactive book for iPad, The Plant Hunters, featured as new and noteworthy on the Apple iBookstore

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New year, new office, new challenges!

By: Helen Hartley - 24 Jan 2011
Can you work it out? Kew's Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team set a challenge to decipher some 19th century handwriting as they start the new year in their brand new offices.
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From our humble beginnings - four members of staff sharing one small basement office in Kew's Herbarium - the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team have, quite literally, moved up in the world. In the spring of 2010, we moved out of the basement into a roomy, but temporary home on the first floor. Then, at the end of last year, we finally moved into our new, long-term accommodation, the Library Digitisation Suite: purpose-built offices situated within the original library on the first floor of the Herbarium. The suite comprises a main office, a scanning room/meeting room and a dark room for our digital camera set up.  

The main office of the Library Digitisation Suite 

Part of the main office of the new Library Digitisation Suite

Thank you

Many thanks must go to the Estates staff for remodelling the library space to construct the new offices and for helping us to move our desks and equipment. Thanks also go to the IT and communications staff who ensured that everything was in working order on the day of our move, and to Andrew McRobb, one of Kew's in-house photographers, who set up and calibrated our digital camera – for the second time in a year.

 A challenge for our readers

We have started the New Year in our new suite with renewed vigour and enthusiasm! Our project is going well and, since starting the digitisation of the Asia Directors' Correspondence collection in April last year, we have digitised eight out of the 26 volumes of correspondence: that translates to the team having read through, summarised and imaged over 6,000 pages of predominantly hand-written letters – no mean feat! In fact, to give you a small taste of what we do every day, we'd like to set our readers a bit of a challenge... 

 Extract of a letter from Justus Karl Hasskarl

Extract of a letter from Justus Karl Hasskarl to Sir William Jackson Hooker – can you decipher the handwriting?

Above is an extract taken from a six-page letter written by Justus Karl Hasskarl to Sir William Jackson Hooker, from Priangan, Java, in 1855. As you can see, the writing from one side of a page has bled through to the other side of the page. Have a go and see if you can work out what it says? 

Thankfully not all the correspondence is this difficult to decipher! We look forward to telling you more about what we find in the collection over the coming year. 

- Helen -


Further Information

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