Masterpieces, mishaps and memories: Mount Kanchenjunga in the Directors' Correspondence
By: Charlotte Rowley - 09/03/2012
Kew's own Sir Joseph Hooker was the first Westerner to explore the majestic Mount Kanchenjunga. Read about other stories surrounding this mountain, inspired by a letter from the artist and writer, Edward Lear.
Lear's letter to Hooker
The Directors' Correspondence team recently digitised a letter by the artist and writer Edward Lear – most famous for his nonsense poems and witty limericks. In this letter, written from Darjeeling in 1874, Lear tells Sir Joseph Hooker, then director of Kew, how he has been making sketches of Kinchinjunga's outline and scenery for future paintings, and describes the area as a 'wonderfully beautiful place'. Mount Kanchenjunga is in the Himalayas, the majesty of which Lear depicted in his painting 'Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling', which is currently on display in the National Museum Cardiff.
'Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling' by Edward Lear, with an extract of a letter showing Lear's signature below
The area held fond memories for Hooker, who was the first Westerner to explore the mountain in 1848, collecting plants and recording his experiences in his Himalayan Journals published in 1854. Hooker's journals contain vivid and comprehensive observations made on his journey and plainly reveal his reverence for this landscape:
'The view...is one quite unparalleled for the scenery it embraces, commanding confessedly the grandest known landscape of snowy mountains in the Himalaya, and hence in the world. Kinchinjunga (forty-five miles distant) is the prominent object'
'Kinchinjunga bore nearly due north, a dazzling mass of snowy peaks, intersected by blue glaciers, which gleamed in the slanting rays of the rising sun, like aquamarines set in frosted silver'
Lithograph of W.H. Fitch's watercolour of Mount Kanchenjunga taken from Hooker's Himalayan Journals
The wonder of exploration
In his letter, Lear describes how the immediate neighbourhood has altered greatly since Hooker was there, the destruction of timber making it more like Bournemouth or Torquay. Nonetheless, he is grateful to have had the opportunity to see so much of India after an unfortunate incident in which his sketching stool broke under him, rendering him unable to ride.
This letter is interesting not only because the author was well-known, but also because it demonstrates the relationship between early botanists and explorers and the locations they visited on their travels. We have often come across letters expressing immense regret at having to return home after the author develops a great fondness for their adopted homeland. Curious as to whether others were mindful of Hooker's connection to the mountain, I searched for further references to Mount Kanchenjunga in the parts of the collection that have so far been digitised.
In the footsteps of Lamas
In a letter to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1862, Thomas Anderson, then Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, describes his journey to a glacier at the base of Kanchenjunga. He describes staying at 'Aloktong', a small hut erected for the Yukson Lamas on their annual visit towards Kanchenjunga to appease the mountain spirit. In fact, the mountain is of great spiritual importance to the Lepcha people of Sikkim who regard it as their guardian deity, believing that their ancestors were created from a handful of pure snow at the summit. It appears that there is further correspondence between the two men over who was first to reach the glacier, with Anderson conceding that it was Major Sherwill who got there first and apologising if Hooker had been misled.
Sketch map sent with Thomas Anderson's letter showing his route to the glacier at the base of Mount Kanchenjunga
Misfortune on the Mountain
A more unfortunate account of an expedition to Kanchenjunga in 1881 comes from George Watt who, on his descent, had his 'good nature severely tried' when three of his men got onto a bridge consisting of a single plank which then gave way under them. He lost his photography equipment, undeveloped photographs and bundles of precious dried specimens of Rhododendrons and Primulas. Watt reports losing at least £100 but, as is fairly typical in such accounts, he does not mention the fate of the men.
To end on a nicer note, a letter from M.O. Muller from Darjeeling in 1871 gives further indication of Sir Joseph's fond recollections of the mountain, as he tells Hooker:
'I have sent your love to Kinchinjunga [Kanchenjunga] by the Deputy Commissioner who has just started his tour but I question much if it will ever reach, however when the wind blows strong from the south I will send a puff in the direction bearing your love.'
'Distant View of Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling' by Marianne North
- You can learn more about Sir Joseph Hooker's travels and see letters, photographs and sketchbooks from the collections at Kew in the current exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery
- 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical trailblazer' by Pat Griggs and published by Kew, contains further information on Hooker's travels along with sketches, illustrations and photographs from the Kew archives
- Visit Marianne North's paintings in the beautifully restored Marianne North Gallery
- View the parts of the Directors' Correspondence that have so far been digitised on the Jstor Plant Science website
About Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson is the team leader of the Temperate and Conservation collections. Nick has been at Kew for nearly ten years and has worked in the Tropical Nursery for eight of them.
Nick manages a small team that cares for the temperate collections and the increasingly important threatened island flora collections. He provides propagation training to the students in the Nursery and has travelled to some amazing island habitats to assist conservationists in their bid to save endangered plant species.
- english garden
- for kids
- english heritage
- around the world
- for friends
- gifts that help
- the UK
- ground breaking
- at risk
- brand new
- for plant lovers
- special interest
- high up
- Kew at home
- garden plants
Keep up to date with events and news from Kew