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Joseph Hooker collections and artefacts at Kew

Discover Joseph Hooker artefacts held at Kew. As well as a lifetime of letters, we have his hand-drawn maps, plant specimens, scientific instruments, battered travel notebooks and lively sketches of plants, people and places. Curators and experts from Kew's Library, Archives, Economic Botany and Art collections and the Herbarium share some insights into the Joseph Hooker material they look after.

Some highlights from the Joseph Hooker material held in Kew's vast vaults of botanical history.

Library

Pat Griggs, author of Kew publication Joseph Hooker: botanical trailblazer, explains what rich Joseph Hooker material can be found in Kew's Library.

Frontispiece for Illustrations of Himalayan Plants

Frontispiece for Illustrations of Himalayan Plants. Description by Hooker, illustrations by Walter Hood Fitch, 1855. A copy of this and Hooker other publications are held in the Kew library.

In total, a list of his own publications as books and scientific papers amounted to 20 pages in length in Leonard Huxley’s book Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Hooker, and the majority of them are held in the Library at Kew. He published details of his travels including his Himalayan Journals; or, Notes of a Naturalist in Bengal, the Sikkim and Nepal Himalayas, the Khasia Mountains etc. Among his published books were several with lithographs by Walter Hood Fitch, such as Flora Antarctica and Illustrations of Himalayan Plants based on drawings made for John Fergusson Cathcart who Joseph had met during his stay in Darjeeling.

Joseph Hooker’s other botanical publications were many and varied. They included the three volumes of Genera Plantarum (1862 – 1883) which he wrote in collaboration with George Bentham to provide descriptions  of all the world’s plant genera (Bentham & Hooker, 1862 – 1883). The Genera Plantarum provided the basic systematic structure for the arrangement of specimens in the Kew Herbarium. Index Kewensis, an authoritative list of all published names of seed-bearing plants at the time – some 375 000 in total – was originally published in 1893, overseen by Joseph Hooker, and adopted the same classification. This vital bibliographic tool continues to the present day as the continually updated International Plant Names Index. 

As well as writing Floras based on specimens he collected during his own travels, Joseph Hooker published descriptions of the plants that Charles Darwin had found in the Galapagos islands (Hooker,1849, 1851), and wrote two volumes to complete the Flora of Ceylon that had been started by Henry Trimen before his death (Trimen & Hooker, 1898 – 1900). But he is probably remembered most for the seven-volume Flora of British India (Hooker et al., 1872 – 1897), a collaborative work written at Kew by Joseph Hooker and C. B. Clarke, with contributions from other Kew specialists.

Although much of his writing was for a specialist botanical audience, Joseph Hooker also wrote The Students’ Flora of the British Islands (Hooker, 1870) to assist students and field botanists. Several of his most significant presentations on plant distribution were given to a public audience through the British Association for the Advancement of Science. After the death of his father in 1865, Joseph Hooker became editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and continued in that role until 1904.

The complete, retrospective, catalogue of the Kew Library is online. Many of Joseph Hooker’s publications are available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, of which Kew's Library is a contributing member.


In this video, filmed in the Kew library, expedition documentary maker Peter Donaldson looks through some of Hooker's collections including the lavishly illustrated book: Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya

Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya - Joseph Hooker for Kew from Peter Donaldson on Vimeo.

 


Archives

Archivist Kiri Ross-Jones illuminates the Joseph Hooker material held in the Kew archive.

One of Joseph Hooker's travel notebooks held in the Kew archive. India, 1848, Junnoo.

One of Joseph Hooker's travel notebooks held in the Kew archive

Broadly speaking, Joseph Hooker’s collections can be divided into his personal collection - those papers that came to Kew after Hooker’s death – and his official papers, which were created or received as part of the official business at Kew and have always resided in the institutional archives.

The personal collections encompass a wide variety of different documents, relating to many aspects of Hooker’s life throughout his professional career. The earliest item is a volume of lecture notes, taken by Hooker while he was still a student (ca.1827, JDH/4/1), while the most recent items in the collection relate to the erection of a memorial for Hooker in Westminster Abbey (1913 – 1916, JDH/4/18-19).

The different phases of Hooker’s professional life are well represented within the collection and include journals, sketches and correspondence from his early travels to the Antarctic and Himalayas, as well as many papers documenting his directorship at Kew and botanical research, and also his involvement in Victorian scientific discovery, such as the HMS Challenger and HMS Discovery expeditions.

 

The different phases of Hooker’s professional life are well represented in the collection and include journals, sketches and correspondence from his early travels... many papers documenting his directorship at Kew and botanical research, and also his involvement in Victorian scientific discovery.

Kew Archivist, Kiri Ross-Jones

There are many more personal papers within the collection, from which it is possible to gain an insight into Hooker’s private life and relationships. Correspondence with his first and second wives is held as well as many letters from great naturalists of the day, with whom Hooker often shared a personal as well as professional relationship. Many different types of documents are contained in the collection that help to inform the picture of Hooker, including the marriage license for his first marriage, ephemera such as dinner invitations, his original naval commissions and certificates for his numerous awards.

As well as the ‘Joseph Hooker’ collection, Hooker’s papers are pervasive throughout Kew’s historical official archives, reflecting his seminal role in the establishment of Kew as an international botanic garden and research institution. They include papers relating to the ‘Ayrton Controversy’, the expansion of the Gardens’ opening hours and increase in public access, the redesign of the Gardens and construction of buildings such as the Marianne North Gallery, and Kew’s international relationships and networks with botanic gardens and stations worldwide. These take the form of correspondence, reports, photographs, memorandum, plans, sketches and press cuttings.

The archives also holds a series of 217 volumes of correspondence inwards to the Directors at Kew (1809 – 1928), which includes thousands of letters to Hooker from many individuals connected with botany and horticulture, reflecting Hooker’s vast botanical network throughout the empire, as explored by Jim Endersby in his book Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Among these volumes, letters from figures such as Charles Darwin, Beatrix Potter and David Livingstone can be found, as well as letters from many amateur botanists.

Search the archive catalogue


Economic botany

Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany collection, explains its origins, firmly rooted in the Hooker era of Kew, and Joseph Hooker's contributions to this treasure trove of plant curiosities.

A wooden nutcracker shaped like a squirrel

Nutcracker made of yew wood. Purchased on a family holiday to Switzerland and presented to Kew in 1859 by Joseph Hooker’s first wife, Frances. [EBC 28925]

The origin of the Economic Botany Collection lies in Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, which opened to the public on September 20, 1847. It was founded by Sir William Hooker with the aims of educating the public, applying botanical expertise to useful plants, and encouraging the use of plants by the commercial sector, including ‘the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description’.

Joseph Hooker's first recorded donations are in 1849 and 1850, from his journey through India to Sikkim. Their diversity is typical of the Museum, in part representing the major useful plants of the time, such as opium poppy and tea, and in part representing uses that could never be more than local, such as a yak saddle made of rhododendron wood, or tea cups made from the root knots of maple trees. 

Further contributions came from his later expeditions. Family holidays to France, Switzerland and Italy were productive, and members of the family also donated objects. Joseph’s first wife, Frances Henslow, collected objects such as a yew wood nutcracker in Switzerland in 1859.

Of the current 85,000 specimens, the database records that at least 615 were given by Sir Joseph Hooker. However, by far his greatest contribution to the Museums came through his official roles as Assistant Director and Director. Letters in Kew’s Archives show that Hooker played a key role in bringing major collections to the Museums including over 5,000 specimens from World’s Fairs such as the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.

In the 1980s the collections of the Kew Museums were moved to a purpose-built research store in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, entered into a computer database, and renamed the Economic Botany Collection. You can search the ECB database online.


Art collection

Curator Lynn Parker describes Joseph Hooker's artwork and some of his personal possessions in the Objets d'Art collection.

Kew holds approximately 300 watercolour botanical drawings by Joseph Hooker, including illustrations produced for floras documenting his plant-collecting journeys to the Antarctic and New Zealand, to North Africa, and the Middle-East, and to the Indian sub-continent, and contributions to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

His drawings in the field are often roughly sketched, the colours hastily applied, but carefully selected, to give an accurate description of the plant. With a sparse approach, Hooker would concentrate on important characteristics of the plant; showing flower formation, or leaf structure, he was able to depict an accurate portrayal of a species by depicting just a few elements of the whole plant.

Rhododendron Barbatum, Joseph Hooker field sketch

Hooker's fieldsketch of Rhododendron barbatum. One of the species he discovered during his expedition to the Sikkim Himalayas and published in his book The Rhododendron of the Sikkim-Himalayas.

The drawings that Hooker made documenting the culture and landscape that he encountered on his travels, are an outstanding resource. The sketches that he made on his expedition to the Sikkim region of India, for example, include 626 illustrations on 137 sheets, and record Hooker’s field sketches, finished drawings, and proof prints for the publication of the Himalayan Journals. Many of the traditions, buildings, artefacts and scenes that he observed are now lost forever. The drawings, however, still retain an aesthetic and academic interest; a recent discovery has identified within the Hooker sketches the first western representation of Mount Everest.

The Objet d’Art collection is cared for by Kew’s art curators and contains equipment used by Hooker during his travels as well as portraits, awards and other personal effects. Some objects may not be beautiful or striking, but they have their own stories and were important tools, assisting Hooker in the field. There are several small pieces of kit, such as his clinometer, a scientific instrument used to calculate the elevation and declination of the landscape, or for calculating the height of landmarks, trees and architecture.

Cataloguing of the 200,000 items in the Art collection is under way, but is not yet accessible to users. The Objets d’Art collection is catalogued in a handlist. For both collections, consultation with the Art curatorial team is currently the best way to locate material.

 


Herbarium

Botanist Dr David Goyder picks out the Joseph Hooker material stored amongst the seven million specimens in the herbarium.

Herbarium specimen of the St Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica (Roxb.) Hookf.) collected by Joseph Hooker when he visited St Helena on HMS Erebus.

Herbarium specimen of the St Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica (Roxb.) Hookf.) collected by Joseph Hooker when he visited St Helena on HMS Erebus. This plant became extinct in the wild in 2003, despite efforts to propagate it.

During his long botanical career, Joseph Hooker formally described over 12,000 plants. He undertook several extensive expeditions, during which he collected plant specimens assiduously.

The majority of the plant specimens collected by Hooker on the four-year HMS Erebus expedition (1839-43) came to Kew’s Herbarium. In total, he sent back over 1,500 species, collected from places as far apart as Tierra del Fuego, Cape Town and New Zealand. Many of the collections he made on the Atlantic Islands of St Helena and Ascension and on the sub-Antarctic islands including Kerguelen’s Land, Hermite Island and the Lord Auckland Islands, shaped his ideas on plant distribution around the world.

Hooker's expedition to India and the Himalayas (1847-51) was even more fruitful in terms of herbarium specimens. In all, he and one of his collecting companions, Thomas Thomson, obtained over 150,000 specimens, representing some 7,000 species. During his time in the mountainous region of Sikkim, Joseph Hooker collected herbarium specimens of 25 species of rhododendron which proved to be new to science. He also harvested seed which he despatched to Kew to be grown on for the living collections.

Among the other plants that particularly aroused his interest during his Indian travels were members of the genus Impatiens. He collected 46 species from India and the Himalaya and was still working on the genus after he retired as Director of Kew in 1885.

While he was still Director of Kew, Joseph Hooker accompanied his friend and fellow botanist, the American Asa Gray, on a ten-week whistle-stop tour of the southwestern states of the USA in 1877. This tour also proved extremely productive in terms of plant specimens; Hooker acquired over 1,000 specimens for Kew’s Herbarium. One of the main goals of the expedition was to compare the floras of the eastern and western United States in order to consider their affinities with the vegetation of other continents (Hooker & Gray, 1882).

Hooker did not number his herbarium collections, which are integrated into Kew’s collection of over seven million specimens, so the total number is not known. About 2,500 of his specimens have been digitised and can be seen online on Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.


Further description of the Joseph Hooker material held in Kew's collections from which the summaries above are taken can be found in the article:

Goyder, D., Griggs, P., Nesbitt, M., Parker, L. & Ross-Jones, K. (2012). Sir Joseph Hooker's Collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine vol. 29 (1): pp. 66 – 85.