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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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Highlights from the Marianne North Gallery Conservation Project

By: Eleanor Hasler - 17 Jan 2011
As the Marianne North Gallery Conservation Project draws to a close, Eleanor Hasler looks back at the highlights of over two years working in the Marianne North Conservation Studio.
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The beautifully restored Marianne North Gallery re-opened last month with the original artworks back on the walls. Here in the conservation studio we are so excited to see the paintings back in the gallery knowing that their condition has been improved and that they will continue to be enjoyed by visitors for many years to come. It is, though, with a touch of sadness that we lay down our tools as we have all become rather attached to the paintings. Here are some of the highlights of the project which have made the time working in the studio so enjoyable.

Hidden treasures

Through the examination and treatment of the paintings we have been able to discover more about Marianne North’s painting techniques as well as uncover additional images. Rachael Smith, one of the conservators working on the project, has now totally uncovered the completed painting she discovered on the back of A Cycad in Fruit in Mr Hill’s Garden, Verulam, Natal.


Partially revealed painting on the back of painting no. 366 (Image: RBG Kew)


Fully uncovered painting on the back of painting no. 366 (Image: RBG Kew)

The new image is a landscape and is similar to another painting in the gallery Male Pawpaw with Flowers and Imperfect Fruit. As a board had been stuck directly onto the oil paint, Rachel had to spend a lot of time devising ways of removing the board remnants without removing the paint. An image of the uncovered painting will also be viewable on the new touchscreens in the gallery.

New materials

Our time working on so many paintings by one artist has also enabled us to carry out some research into the different materials Marianne North used. I have been looking at the ground or ‘primer’ under the paint layer, while other members of the studio have been examining the pigments, inks and papers she used. The practical work has also thrown up new and exciting challenges which do not usually occur in paper conservation. In between removing around 800 backing boards from the paintings we have been consolidating paint, in-painting losses and repairing tears, amongst other interesting treatments. We are in the process of writing an article, which we hope to publish in a conservation related journal, as we feel we have learnt a great deal from undertaking this unusual project.

Sharing enthusiasm

I think what has been another real treat is that we have been given the opportunity to meet some of the people who share our enthusiasm for Marianne North. It has been wonderful to hear such a positive response to the paintings, and to watch visitors in the gallery find images that they have a personal attachment to; whether it is a place they have visited, a particular favourite plant, or, in one case, a picture of a friend’s garden! Through our talks with visitors and meetings with the sponsors of the paintings it has been really interesting and encouraging to see what a broad spectrum of people enjoy Marianne North’s work.


Rebecca Chisholm giving a talk to visitors in the Marianne North Gallery (Image: RBG Kew)

Many thanks to all those who made this project possible – the condition of this fantastic collection is now greatly improved and many more visitors to the Gardens will be able to enjoy the work of this remarkable woman.

- Eleanor -

Further Information 


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Settling into the Archives: catch up with our budding archivist

By: Sarah Cox - 17 Dec 2010
Kew's Archives Graduate Trainee, Sarah, blogs about her fascinating work and the new skills she is gaining three months in.
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It has now been three months since I took up the role of Archive Graduate Trainee at Kew, and already I have learned so much about archives and records management. Having realised that to truly know a collection can take a lifetime! I am content with my increasing knowledge of the archives here.

Having completed my induction I am now involved in a number of projects, one of which involves repackaging the papers of a botanist who was involved in the conservation of an endangered tree species, the Populus nigra. It is fascinating being able to see the extent of this man’s dedication to preserving the native trees of Britain. Unfortunately some of the papers have been badly damaged by damp and mould, and owing to the nature of his work I often find myself coming across suspicious looking envelopes filled with very old plant samples. However I find that this is what makes the job so satisfying; knowing that the important work of this man will not be lost and will be available for researchers in the future.

A selection of items from the Populus nigra papers

The Populus nigra papers

I am also now well under way with my first cataloguing project, which again concerns the papers of a botanist who worked closely with Kew. Whilst keeping the original order of a collection is important in order to ensure that it doesn’t lose any evidential value, I find that the challenge is in creating a clear and concise catalogue which will accurately reflect the collection and make it as accessible as possible. It appears that this botanist carried out invaluable work producing plant determination lists in the West Indies, and I really hope that the catalogue I create will increase the accessibility of his papers so that people will be able to use his work as a reference for many years to come.

In the Records Management aspect of my role, I have learned so much in the past couple of months. What seems very complicated in theory can be made very straightforward through well organised and efficient organisation. Being able to work with both current records and archives is a great advantage, as I am able to see the process of creating records through to their destruction or transfer to archives. It has also made me more aware issues surrounding the profession, such as the increasing focus on the need for effective electronic records management systems, and the PR work in raising awareness of efficient record keeping.

Sarah retrieving items in the archives store

Sarah getting to know the collections

On a final note, I will be starting the MLitt in Archives and Records Management by distance learning at the University of Dundee in January. I think it is a great opportunity to be able to apply what I will be learning in practice on a day-to-day basis whilst gaining a qualification on the road to becoming a fully fledged archivist.

- Sarah -


Further Information

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Rust, smuggling and the Number 11 mango!

By: Liz Taylor - 25 Nov 2010
Take a glimpse at the Museum of Economic Botany at the turn of the 20th Century, as discovered by our Archives volunteer in a recent addition to our collections.
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My name is Liz and I’ve been a volunteer archivist at Kew since September. Working here holds a magnetic appeal for me, and I’ve been spending two days a week in the Archive, and one day a week with the Digitisation Team

I’ve just completed my first assignment in the archive, which was to accession and repackage two cardboard boxes of mysterious files. A note on the boxes revealed they’d come ‘From the furniture store’ and the contents had been frozen (to kill any insects), however beyond that nothing was known about them. I love archival detective work, and this challenge was a gift.

A memo from the collection dated 1908

A memo from the collection dated 1908, complete with a stain from a rusty paperclip! 


A closer examination of the files revealed that physically the records had suffered: they were dirty and every paperclip and staple had rusted, leaving copious, indelible rust marks and a fine sprinkling of rust dust in between pages. Each day as I worked I produced a small pile of twisted decayed metalwork, removed using a specially designed scalpel-like implement. Nicking a finger was an everyday hazard! 

It became clear from reading the correspondence and memos that the files had once formed part of the Kew Museum filing system. The only other similar system dates from the 1950s, and as these files spanned 1875-1934, the significance of the collection was becoming apparent. Many memos and letters were from J Masters Hillier, Keeper of the Museum 1901-1926, and by examining his painstaking annotations, it was possible to piece together the relationship between the Museum and the Director’s Office, and establish how different departments at Kew co-operated to answer enquiries. 

Many bulletins and newspaper cuttings from the early 1900s were included in the files, mainly relating to economic products (e.g. coffee, rubber, and cotton) from around the world. While some were quite dry, others told tales of deceit and intrigue. An article dated 3 August 1911 suggests that Brazil had intended to monopolise the rubber industry by forbidding the export of rubber plants and seeds. Their attempt was reportedly foiled however by Mr H A Wickham, who in 1876 covertly collected 70,000 seeds from the shores of the Amazon. Due to their perishable nature, he took them straight to Kew, arriving by hansom in the middle of the night, where the seeds were sown at once. A year later, 1700 of these plants were introduced to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where the rubber industry went on to flourish. In another article, barrels of raw rubber were reportedly intercepted as they were smuggled from India, their tops studded with coffee beans to disguise their true contents.


Daily Telegraph supplement on the rubber industry, 1929

Daily Telegraph supplement on the rubber industry, 1929  


With regards to the mango, in 1782 HMS Flora captured a French ship sailing from Mauritius, carrying a collection of named and numbered plants, including a consignment of young mango trees. The ship was taken as a prize to Jamaica, where the trees were planted. All the numbers became mixed up or lost apart from one mango tree which bore the label ‘Number 11’, which flourished and its fruit became a lucrative export and a local delicacy, available from sellers all over the island. It’s still known locally as the Number 11 today. 

 - Liz -


Further information

  • If you would like to read more about the history of economic botany at Kew, including the Museum and its Keepers, please have a look at ‘Two centuries of Economic Botanists at Kew’, an article by G E Wickens, available on-line
  • To see the collection that Liz describes above (QX 10-0029), or any other archival collection, please contact the archives
  • Read more about the history of rubber
  • Find out more about volunteering at Kew


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Maritime mysteries and mummified heads - Mauritius corresponds with the Director

By: Helen Hartley - 15 Nov 2010
Discover how an effort to improve my French led to an entertaining scientific journey to 19th Century Mauritius.
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The Directors' Correspondence collection contains items written in languages other than English. Normally we rely on the help of volunteers - usually willing friends or colleagues - to translate them for us. However, in a continuing struggle to improve my French, I decided to take on the translation of some printed documents sent to Sir William Jackson Hooker from Mauritius.

 Extract from the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius

Extract from the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1831

The proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1830 to 1833 were sent to Hooker while he was a Professor at the University of Glasgow. The Society was established in 1829 by the naturalists Charles Telfair, Julien Desjardins, Louis Bouton, François Liénard, Wenceslaus Bojer and Jacques Delisse. The first meetings were held at the home of Telfair, the Society's President, but links were soon made with scientific societies in Africa, India, Australia, and Europe and, within a year, many eminent scientists around the world could be counted among the Society's corresponding members.

Portraints of Charles Telfair and Wenceslaus Bojer

Charles Telfair and Wenceslaus Bojer, President and Vice-President of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.

The proceedings of the meetings are full of information on weird and wonderful scientific discoveries of the time. Descriptions of newly discovered plants and animals were given; meteorological and geological observations were discussed; members read essays on anything from marine algae to a case of liver fluke found in the stomach of a cow.

Illustration of Colvillea racemosa

Illustration of Colvillea racemosa Bojer from Vol 61 of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, a description of which was read at a meeting of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.


My favourite passage was a discussion of Nauscopy: the ability to predict the arrival of ships before they are visible on the horizon. This 'science' had gained popularity in Mauritius at the end of the 18th Century when a Monsieur Bottineau successfully predicted the arrival of ships, claiming that he could see the effect they had by looking at disturbances in the atmosphere. The subject was raised at a meeting of the Society by a Mr R. Barry, who cited observations made by Captain Scoresby in Greenland; the Society agreed to examine the matter further [DC Vol.53 f.44].

Objects of Natural History

No 19th Century society of Natural History would be complete without some bizarre specimens. Many stuffed or preserved birds and animals were received at the meetings. A resident of Mauritius donated a young female dog with six legs, preserved in alcohol; apparently the poor animal had lived for several days! Human specimens, particularly skulls, were not uncommon: Captain Foreman of Sydney kindly donated the mummified head of a New Zealand chief. Captain John Briggs, also of Sydney, presented the rib of a New Zealand woman obtained from a cannibal feast in which he had been invited to take part. Mr Briggs also presented a young boy he had taken under his wing, having rescued him from a sacrificial death in New Zealand [DC Vol 53 f.48]. I think the boy was alive when he was 'presented', but perhaps this is where my knowledge of French let me down!

Mauritius Natural History Museum

In 1846, the Society changed its name to The Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius. Objects donated to the Society, supplemented by the personal collections of Julien Desjardins and Louis Bouton, became the basis of the Mauritius Natural History Museum. The museum today is situated next to the Jardin de la Compagnie in Port Louis and is famous for another unusual specimen: the only complete skeleton of a dodo.  

- Helen -


More information

  • All of Kew's African and Latin American Directors' Correspondence is available to view online via JSTOR plant science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
  • Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected from Mauritius. 

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Marianne North's hidden inscriptions

By: Helen Cowdy - 08 Nov 2010
Kew's Conservation Team have found all sorts of amazing discoveries beneath the skin of Marianne North's paintings. You can find out more here...
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As we are conserving Marianne North's paintings (see my previous post), we are discovering some really exciting clues which provide information about how Marianne North worked, the conditions she worked in and the materials she used.

Predominantly Marianne North sketched in ink before applying oil paint. Evidence of this has been uncovered on the backing boards and the backs of the paintings themselves. Most of the inscriptions we find are in either ink or pencil and relate to place and plant names. However sometimes we find whole sketches!

This ink sketch was found on the back of painting number 8 and is a preparatory sketch for painting number 19. The sketch shows that Marianne North wrote notes about the colours whilst sketching, suggesting that she completed the actual painting at a later stage.


 Back of painting number 8            Front of painting 19

Back of painting number 8                               Front of painting number 19

The sketch below is one I have recently uncovered during backing removal. The painting on the front is totally different, and I haven’t been able to match the sketch to anything in the gallery – any keen eyed suggestions are welcome!

 Back of painting 287

Back of painting number 287

Some of the sketches and inscriptions are on the back of the very boards we are removing. A few of these we have been extremely lucky with, as they have come away in a single layer or detached from the painting relatively easily. Others have required more interventive processes, to separate the board layers without losing original historical information. There are even a few paintings with inscriptions and labels adhered between the paper and the board. These can be extremely difficult to remove intact but is a challenge that we enjoy and have proved successful at!

A label and some ink text adhered between the board and paper on the back of a painting

A label and some ink text adhered between the board and the paper

A label and some ink text on the back of a board

A label and some ink text on the back of a board

Everything we do during the treatment of the paintings is documented and photographed. The hidden finds are digitised so they can be used as part of the interactive displays in the gallery when it is officially re-opened.

Sketches and inscriptions are not our only hidden finds. Some only become apparent when viewed through a microscope, for example fibres from clothing, hairs from brushes and from Marianne North, we have even found seed cases and pieces of insects, but that is another post altogether!

- Helen -


Further information

The Marianne North Conservation team give free demonstrations on the project and Marianne North once a month. The gallery itself is currently closed while the original paintings are re-hung and some minor work is carried out on the building. The next talk will be on the 26 November, 2.30pm, in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery.

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