Plants in the archives: exploring botanical sources at SOAS Special Collections

By Special Collections|4th November 2022|Collections & Research|0 comments

This week we look at a selection of sources in SOAS Special Collections, which depict and discuss the botanical world, ranging from photographs and paintings of plants and flowers, handwritten lists of plants by specimen collectors, printed natural histories and local botanical studies, to depictions of plants and flowers in the miniatures and illustrations of the manuscript collections.

姜笠人花菓翎毛冊 Jiang Liren’s album of flowers, fruits, birds and animals, ca. 1774, reference: MS 154423

Personal papers & archives

Amongst the archives at SOAS are the papers of individuals who travelled to Africa and Asia as anthropologists, missionaries or on official or private business, who documented the natural history and plant-life of the regions they visited as part of a deliberate botanical study, to practice their artistic skills or simply out of a personal interest in the new environments in which they found themselves. Some published their findings; others collected samples and sent them back to institutions such as The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Britain where they formed part of growing collections. 

A notable example of the latter can be found in the collection of William Kerr, which comprises two volumes of handwritten lists and notes entitled ‘Memorandum of Plants, Seeds & c. sent from China to the Royal Gardens, Kew’, dating from between 1803 and 1808 (pictured below). William Kerr (d. 1814), was a Scottish gardener and plant hunter, the first Western professional full-time plant collector active in China. He also collected in Java and Luzon in the Philippines. Kerr sent back to Britain examples of 238 plants new to European gardeners, without, it appears, stirring far from the European trading sites of Canton and Macao, or Manila. Kerr was a gardener at Kew, where he was known to Sir Joseph Banks, and, following instruction by Banks, was sent to China in 1804, where he remained for eight years. Kerr’s samples, found in local Chinese gardens and plant nurseries, included Euonymus japonicus, Lilium lancifolium, Pieris japonica, Nandina domestica, Begonia grandis and the white-flowered Rosa banksiae, named for his patron’s wife. In 1812, he went to Colombo, Ceylon [Sri Lanka], where he worked as superintendent of gardens on ‘Slave Island’ [Kampong Kertel / Kompanna Veediya] and at King’s House. 

Memorandum of Plants, Seeds & c. sent from China to the Royal Gardens, Kew, Volume 1, William Kerr, 1803-1808. Reference: CWML MSS/238

There are many other examples of individuals in whose personal papers we can find observations and commentaries on the landscapes, plants and flowers around them, including:

  • Richard Baron (1847-1907), who served with the London Missionary Society in Madagascar for thirty-five years, from 1872 until his death in 1907. Baron became a serious student of Madagascar’s flora and during his missionary journeys in Madagascar collected and sent around 7,000 plants the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew . He was a prolific author including a number of works on Malagasy culture, geology and botany. Baron’s archive includes paintings of flowers from the region as well as photographs. 
  • Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) founder of the Algiers Mission Band, painter and writer of devotional books. Trained as an artist, Lilias’s love of art remained and during her 40 years in Algiers and she produced a stream of beautifully illustrated literature, her diaries and scrapbooks full of miniature watercolours of local plant life as well as the landscapes and people she had seen. 

  • Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-1890), a British missionary of dual heritage and an important figure in the history of Methodism in Ghana and Nigeria. He is also perhaps the first recorded British botanist of colour. Like his father he first worked as a gardener, and was a keen student of botany. He became head gardener to Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park, near Ipswich in Suffolk. Years later when he was in West Africa, he corresponded with Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), the first director of Kew Gardens near London, on West African flowers and trees.
  • James Trenchard Hardyman (1918-1995), missionary in Madagascar, whose papers include correspondence, images and texts on botany in Madagascar, including material on botanical expeditions to the region.
  • Frances Hey (fl. 1912-1926), teacher and missionary in Ceylon [Sri Lanka], comprising a notebook recording the history, culture and botany of Ceylon and South India.

Manuscripts & rare books

The collections in SOAS Library are also rich in published and printed works on the subject of botany, as well as striking visual depictions of plants and flowers over the centuries. Below are just a few examples, but there are many more to be discovered:

  • ‘Medicine traditionelle de l’Inde’, based on lectures by Dr Paramananda Mariadassou at the School of Medicine, Pondicherry, India (1934-1936), comprising a collection of three illustrated volumes, in French, on traditional Hindu or Ayurvedic medicine, including a discussion of herbal remedies and their usage, on diseases, diet, hygiene, childhood illnesses, useful animals and plants, etc.
  • An illustration of a Peony in an album of 10 paintings of flowers presented by Puyi (1906-67), the last Emperor of China, to his tutor Sir Reginald Johnston (1874-1938), who was also the first Professor of Chinese at SOAS. The album bears an inscription by the Emperor in his own hand to Johnston on the verso of the front cover and his own seal on the peony painting. The artist, Chen Shu (1612-82), was a literati painter from Jiangsu province near Shanghai who settled in Nanjing in his later years. He produced paintings depicting mainly birds, flowers and insects, but occasionally produced landscape paintings in ink.
  • Arba’un Hadithan [Forty Tradition] exemplars – the pages of this beautiful book were produced in sixteenth-century Safavid Iran and contain a collection of 40 Arabic ḥadīth – sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad – compiled and paraphrased into Persian verse by the celebrated Iranian poet and mystic Jāmī (1414-92). This particular copy is calligraphed in an elegant nasta’līq script and delicately illuminated throughout. Each page comprises a central panel of light-blue paper on which the text is written and a broad margin of scrolling blossoms rendered in gold paint. The book was provided in the first half of the nineteenth century with a fine lacquered cover painted with naturalistic flowers.

  • Japanese woodblock print of a woman gazing at buds of plum blossoms . 早く 開かせたい. Sankai medetai zue. Excellences of mountain and sea illustrated. 歌川, 国芳 Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), 1852.

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