The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has been on my must see list since I worked as a ‘Technical Officer’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. But it has taken me 20 years to get there. It was definitely worth the wait. The 47 or so hectares of rambling garden itself is a wonderful experience – especially after days of hiking the hard asphalt of London. But the buildings and plant collections are breathtaking.
The Palm House is a wonder of Victorian engineering and the 250 year old cycad and other huge and ancient palms are cultural treasures.
The impetus to spend time at Kew on this trip though was an introduction to the keeper of the Economic Botany collection in the Herbarium – Mark Nesbitt. Mark kindly took time out of his busy schedule to give me a guided tour of the collection. One piece I really wanted to see and which I hope to use as the basis for a future work was Ferdinand Bauer’s writing desk which he gave to his botanical illustrator brother Franz.
Ferdinand Bauer was a superb illustrator/explorer and his paintings (prepared under extraordinary conditions) entertain the eye and boggle the mind.
The writing desk he presented to his brother when he returned from Australia was made around 1804 and is perhaps the earliest piece of Australian colonial furniture sent back to England. It is made of endemic woods (Eucalyptus, Callitris and Casuarina – also called ‘she-oak’ as it is not up to being a ‘real’ oak) by one of the very few cabinetmakers (perhaps Thomas Williams) operating in the young colony of Sydney.
Mark showed me many other treasures in the collection including a series of wood panels from Japan of undetermined provenance. Each panel is a delicate painting of a tree species painted directly on the wood of that tree surrounded by a frame made from small limbs of the tree displaying the nature of the bark. Interesting and unique!
The collection also contains a richly inlaid wooden table top created in New Zealand by Anton Seuffert with native woods and depicting birds and plants endemic to New Zealand.
The collection also boasts some extraordinary single boards of wood from all over the British empire. I loved the various labels used through the history of this board that was sent to England by Ferdinand von Mueller (the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and the man noted for introducing the Tasmanian Bluegum (Eucalyptus globulus) to California) for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.
The final gem that Mark shared with me was a superb Maori cloak woven from the stem fibers of Celmisia semicordata, an alpine daisy found on the South Island of New Zealand. Apparently even the collecting of the daisies was a highly regulated ceremonial act and the cloak itself must have been a very potent garment when it was created in the 1850’s. Today maori weavers are very interested in the cloak for its own sake as an important cultural object and because it embodies lost techniques which can be revivified by contemporary craftspeople.
Thank you Mark for an inspiring and eye opening afternoon!