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Conserving Exsiccata for the Clothworkers’ Foundation

Kew's Exsiccata collection is being returned to its former glories as part of a special project funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation. Sarai looks at the fascinating story of Marion Jean Catherine Adams-Acton, nee Hamilton (1846-1928) who compiled one of the volumes in this collection.
Sarai Vardi

Bridging a gap between the library, archive and herbarium, Kew’s Exsiccata collection is a real gem.

What is Exsiccata?

Exsiccatae are books or volumes, which contain an assortment of pressed plant specimens mounted to the pages, usually arranged in a theme.

Kew’s collection dates back to the 18th century and is largely made up of scrapbook bindings and albums, although there are also hand crafted boxes containing loose herbarium sheets, Japanese postcards and large oversized bindings. The volumes come from near and far, and contain plant specimens from Kew’s own gardens, England, Scotland, Sweden, France, India, New Zealand and beyond. 

Kew's Exsiccata Collection

For the next 18 months I will be working on this rich collection as Kew’s Botanic Conservation Intern, a position which has been generously funded by the Clothworkers’ Foundation. At present, the majority of Exsiccatae are not fit for use due to their fragile condition, which is mostly due to their age. It is my job to return this important National Collection to a stable and usable condition, so they can be accessed by readers and researchers once more. As a qualified book conservator, this internship is an exciting, educational opportunity for me to train in botanic conservation, with a particular emphasis on Exsiccata.

Collected and bound by different people for different purposes, most of the volumes have a scientific objective, although some have been compiled for more personal reasons. The volume titled ‘Art and Nature’ is a stunning example of Kew’s decorative Exsiccata.

Compiled by Mrs Adams-Acton and bound in red velvet, the book contains handwritten poetry by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Proctor, Longfellow, Moore and Burns. Each poem has been lovingly illustrated with a different composition of pressed plant specimens.

It was gifted to Kew earlier this year, along with a question mark surrounding its provenance. Christopher Mills, Head of the Library, Art & Archives, carried out some investigative research into its creator and discovered she was a rather fascinating woman...

Marion Jean Catherine Adams-Acton, nee Hamilton (1846-1928)

Marion Jean Catherine Adams-Acton, nee Hamilton (1846-1928) was a Scottish novelist, and most of her fiction was written under the pseudonym “Jeanie Hering”.

She was born at Brodick on the Isle of Arran, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Hamilton and a local island beauty, Elizabeth Hamilton.

The Duke owned Brodick Castle, and one of his regular summer visitors was the popular landscape painter George Hering, son of a German baron. Hering and his wife’s only child died aged six, and the Duke suggested that they adopt Marion. Despite initial reluctance, her mother was persuaded that her daughter would get a much better start to life with this wealthy and well-connected couple.

Henceforth known as Jeanie Hering, she moved to London and resided in St John's Wood, which was noted for its artistic community. Following a good schooling to the age of sixteen, she spent two years at a finishing school in Germany.

In 1875, Jeanie married an artist, John Adams-Acton, one of England's leading sculptors. After touring across India for eight months, they settled in St John's Wood and spent summers at the family home in Brodick, Arran. They had four sons and three daughters.

The couple held numerous soirées for friends and neighbours, and their home became a leading social centre for politicians and artists, including William Gladstone, George Eliot and Cardinal Manning. By the 1890s, Jeanie was socialising with kings, queens and prime ministers.

Adventures of a Perambulator (1894)

Renowned for her independent and sometimes impetuous personality, in 1887 Jeanie walked from London to Arran—a seven-week 500 mile journey—with two nursemaids and all of her children, one of whom was pushed the entire way in a perambulator.

The story of the journey became her last book, being published in 1894 as Adventures of a Perambulator.

All Jeanie's boys survived the war and she herself lived to the age of eighty-two, when she died in London on 11 October 1928; her body was removed to Brodick on Arran, where she was buried in a small churchyard.


Although we cannot be sure at what point in her life Jeanie compiled this intricate Exsiccata, we suspect it was during one of her summers in Arran, as the pressed flowers seem consistent with those found in Scotland. 

My favourite poem

As a fellow Scot, one of my favourite poems that Jeanie has cited in her album, has to be Robert Burns’ Of A' The Airts The Wind Can Blaw. Burns wrote this poem for his wife on their honeymoon, and no doubt Jeanie related to the heartfelt sonnet.

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw, 
I dearly like the west, 
For there the bonie lassie lives, 
The lassie I lo'e best: 

There's wild-woods grow, and rivers row, 
And mony a hill between: 
But day and night my fancys' flight 
Is ever wi' my Jean. 

This binding is just one of the many treasures in Kew’s Exsiccata collection, more of which I hope to blog about in the following months.

Sarai Vardi - Botanic Conservation Intern