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Introducing the collection

Digitised plant drawings, specimens and correspondence are being reunited online through a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The Natural History Museum, London and The British Library, with additional input from the Indian Botanic Gardens, Kolkata, and the National Archives of India.

Botanical illustration: Magnolia Insignis Wall

Botanical illustration of Magnolia Insignis Wall

Specimens

Botanist Nathaniel Wallich was the Superintendent of Calcutta Botanic Garden from 1817 to 1846 and during this time he was an avid plant collector. His specimens are to be found in many herbaria, including those of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum, London. Wallich made plant collections during his many excursions in Asia, including his stay in Nepal in 1820–1821, travels to Penang and Singapore to recuperate from illness, and a particularly productive tour to Burma in the late 1820s.

Wallich employed botanical illustrators during his expeditions and many of the drawings made during these trips were comparable, sometimes identical, to his herbarium specimens. The specimens were brought to England by Wallich in 1828 during a two-year extension of leave from Calcutta and during this time he named the collections and distributed specimens. He also produced a catalogue for the collection listing and naming every specimen. This Numerical List of the Specimens of the East India Company Herbarium, together with the matching herbarium specimens, forms an extremely important resource for understanding the taxonomy and delimitation of many Asian species.

Wallich distributed his specimens to important museums and herbaria but his personal set of specimens is kept in a separate herbarium at Kew. Usually referred to as the Wallich Herbarium, this is more appropriately termed the East India Company Herbarium. This holds over 8,000 species which, in addition to Wallich’s collections, include many important specimens added from other botanist’s herbaria such as that of William Roxburgh,  the ‘father' of Indian botany.

In 1832, the East India Company Herbarium was transferred to the Linnean Society where it was rearranged into the order of Wallich’s Numerical List. By 1913 a shortage of space meant a new home was needed for the herbarium so it was transferred back to Kew and placed at the end of Wing B of the Herbarium where it remains to this day.

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Drawings

Kew holds many historical illustrations including approximately 200 colour illustrations completed during Wallich’s time at Calcutta Botanic Garden. Many of the drawings are of plants collected by Wallich in Nepal in 1821 and they may have been made as he collected them by Indian artists employed by Wallich. The drawings often match herbarium specimens and are of a variety of different plant groups, with the orchid and ginger families featuring prominently. These illustrations most probably came to Kew as part of a consignment of approximately 3,000 drawings when Joseph Hooker was involved in sorting out the botanical collections of the India Museum during its dissolution in the late nineteenth century.

Indian botanical artwork in the Natural History Museum Library forms one of their largest subject collections and falls into two categories. The first and larger category comprises several different collections from the various Botanical Gardens of the British East India Company territories. All of these drawings date from the late eighteenth century through to the 1850s and the demise of the Company’s administration in India. The second comprises collections portraying Indian flora by artists who were mainly European.

The Wallich collection at the Natural History Museum consists of over 100 watercolour drawings and pencil sketches of plants drawn by a team of Indian artists at the Calcutta Botanic Garden under the supervision of Nathaniel Wallich. It is believed that the drawings were received in the 1870s when the India Office moved its premises to South Kensington. Some of the drawings are annotated as having been the basis of plates published in Wallich’s Plantae Asiaticae Rariores (1830-32).

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Correspondence

110 files of documents have been selected from the India Office Records and Private Papers held at the British Library and are available in this online collection.

The India Office Records are the archives of the administration in London of the pre-1947 government of India. They comprise the records of the East India Company (1600-1858), the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), and the India Office (1858-1947). The official records are supplemented by collections of private papers relating to India and South Asia, many created by the administrators themselves. For information about the official records and the private papers, see the web pages of the British Library.

The records here relate mainly to Wallich’s tenure as Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden. Whether in post at Calcutta or away on expedition, Wallich copiously documented his activities in the letters which he exchanged with his superiors. As part of the recording processes of the Indian government, copies of this correspondence were routinely sent back to the administration in London. There, the Board of Control would approve or amend the East India Company’s decisions after requisitioning all relevant documents on the subject. Among the files compiled for the Board are many on botanical, agricultural, and forestry matters. Topics discussed in this selection include:

  • Wallich’s employment and career
  • the daily administration of the Calcutta garden, with lists of plants received and despatched
  • expeditions to Nepal, Oudh, Burma, and Singapore
  • the garden’s library
  • Wallich’s period of leave in England
  • the work of the Plantation Committee and the Tea Committee, and the expansion of the garden to include a medical garden and a teak plantation

Private papers include letters from William Carey to Henry Colebrooke recommending Wallich for the post of Superintendent, and from William Moorcroft to Wallich reporting on botanical discoveries in Kashmir.

To set the archives in context, this selection also includes material from related periods and places. There are documents on the foundation of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in 1787 and on its evolution over the following century. There are records on the gardens established at Bangalore, Saharanpore, Dapuri, and Samulcotta. The scholarly Annals of the Royal Botanical Gardens began publication in 1887, and there are finely-illustrated books in this series written by Joseph Hooker and George King.

Individual highlights are:

  • annual lists of trees and plants introduced to the garden between 1790 and 1795
  • a summary drawn up by Wallich of his own career, designed to persuade his superiors to grant him leave of absence
  • three plans of the Calcutta Botanic Garden dated 1816, 1843 and 1846, which show radical changes in the garden’s design

Some of the individuals mentioned are: Andrew Berry, William Carey, Henry Colebrooke, Edward Gardner, George Govan, Benjamin Heyne, Brian Houghton Hodgson, Robert Kyd, Charles Lushington, John McClelland, Charles Metcalfe, William Moorcroft, William Roxburgh, and John Forbes Royle.

This selection has been created from record series which, being designed for administrators and not historians, do not yield up their contents easily. The project has built upon investigations carried out for Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920 (British Library: 2010). This is the first time, however, that the series have been researched to identify all material about a single individual.

Explore Wallich's correspondence

Partner contact details

For further information on the Wallich collections please contact the participating partners listed below.

Library, Art & Archives
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Richmond. Surrey TW9 3AB
Email: library@kew.org

Julie Harvey
Centre Manager
Centre for Arts and Humanities Research
The Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD
Email: j.harvey@nhm.ac.uk

British Library
India Office Records
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Email: ior@bl.uk

Project funded by the World Collections Programme.