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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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Inspiring events at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art 

By: The Gallery Team - 26 Oct 2010
Alongside the three exhibitions we have each year at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, we also hold a variety of inspiring events to support the message behind our exhibitions and highlight other work being carried out by Kew.
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This year we have had a number of successful events in the the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. During our exhibition ‘Old and New South American Botanical Art’ we had Kew artist Stuart Simler working with us. Stuart devised a South American landscape inspired by the paintings from the two collections which we had on display in the gallery - the Mutis Collection and the Sherwood Collection. Following on from this Stuart hosted a workshop which involved participants of all ages working collaboratively to create a large scale piece. Stuart took advantage of the gallery's glass frontage to display this work so that the light shone through creating a great effect.

In addition to Stuart's work with us, Dr. Shirley Sherwood visited the gallery in July to give a talk about the exhibition and to take part in a book signing event. This was well attended by people who were keen to hear about the works on display. 

Exhibit in a gallery

The piece created as part of Stuart Simler's workshop on display in the gallery 

In August this year, we installed the new exhibition in the gallery ‘Bulbmania - Flowers from the Kew Collection’ alongside ‘Portraits of a Garden’ from the Brooklyn Florilegium Society and Dr Sherwood’s ‘Hidden Treasure’ exhibition. We opened this exhibition with another workshop from Stuart Simler, who continued the theme of his previous workshop. However, on this occasion he used Kew as the backdrop to a landscape of bulbous plants. Children and adults alike had the opportunity to develop their work individually again, finally creating a large scale piece with the Temperate House and the Treetop Walkway as inspiration. 

Exhibit in the gallery

The piece created during Stuart Simler's second workshop with the public 

In September, Kew held its first book launch in the gallery, with botanical artist Billy Showell introducing her new book ‘A to Z of Flower Portraits’. This was a very successful event with many people coming to the Gardens specifically to see Billy. A few weeks later, we followed up on this success with the launch of Wendy Hollender’s book ‘Botanical Drawing in Color’. Wendy, who has her work on display in the gallery, also gave visitors a demonstration of her technique. Wendy is a member of the Brooklyn Florilegium Society and unusually creates her works using colour pencils. 

Billy Showell's book launch event at the gallery

Botanical artist Billy Showell launching her new book: 'A to Z of Flower Portraits' in the gallery

Throughout the year we have also had the Conservators from the Marianne North Studio delivering their monthly talks. These take place on the fourth Friday of every month. The next is on Friday 26 November, and will be held in the gallery itself. The Conservators give visitors the opportunity to see the tools they use in their role, along with some of the original works they are conserving. Visitors can ask questions and learn more about the conservation process and Marianne North herself.

We are always developing new ideas and events for the gallery. We post details on the Kew website and on the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art webpage. Alternatively for more details on any upcoming events please telephone the gallery on 0208 332 3622 or email:

- Jessica, Joanne & Sian -


Further information

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The 'tanghin ordeal'

By: Charlotte Rowley - 20 Oct 2010
Read about the toxic plant used in poison ordeals in Madagascar as described by the botanist Charles Telfair in 1829.
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Hello, my name is Charlotte and I am the newest member of the Directors' Correspondence team based in the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archive at Kew. Over the past few months, we have been digitising the letters sent from Asia in Kew's Director's Correspondence archive and are finding a few surprises along the way. Such surprises - although highly interesting - are not always pleasant as the descriptions of the 'tanghin ordeal' of Madagascar have shown.

Introducing the 'ordeal plant'

The tanghin or 'ordeal plant' (Cerbera tanghin) was used for centuries in a poison ordeal for the judgement of crimes or accusations of sorcery. Plants of the genus Cerbera all contain a potent toxin known as cerberin which acts by disrupting the heartbeat.  C. tanghin is widely distributed across Madagascar and the kernel of the fruit - which is highly poisonous and a powerful emetic - was used to determine the guilt or innocence of an individual in a crime.

We have recently come across a few letters which describe the ordeal ceremony in all its gruesome detail.  One such letter was written to Sir William Jackson Hooker during his time as Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow by Charles Telfair in 1829 who was living in Mauritius at the time.


Extract of the letter written by Charles Telfair in 1829

Extract of the letter written by Charles Telfair in 1829


Using poisonous plants to detect guilt

The ordeal was used as a means of detecting guilt for crimes such as murder, conspiracy, sorcery or theft. Modifications to the practice were made over the centuries by various Kings but the overall principle remained the same.

In Telfair's account, the poison was prepared by first grinding the kernel of the tanghin nut on a stone to produce a 'soft white mass like grounded almonds' which was mixed with small quantities of banana juice and water. Further accounts written in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings describe in detail how the accused was forced to swallow whole three pieces of chicken skin, each about an inch square, before a dose of the toxic tanghin concoction was administered.

The presiding official, generally a priest or physician, would take note of the direction in which the accused fell to the ground as this was thought to be indicative of the level of guilt. The accused would then drink copious amounts of rice water or a 'flour-soup' until the stomach contents were rejected. Those that vomited all three pieces of chicken skin intact were declared innocent and were considered to lead a 'charmed life' thereafter. Those that did not vomit inevitably died and those that vomited but did not regurgitate all of the chicken skin were put to death or buried alive.

During the reign of King Radama I, the practice became less common for people and was used on dogs instead. The animals belonging to both the accuser and the accused would undergo the ordeal and the owner of the unfortunate animal that died would be considered guilty.

'Ordeal Plant or Tanghin and Parokeets of Madagascar' by Marianne North

'Ordeal Plant or Tanghin and Parokeets of Madagascar' by Marianne North

Telfair sent Hooker various drawings and descriptions of C. tanghin and his notes on the ordeal were later published in The Penny cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Vol. VI in 1836. Further gruesome descriptions of the ordeal, which again make reference to Telfair's letter, can be found in The Encyclopaedia of Geography from 1839, written by Hugh Murray and assisted by Sir William Jackson Hooker.

- Charlotte - 


More Information

  • All of Kew's Director's Correspondence collection from Latin America is now available to view online for those with access to JSTOR Plant Science and more Asian content is being added all the time.

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Introducing our new Archives Graduate Trainee

By: Sarah Cox - 08 Oct 2010
Read about our new trainee and her first few weeks at Kew.
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Hello, my name is Sarah and I am the new Archives Graduate Trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for 2010/11. I am here to introduce myself and to tell you a little about what life is like as a trainee archivist here at Kew.

Before coming here, I studied for a History MA at Oxford Brookes University and my previous archive experience was gained through work experience and volunteering placements. I volunteered weekly with the Middle East Centre Archive, Oxford, and completed various short term work experience placements around Oxford and London in my spare time. I hope to begin studying for the Archives and Records Management postgraduate qualification via distance learning during my year here.

Sarah sitting at her desk

Sarah at work

I became aware of the role through the Archives and Records Association (ARA) list of graduate traineeships and the position at Kew appealed to me in particular because it offers a wide variety of experience and is structured well to compliment pre-entry experience for the archives qualification. As a trainee my main duties include dealing with enquiries and users of the Reading Room, responding to enquiries, identifying and retrieving items for researchers, and managing reprographic orders. I will also be spending time with the Records Administrator in the Registry each week, where I get to experience the work involved in modern records management, opening and closing current records and handling internal enquiries from across the departments at Kew. Throughout the year I will also be undertaking individual projects in cataloguing, preservation and there is also the chance to work on a joint project with the Library Trainee, Eleanor.

Working with the collections

The collections housed by the archives here are really fascinating and of great historical value, so it is a real honour to be able to be part of it and to help people access the material. The archives hold historical records relating to the development and botanical collections of the Gardens and its activities worldwide. I have already made a few exciting discoveries including letters from Darwin himself, and there are some amazing volumes relating to early plant collectors and explorers of the new world, some of which contain extraordinary illustration and sketches.

LAA_Darwin letter

Letter from Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker

Since starting as the trainee one month ago, I have also been fortunate through my job to have taken part in a visit with the Museums Libraries and Archives Group (MLAG) and I also attended the Archives Awareness Campaign Conference, which was a great place to meet other archivists who shared their experiences and advice. I am really interested in the different outreach programmes used and the ways archives can get people interested, and I hope to learn more about this throughout my traineeship.

I am really looking forward to discovering more about archives and records management work and completing my projects. The induction programme has been great and as well as meeting lots of lovely people I have learned a lot about the great work that has gone on throughout the Gardens' history.

- Sarah -


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Marianne North's Painting Materials: The plants in paint

By: Emma Le Cornu - 21 Sep 2010
Read about the work of the Marianne North conservators and their research into the materials that she used. Find out how you can come and see a demonstration by the team.
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The conservation of Marianne North’s paintings has presented a unique opportunity to research the materials that she used. This not only helps with deciding what conservation treatments to use, but also gives us an insight into how Marianne North painted and where she obtained her materials. There are many ways to discover what paints she used. The most accessible source is historical information. This includes writings from the artist herself and from records telling us what was available in her time.

Another step in discovering what paints she used is to look closely at the paints themselves. This can involve taking very small samples of the different colours from a painting. These can then be examined under a microscope or tested with more complex equipment that has been borrowed from forensic science. Whilst Marianne North depicted plants in her paintings, she also used plants in her painting materials. Many of the traditional colours used by artists have been derived from plants. Even with the introduction of synthetic colours in the nineteenth century, when Marianne North was painting, these natural colours were still popular with artists.

Paints from plants

Madder is a bright pink to red colour and is obtained from the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum), through the drying and fermenting of the roots. This colour is still manufactured in this way today and can be seen at the Winsor and Newton factory.

Detail of painting number 76, illuminated in Ultraviolet light

 Detail of painting number 76, illuminated in Ultraviolet light.


Madder has been detected in many of Marianne North’s paintings, by a simple method of viewing the surface in Ultraviolet light (see above image). A component that is very specific to this colour reacts to the light, telling us that Madder has been used. Indigo is a deep blue made from pressing the leaves of the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria.

Flowers of a Dogwood and an Indigo from the Himalayas, Marianne North, painting number: 560 

Flowers of a Dogwood and an Indigo from the Himalayas, Marianne North, painting number: 560


Sap green is made from the juice of Buckthorn berries (Rhamnus cathartica). Other colours are resins extracted from trees and are given names which make suggestions of their origin; Brazilwood, Logwood and Dragon’s blood. These colours are not so easy to detect and in these cases, small samples may need to be taken from the paintings for closer examination. The plants that these colours are derived from can also be found in the Gardens at Kew, a link that Marianne North also intended for her paintings, from viewing cultivated plants in the Gardens, to seeing them depicted in their natural habitats in the gallery.

Learn more at Kew

Links from the plants through to the painting materials can also be made through the collections at Kew, from the living collections in the Gardens to the Economic Botany collection (which holds the raw materials for the colours through to the finished products) to the Marianne North paintings and the extensive botanical art collection, where these colours have been used to depict plants.

Through our continuing research we hope to make some exciting discoveries about Marianne North’s techniques, including which plants can be found in the materials of her paint. Keep a look out for a following blog with the results from our analysis.

The Marianne North Conservation team give free informal talks/demonstrations on the project and Marianne North once a month. The gallery is currently closed while the original paintings are re-hung and some minor work is carried out on the building, therefore the next talk will be held on: 24th September, 2.30pm, at the  Shirley Sherwood Gallery.

- Emma -

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Visit Kew's Library, Art & Archives this Open House weekend

By: Fiona Ainsworth - 15 Sep 2010
A chance to see behind the scenes in Kew’s Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives.
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Together with the Herbarium, Kew’s Library, Art & Archives will be taking part in this year’s London Open House  event this coming weekend (18 and 19 September), as it has done for the past few years. This year is different, however, as visitors will have the chance to see the new Reading Room and some of our new storage facilities, opened earlier this year.


reading room 1

The new Reading Room for staff and visitors

As well as being able to see the new wing, visitors will see displays from all three areas of the collections: we will have archive material from the Livingstone/Kirk Zambesi expedition of 1858-1864 and from Frank Kingdon-Ward’s exploration of the Himalayas in the first half of the 20th century. We will be displaying illustrations of plants connected to these areas, such as Meconopsis (the blue poppy), as well as other examples of illustrations and books from our extensive collections. In the oldest part of the complex, we will have a special display about Joseph Hooker, as 2011 will the 100th anniversary of his death.

The botanical artist Rachel Pedder-Smith will be on hand to display and talk about her work and visitors will also have the opportunity to talk to some of the conservators working on Victorian artist Marianne North’s paintings and see her work up close.

So why not come along for this special opportunity to see behind the scenes at Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives. The department will be open from 10am - 4pm on both this Saturday & Sunday.

- Fiona -


Further Information

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