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Wood at Kew

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The Economic Botany Collection combined raw materials and objects made from plants with photographs and maps, forming a multimedia information resource for both producers and consumers. Together with its Herbarium of pressed plants, living collections, and Library, Kew was uniquely placed to survey the world’s plant resources.

Trees and timber have been an important part of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, ever since Princess Augusta founded her ‘physic garden’ in 1759. In the Georgian era many exotic tree species were introduced through Kew, and some of these (known today as the ‘old lions’) still grow in the Gardens. With the refounding of the Royal Gardens as a national botanic garden in 1841, Kew took its modern shape, combining 300 acres of gardens with world class scientific laboratories and collections. Six years later, in 1847, Sir William Hooker founded the world’s first Museum of Economic Botany, at Kew. The displays

The Museum of Economic Botany grew to fill four buildings, including the Wood Museum in Cambridge Cottage, opened in 1910 in response to concerns about Britain’s timber supplies. In the 1980s the museum contents were moved to a purposebuilt museum store and renamed as the Economic Botany Collection. The Collection now holds 100,000 specimens, including about 5,000 wooden objects and 35,000 wood specimens. A further 7,000 woods have just been donated by Richard Crow, who has built up the finest collection of woods in private hands. This collaboration with the Worshipful Company of Turners has been a welcome opportunity to reassess Kew’s wood collection. Its scientific value is well-established, especially in light of the vital role of trees in controlling climate. In addition, historians are now turning to Kew’s collections to explore histories of empire, forestry, industry, and of course, Kew itself. We hope you enjoy the variety of specimens on display, chosen for their stories and connections.

Gallery guide

Timber Trophy

Kew Science

A defining feature of the 1862 London International Exhibition was the Tasmanian Timber Trophy which soared 100 feet upwards from the Tasmanian Court into the aerial space of the exhibition building. It signalled the might of Tasmanian woods – their scale and their durability – and spoke of Tasmania as a land of natural resources and human opportunity. Recent work by historian Caroline Cornish has shown that elements of the trophy survive in Kew’s wood collection, such as the displayed timber specimen of Acacia dealbata, with visible holes and pegs. Inspired by the Timber Trophy, we have assembled some of the many beautiful or interesting large timbers contributed to Kew from international exhibitions and other donors. Unlike most woods in the Economic Botany Collection, these were intended purely for display, not for scientific analysis.

Kew’s involvement with trees takes many forms, from field expeditions to the work of the Millennium Seed Bank. The wood specimens in the Economic Botany Collection are most heavily used as a reference by staff and visitors in the plant anatomy laboratory, which has been active since the 1930s. Wood anatomy is examined through optical and scanning electron microscopy, and reveals characters important for examining the evolution and ecology of trees. It also remains the most reliable way of identifying pieces of wood, whether found on archaeological sites or in international trade. Kew’s expertise in identification is vital in implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and EU Timber Regulation, both key efforts in reducing illegal trade in endangered trees such as rosewoods (Dalbergia), seen here in microscopic cross-section.

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Walking Sticks Kew has several hundred walking sticks – evidently a favoured gift from botanists to the Museum. However the largest donation was from manufacturer Henry Howell & Co, which employed over 400 people at its works in Islington. Having one’s products displayed at Kew was highly prestigious. Howell supplied a ‘blank’ and a finished product for each wood. The rough blanks showed great ingenuity in using the natural characteristics of wood: for example, the root ball of an uprooted palm could be polished to give a marquetry effect, or by cutting a hazel tree in the right place, a natural (and very strong) handle is formed by the wood. Sadly Howell & Co. went bankrupt in 1936 – but a descendant, Chris Howell, is working with Kew to research this unique collection.


Differences in the biological properties of wood – colour, strength, workability, durability – have long been noticed by woodworkers. The cricketbat willow (Salix alba var. caerulea) is light and straight-grained, with a fine even texture, ideal for cricket bats. The examples shown are an example of the ‘illustrative series’, a Victorian way of displaying raw material to finished product in order to convey manufacturing processes. The series for Tunbridge Ware shows the ingenious method of manufacturing repeat marquetry patterns by cutting, and the use of naturally coloured oak, stained green by fungi. Other woods on display include Ceylon ebony (Diospyros ebenum), which is extremely heavy, fine and even textured. It is hard and brittle to work but finishes to excellent natural polish. European boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is dense with fine, even texture and light yellow colour. It withstands hammering to a high degree, and is often used for tool components and handles. It is an excellent wood for turning and carving, favoured for chess men, and capable of taking very fine detail. In contrast, European alder (Alnus glutinosa) is light and soft and easy to work, and thus used in the Lancashire clogmaking industry.

Wood and Kew

The art of turning wood on a lathe has a long history, but reached its zenith in the 19th century. The best known lathes were made in London by the Holtzapffel dynasty; after the company ceased business in 1930, the remaining lathes went to the Science Museum (and were shown at Wizardry in Wood in 2012), and the turned wood samples and wood collection came to Kew.

Kew’s collections have grown through donations and exchanges, often obtained through personal as well as official networks. Across colonial networks the chief sources of specimens were world’s fairs, voyages of exploration, and institutions of botany and forestry. The Collection also shows the role of wood in building the ships of the Royal Navy, and as a raw material for weapons.

The Noah’s Ark animals were acquired in 1862. They are made of spruce (Picea) and are from the Erzgebirge region of Saxony. For Kew director William Thiselton-Dyer they were ‘a most beautiful example of the economy of labour’. Other specimens show the diversity of effects that can be achieved using turning. Turning was not restricted to Europe: we also show some attractive Indian examples.

Some notable collectors include Richard Spruce (pictured above), who spent 14 years in the Amazon (1849–64) collecting for Kew; James Kirk, who was botanist on Dr. Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition, and Surgeon-Major J E T Aitchison of the Afghan Delimitation Commission. Specimens from less strenuous travel include the yew nutcracker collected by Lady Hooker in Switzerland. Samples from the Great Storm of 1987 are a reminder that nature can sometimes help in providing wood samples!

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Wood in the World 1 When the museum of the East India Company closed in the 1880s, its botanical collections came to Kew, including some beautiful artefacts. The Indian collections cover everything from ephemeral items of everyday life, to objects of courtly quality. The model elephants from Sri Lanka demonstrate the diversity of high quality woods available in the sub-continent. The Japanese collections reflect the intense European interest in Japan after its opening to the outside world in the 1870s. Several objects were collected by James Herbert Veitch (1868–1907), of the famous plant nursery family. Interest in the tropics has diverted attention away from Kew’s European collections, representing a rich and now largely disappeared seam of peasant culture. Tankards vividly demonstrate the ingenious use of even small pieces of wood.

Wood in the World 2 Many specimens come from indigenous communities. These were collected as sources of knowledge about useful plants. Today these specimens are valued more as rare survivals of traditional culture that is often under threat. Kew’s North American collections come mainly from the west coast, where forests supported intensive settlement by native Americans. The rich material culture of British Columbia is well-represented. Proportionate to its size, there are fewer artefacts from Africa. By the time Kew started serious collecting in the continent, around 1900, its interests has switched from objects to raw materials. One exception is the rich collection made by staff botanist Sally Bidgood in Ethiopia in the 1990s. The Pacific collections contain some exceptional objects from Australia and Pacific islands, sent to Kew by explorers and traders who travelled there in the mid to late 19th century.

About Kew The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is a global resource for plant and fungal knowledge. It has one of the largest and most diverse collections of plant and fungal specimens (living and preserved) in the world. A unique combination of extensive collections, databases, scientific expertise and global partnerships gives Kew a leading role in facilitating access to fundamental plant and fungal information. Kew is also responsible for two outstanding gardens open to the public, at Kew, and at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. Wakehurst is home both to much of Kew’s tree collection, and to the Millennium Seed Bank which preserves the seeds of many plant species for future use.

Thank you to The Worshipful Company of Turners for the invitation to exhibit, and logistical support from many members; Building Crafts College students for making the Timber Trophy; Lyn Modaberi, John Stone and Andy Feast in the Design team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; James Wearn, Frances Cook and Peter Gasson in Kew’s Science Directorate; Andrew McRobb and Stuart King for photography, and last but not least, many donors over the last 160 years for giving the exhibited objects to Kew. The exhibition was curated by Victoria Oswald (Kew Volunteer), Mark Nesbitt (Research Leader, Economic Botany) and Caroline Cornish (Kew Honorary Research associate).

Contact For more about the Economic Botany Collection, including an online catalogue, please visit Kew’s website at: The curatorial team of Mark Nesbitt and Frances Cook can be reached by email at and by post at: Economic Botany Collection, Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AE

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Profile for Turners' Company & Wizardry in Wood

Economic Botany Collection, Kew at Wizardry in Wood 2016  

Over two hundred outstanding exhibits from the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew will be exhibited at Wizardry in...

Economic Botany Collection, Kew at Wizardry in Wood 2016  

Over two hundred outstanding exhibits from the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew will be exhibited at Wizardry in...