Wednesday, August 12, 2015

July 21: Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

On our first day back from mini-break, we visited the Library, Art, and Archives at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

First, we heard from Andrew Wiltshire, a friend of the British Studies Program, who talked about how he used the archives, museum, and library at Kew to research Beatrix Potter and Leslie Linder, the man who broke the code in Potter's diary. To keep her thoughts private from an overbearing mother and servants, Potter wrote in a diary during her young womanhood (1881 to 1887) in a code she devised herself. It took Linder 5 years to find the diary, 4 years to break the code, and 4 years to publish the diary. (Which, I have to say, makes me uncomfortable. Something about publishing a person's private thoughts...)

In addition to writing her famous stories, Potter was also a skilled, albeit amateur, botanist. In her twenties, Potter became interested in fungi, and she visited Kew often to study them. Later, during our tour of the library and archives, we saw an entry in an old visitor's book:

Potter painted some professional-level botanical images (like those shown below), and even wrote a research paper...which she was not allowed to present to the Linnean Society. Being a woman, she wasn't even allowed to be present when the subject of her paper was a topic of discussion. Wiltshire wondered out loud whether we would have her stories today if Potter had been able to pursue her interest in botany more freely.


Following Mr. Wilshire's presentation, we learned a bit about the library's collection. Kew started as a royal botanic garden populated with medicinal plants in the 1750s. It's called the Royal Botanic Gardens--with an 's'--because it was originally two gardens, which King George III inherited and combined into one garden. Later in the day, I got to tour Kew Palace, a former retreat for the royal family and the place where King George III would recover from his episodes of 'madness.'

The garden at the back of the house was...and still is...populated with plants that had medicinal properties thought to ease the King's affliction.

Kew later formed as a public organization in 1840. The library started out with 600 volumes from a private collection and grew through private donations and bequests. This is cool: one donor, George Bentham, donated his entire collection while he was still alive, and he would come to Kew if he needed to look things up in one of his own books. The library now has one of the largest collections in the world relating to botany. Much of its collection is still privately donated, freeing up funds for the library to make strategic purchases.

The library has thousands of botanic illustrations, like those below. I learned that botanical illustrations must appear on a plain white background and are required to be scientifically accurate and show the plant in all stages of life in one image. A person should be able to identify a plant specimen by comparing it to the image.

I'd seen botanical images before, but never realized how detailed they really are. You can see the stoma (pores) on the leaf in the close-up below.

We saw a copy of Hortus Sanitatis from 1370. The monks who copied this out had a sense of humor. Their illustration of a monkfish is, well...

 ...a monk with scales and fins.

They also have an interesting take on the mandrake.

And they even added an illustration of a womandrake.

The other item in the collection that caught my eye was this copy of Selectarum Stirpium Americanarum Historia. There are 30 known copies of this book worldwide, and each cover page was hand drawn and is unique to each copy.

Finally, since this is a library for a botanic garden, we got to see the Herbarium, in which specimens are preserved to help document and identify plants. Specimens come to the Herbarium in newspaper sheets and are stored in boxes. They are then put into archival folders and filed in cabinets, organized by family. Those considered "perfect specimens" are kept in red folders. The collection grows by 30,000 specimens each year.

This video from the Herbarium's website has some great images of the space being used, and how the specimens are organized.

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