The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Version of Record online: 19 OCT 2009
© 2009 The Linnean Society of London
Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society
Volume 161, Issue 2, page 202, October 2009
How to Cite
PRANCE, G. (2009), The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 161: 202. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-8339.2008.00937.x
- Issue online: 19 OCT 2009
- Version of Record online: 19 OCT 2009
The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by RayDesmond . 2nd Edition . Richmond : Kew Publishing , 2007 . 480 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978 1842461686 . £39.95 .
Since the first edition was published in 1995 this has been a most useful book. This new edition, published by Kew itself, is much improved and brought up to date. With colour rather than black and white photographs it is now up to the standard of production that Kew deserves. Kew publishing is to be congratulated on the improved design of this book. It is most appropriate to have this text available in advance of the 250th anniversary of the gardens in 2009. A garden at Kew began in 1759 as a small physic garden on the royal estates. As the gardens derived from this small beginning now celebrate the middle of their third century and move forward to new initiatives it is important to have this thorough review of their history.
When I was a post-graduate student using the Kew herbarium and library frequently, I met Ray Desmond who was at that time the very helpful and knowledgeable librarian of Kew. His in-depth knowledge of the institution is apparent throughout this book. He takes us from the beginnings of a garden at Kew by Queen Caroline, the wife of King George II, through to the start of the directorship of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Stephen Hopper in 2006. Although arranged roughly chronologically, one of the features I most like about this book is that the chapters on each phase of Kew constantly hark back to its former history. Desmond has skilfully woven together the many aspects of the complicated history of the institution. This means that this is not just a chronology of the tenure of each director, but rather a well integrated text that reads easily. As new developments are described Desmond goes back to the relevant historical facts that put them into context. The author has achieved an excellent balance in his text between the many different aspects of Kew, such as horticulture, science, exploration, educational activities, conservation, art and as a public garden. Pertinent to this 150th year from the presentation of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace are the details about the interactions between Kew's second director Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin. As one reads this book it is amazing to see the number of people from royalty, aristocrats, politicians and foreign dignitaries, famous scientists, landscapers and horticulturalists who have interacted with Kew and combined to develop it into the great institution that it is today. All of this has not been without its problems and these are also faithfully reported, varying from public outrage about the wall surrounding the gardens in the time of Joseph Hooker to the conflict that Kew had with the Gladstone government and its financial secretary Acton Smee Ayrton that almost resulted in closure of the institution. I note that both the Linnean Society and the Royal Society supported Kew during the Ayrton controversy. However, Kew and its supporters have always been resilient and it has managed to survive this and other threats throughout its long and distinguished history.
Perhaps one of the real heroes of Kew was John Lindley who in 1838 was commissioned to investigate for the government what should be done with the royal gardens at Kew that had languished since the deaths of Joseph Banks and King George III in 1820. Lindley recommended that Kew should become a National Botanical Garden, but was disappointed that he did not become its director. From the time of the arrival of the first director William Hooker in 1840, the gardens that we know today began to form with their fabulous collections of living plants and herbarium specimens that have been the basis for so much botanical research.
One of the features that I found most useful in the first edition was the number of useful appendices at the end of the book. These have been added to here with new ones on Kew Palace, the River Thames and the gardening staff. The 110 pages of appendices greatly enhance the usefulness of this as a reference book. These include basic facts about Kew, a chronology, biographies of the many people involved with the development and running of the gardens and details about such things as trees, sculptures, water supplies and gates and public entrances. I have found myself turning to these pages frequently and now they are even more thorough and inclusive.