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Library & Archives

4 Posts tagged with the centre_for_arts_&_humanities_research tag



The Natural History Museum's Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) is delighted to announce the launch of a new website, Nathaniel Wallich and Indian Natural History at, highlighting an innovative collaboration between the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the British Library.


The website, hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, reunites a significant part of Wallich's collections by making available digitised images of more than 300 drawings, several hundred associated herbarium specimens, and 110 files of documents from the India Office Records and Private Papers at the British Library.


For further information about the website, the development of which has been generously funded by the World Collections Programme, please see the website or contact the Head of CAHR, Julie Harvey on or 020 7942 5241.

"He that enlarges his curiosity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness"

This is the opening phrase of the preface to the third, 1799, edition of The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by John Coakley Lettsom. M.D; where he defines the ultimate purpose of his book. A concise manual that has been somehow forgotten, it was a great achievement at it's time.

The first edition was published in London in 1772 by George Pearch and it seems to have sold out quickly as a second edition, corrected and enlarged followed in 1774, this time published by E & C Dilly also in London.

This is probably the first ever concise, modern, systematic and scientific manual on the preservation of natural history specimens and collections; giving advice not only on different aspects of capturing, finding, preserving, transporting and analysing plants, insects, fossils, animals and minerals but also on antiquities, religious rites, food, meteorology and even "precise directions for taking off impressions of cast from medals and coins".

The manual is also an incredibly practical, beautifully presented, well informed and advanced book that could be considered the founding publication for modern natural history preservation science. His advice on preserving natural history collections from pest attack anticipates by 200 years the groundbreaking Integrated Pest Management programs introduced in the last 20 years in Museums and Historic Houses:

It is uncertain if the manual was used by the great explorers of the period but given how popular it was at the time, it would be expected that copies of the book were carried on the many voyages of exploration that took place after its publication. It seems certain that Charles Darwin owned and used a copy although the great man was never known for being a good caretaker of his natural history collections.

John Coakley Lettsom was born in 1744 in Tortola, Virgin Islands. A Quaker concerned with anti-slavery, he manumitted the slaves from his two inherited plantations there; angering his plantation onwers neighbours then gaining their respect by setting up the first medical practice in the islands (with some of his former slaves trained as medical assistants) as he had become a doctor in Leiden, south Holland, in 1769.

Lettsom worked and travelled tirelessly all his life; famous for his commitment to his patients and the medical profession, he founded the Medical Society of London in 1775, the oldest in Britain and possibly in the world. In doing so, he showed great bravery and intelligence; parallel to his display of lateral thinking demonstrated in The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by joining together the four branches of the medical profession in one society where they could share knowledge and experience:
Amazingly, he still had time to cultivate a famous garden in his London home, arranged according to the Linnaean system of classification:

The Library at the Natural History Museum also holds the original drawings made by his friend James Sowerby of the plants in Lettsom's garden, as well as a copy of his 1799 famous work "The natural history of the tea-tree".

Chris Ledgard's BBC4 Radio program: "What's eating your collections?" aired last September began quoting paragraphs from the Travellers's companion:

The Golden Age of Quaker Botanists by Ann Nichols, Cumbria, 2006.



Posted on behalf of CAHR.


6 December 2011 - 7 December 2011


The Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) at the Natural History Museum, London, welcomes everyone to this interdisciplinary conference to celebrate the World Collections Programme-funded partnership between the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the British Library.


The conference will explore the history of botany and the exchange of materials in nineteenth century India. It will specifically explore the collections of Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), a major figure in the history and development of botany. We welcome everyone interested in natural history, art history, botany, South Asian studies, social history, history of the British Empire, museum studies and digital humanities to join us for this exciting conference.


Register for the conference by 20 November 2011. Full conference fee is £74.85. Day rate (Tuesday 6 December only) is £48.35.


The full conference fee includes:

  • Teas and coffees on both days, and a buffet lunch at the Natural History Museum on day one
  • Workshops to include private viewings of the Wallich collections at Kew Gardens on day two
  • A complimentary ticket for entry to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a wine reception on day two






Professor Kapil Raj of the L'École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS),

is an eminent historian of intercultural encounters and the making of modern science. He has been conducting a three month review of South Asian natural history drawing collections held at the Natural History Museum, London, (NHM), the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBGK) and the British Library (BL) as part of The World Collections Programme (WCP) funded project, Wallich and Indian Natural History.







Judith Magee (Special Collections Curator), Prof. Kapil Raj and Julie Harvey (Centre Manager, CAHR)


Wallich and Indian Natural History focuses on the dispersed collections of Nathaniel Wallich (1785–1854), Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden for the East India Company from 1817 to 1846. Through research and digitisation, the project reunites Wallich’s dispersed collections from the holdings of the project partners. A significant strand of project activity is the survey of collateral South Asian natural history drawing collections held at the partner institutions.


Hosted by the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) Kapil has worked with the Library Special Collections Curator and Library staff to study key botanical and zoological watercolour collections from 1690-1900. Assessing and quantifying the richness and inter-connectivity of these historically and scientifically important collections, Kapil has identified many individual artworks and collections for further research.

These works represent the desire of private individuals and of the East India Company to collect, classify and exploit the natural resources of the region.








The South Asian natural history collections housed in the NHM Library are rich and diverse in content. Each collection has a unique and fascinating history which encompasses its creation, the artists and their methodologies, subsequent ownership, use and exploitation, curatorial methods and conservation.

Through the survey, Kapil has been fascinated to discover the range of subjects depicted: not only flora and fauna, but insects and fish - a very comprehensive natural history of South Asia, dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. This is important not only for the history of science and art, but also of cultural encounters.
















                                   Hortus Malabaricus



A significant highlight is a Banksian manuscript containing 228 watercolour drawings: Hortus Malabaricus. A beautiful eighteenth century Portuguese text depicting Indian plants and their medicinal properties with recipes for curing various ailments. It was given the title Hortus Malabaricus by museum curators; the true title, ‘Declaracao da aruores...Plantas’ and the rest of the text will be translated from Portuguese to enable a better understanding of this intriguing manuscript.


A volume from the Sykes collection


The William Sykes material discovered in the Library Special Collections contains beautiful illustrations and fascinating insights into the history of agriculture in India.



An exxample of two pages from the Sykes collection


William Sykes (1790-1872) had a successful career in the East India Company army: arriving in India in 1804, and rising to Lieutenant Colonel by 1831.  In 1824 he was appointed statistical reporter for the Bombay Government, and charged with conducting a statistical survey of the Decan region. Sykes spent seven years travelling through India, observing and collecting information which resulted in a report including information on the flora and fauna of the region, as well as agricultural implements and practices. Travelling with Sykes was a young Bombardier from the Bombay Artillery, Llewellyn Fidlor, who had been assigned to Sykes as his draughtsman and artist. Fidlor produced some beautiful drawings to accompany the report.


These twenty one volumes of text and illustrations form the perfect collection for further work.