Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker
kew.org > Blogs > Library, Art & Archives blog > Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place

Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place

A new exhibition at Kew celebrates one of Victorian Britain's most important scientists, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911).

Date: 
31 March 2017
Author: 
Rebecca Carter

 

New exhibition

The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art has curated an exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Kew’s second director, and one of Victorian Britain’s most important men of science, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911).

Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place (25 March to 17 September 2017)

Hooker was an adventurer, scientist and a close friend of Charles Darwin. He sailed to many places, including India and the Antarctic, to seek further enlightenment in the field of botany. On his travels he tirelessly collected specimens and sketched his surroundings; drawing villages, wildlife and landscapes to better understand plants in their natural habitat. His love and dedication to the study of botany can be seen in a letter he wrote to his mother in 1849:

‘All day except when on the march or collecting I am occupied in drying, or examining & making notes on my plants; only getting up to observe the Barometer & Thermometers, Weather, &c. These duties… journalizing, & catching all the Insects that come in my way, keep me always hard at work’.

(Joseph Hooker to Lady Maria Hooker, 24 May 1849)

Hooker and Kew

Hooker believed that botany should be elevated to the same scholarly status as other sciences such as physics. He worked endlessly to achieve this goal, using Kew as a centre of research for categorising and identifying plant species. Through his travels and publications, Kew was consequently transformed from a simple pleasure garden to a place of high scientific discovery.

Photograph of Sir Joseph Hooker and Lady Hyacinth at Kew (c.1895).

This photograph of Hooker and his second wife Hyacinth was taken on his 90th birthday, and is the only known photograph of Hooker at Kew. The walking stick seen in the picture was given to Hyacinth in 1906 and is made from the wood of Old Kew Bridge. Both photograph and walking stick are on show in the gallery’s current exhibition.

Also on display are a number of sketches Hooker made during his time abroad. He drew living plants on his travels to record specific details such as colour, as these specimens would fade and soon lose their original colouring once collected. Therefore, detailed sketches like his Rhododendron argenteum (made around 1848) acted as important recording devices for preserving information about the specifications of a plant. Hooker once told a botanical collector at Kew to “practice drawing incessantly”, advice he certainly took himself.

Rhododendron grande formerly Rhododendron argenteum, hand-coloured lithograph by Joseph Dalton Hooker (c. 1848).

Interesting objects and artefacts

Alongside Hooker’s sketches, the exhibition displays objects and artefacts he would have relied on during his travels. A particular favourite of mine is the clinometer used by Hooker during his survey work in India. Made around 1850, the instrument would have been used to measure the elevation of slopes for map-making and ensured a high standard of accuracy. It provides a glimpse into Victorian science and an understanding of the necessities in designing something portable for work in the field. Following in the footsteps of Hooker, Kew as the leading authority in botanical science now has many partnerships across the world researching and conducting scientific field studies. Our exhibition provides a unique platform for exploring Kew’s scientific work with our visitors.

Clinometer, used by Hooker during his survey work in India, Cary of London (c.1850).

Marianne North and Hooker

The galleries at Kew have more than one reason to celebrate the life of Hooker. In 1879, after exhibiting work in a London gallery, Marianne North wrote to Hooker offering to build a gallery to showcase her botanical paintings at Kew. Hooker gave her permission to build the gallery and it was opened in its final form in 1886. Without Hooker’s consent, Kew would not have this vast collection of paintings (833 in total) which serves as an important catalogue of the world’s plants. Kew is now recognised as having one of the world’s greatest collections of botanical art, with more than 200,000 items in its collection.

The 'King of Kew'

This exhibition seeks to commemorate the life of an influential pioneer of botany by showcasing an eclectic range of journals, artefacts, paintings and sketches owned and drawn by Hooker himself. It aims to take the viewer on a journey and explore the influence his travels had on botanical science, as well as examining the impact he had on Kew, which eventually led to his title the ‘King of Kew’.

- Rebecca Carter -

(Gallery Assistant)