Economic botany studies the use of plants for commercial purposes. At Kew they have thousands of samples collected over the past few hundred years but our tour focused on one particular aspect – Japanese paper (washi), which is made from the mulberry plant, whose fibrous bark makes it perfect for paper-making – the paper is strong and acid free, unlike paper made from wood pulp.
Many of the Japanese paper samples they hold come from the Parkes collection, which was put together by Sir Harry Smith Parkes who was the British Consul in Japan, and shipped to England in 1871. It’s an incredible resource, containing samples of virtually every paper made in Japan at that time. But its value lay unrecognised for over a hundred years in the vaults of the V&A, to whom it was just paper with nothing on it. In 1978 it was tracked down and later transferred to Kew where it is now given proper recognition as the great treasury it is.
We saw some examples from the Parkes Collection, all remarkable in their own way. These papers were made by an embossing technique using wood block-cut rollers that makes them look like embossed leather. Papers like this were produced in standard sizes that could be stuck to the wall as decoration.
The samples are held in a constant temperature of 14 degrees – chilly enough for us to need coats and cold enough to kill off biscuit mites and other insects that might destroy the fragile samples, like the examples we saw of different woods from Japan, each one painted with an illustration of the tree’s leaves and fruit. This is a persimmon.
Plant collectors had a hard time bringing back living plants from Japan as they rarely survived the salt air, until this plant carrier, which enabled a controlled environment to be maintained, was invented.
After the chill of the economic botany museum it was nice to get back to the main building and the Kew Gardens Library, Art & Archives which contain more than half a million items, including books, botanical illustrations, photographs, letters and manuscripts, periodicals, biographies and maps.
They also have a copy of Washi, the Soul of Japan. This six-volume compendium was put together in the 1990‘s and is an exhaustive survey of papermaking in Japan containing an example of every type of paper currently made by craftsmen throughout the country – like a modern Parkes collection. Next year it will form the basis of an exhibition at the NUCA Gallery in Norwich. It will run from 12 March to 20 April 2013 so put it in your diary now.