The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: The Archives

Alitex Partnership

After a summer of celebrating being British and putting the Great back into Britain I’d like to share another area of national pride that you may not be aware of.

Yesterday we had the good fortune to visit the book archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and were impressed not only by the international resource that it has become, but the fact that it is right here in the UK and holds extraordinary ancient volumes of both architectural detail and botanical recordings. 

We were aided by Julie Buckley who works within the library, art and archives, sorting and maintaining the immense illustrations collection which has been donated to Kew (or acquired) over the centuries for safe keeping now and for the future. Much like its sister institution at Wakehurst which safeguards seeds for now and the future, the archives work in the same way - enshrining recorded data from the Botanical world and the history of Kew. The initial sensory shock in the archives is how cold the rooms are – temperatures which keep the books at their most pristine and the illustrations at their most vivid. Within the library of archives there are over 200,000 illustrations (some un-dateable) which span the centuries, the old Empire and trading partners.

The earliest dated manuscript we viewed (not touched, please note) was from 1370-90, ‘Ortus Sanitatis’. 

A beautifully illustrated book on herbal usage (Hortus Sanitatis dated 1485-90) showed images of the male and female mandrake, a mystical plant with human roots which was said to shriek when pulled from the ground. When one considers the Hundred Year War came to an end during this decade and Richard II was on the throne, I love the idea that whilst herbs were used widely at this time as remedies, documenting it would have been an acknowledgement of preserving valuable information for the future.

We were able to view fascinating volumes which had been bequeathed by William Hooker, the first director of Kew during the nineteenth century from his involvement with Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1787. Hooker had been the editor of this magazine (the first of its kind) which his son then became involved with. The journal was in terrific condition with hand coloured illustrations and plates. The Botanical Register subsequently developed and was followed by the Victorian Flower journals, reflecting the increased society interest in botany at the time. The illustrative recording of botanical discovery evolved from simple line paintings to more complex recordings of the bulb, the seed and root. Today, it provides a narrative which explains where and when plants were found and in what format. The library art, archives and gardens interrelate in this way, where one informs the other. I was particularly impressed by the increasingly economical use of one plant or one cutting as the centuries went on; illustrations become more thorough, cuttings and plants are cultivated in purpose built glass houses – everything that can be done to record and glean knowledge from the plant is undertaken.

With architectural historical plans we are able to follow how the gardens of Kew developed into what we see today; the meticulous planning and suggested pathways all illustrated and detailed. The individual buildings and greenhouses all feature in the plans as the park increases its collections and gains prestige. It is wonderful that we can see this today as well as the architects would have viewed it in the nineteenth century.

Botany is at the heart of everything at Kew, the actual plant collections, the recorded illustrations, the buildings and glass houses which protect and preserve the plants or simply add a dimension to the plantings around it (the Pagoda for example).

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are a national treasure with an international reach and responsibility; the beauty is we can enjoy it most days of the year! I enjoyed an anecdote from Hooker’s time when he was getting exasperated with drunken malingerers hanging around in the gardens during Bank Holidays and not appreciating the plants... I wonder what Hooker would have made of this summer’s Kew the Music? It is reassuring to know we have this depth of historical recording in the UK but in order to move with the times and keep the acquisition fund alive, modern thinking (and fund raising) is definitely needed!

Thank you to all that made our day so enjoyable and also for raising our awareness of the ongoing work and curating at Kew. For more information click here


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