Companion website with original music composed for the exhibition at Kew Gardens Archive inspired by the history of European plant collection in China.

Exhibition Companion

Curious & Miscellaneous
New work and archival encounters by Anushka Tay
8 November 2022 - 26 January 2023
Kew Gardens, Library & Archives Reading Room

On this companion webpage for the exhibition, you can listen to the original soundtrack (on headphones!) whilst reading the display texts and object descriptions. Further information about the project is provided at the end.

Listening to the exhibition soundtrack

Each section of the exhibition is accompanied by a piece of music, which reflects the themes explored.

Please listen using headphones, to avoid disturbing other Reading Room users.

Use your own headphones and your personal device, and listen to the soundtrack for each display window whilst walking around to view the exhibition.

Alternatively, a computer and headphones dedicated to the exhibition are provided next to Window 3.


From the mid-19th century onwards, Kew actively sought information about the uses of plants for all imaginable purposes, by different cultures around the world. The 11 volumes of the Miscellaneous Reports: China document Kew’s correspondence with a network of Western botanists, plant collectors and diplomats based in China. Scientific and commercial interests were aligned, and writers reported their observations of local people’s uses of plants during research expeditions in rural China.

Artist Anushka Tay has created new work inspired by the plants and journeys of the Miscellaneous Reports: China, which is displayed here alongside historical materials from across Kew’s collections. The exhibition reunites many of the documents and objects sent to Kew which had become separated in the ensuing years.

Anushka composed four pieces of music using piano, voice, and poetry alongside fragments of the historical texts and sounds recorded around Kew Gardens. The pieces explore her responses to the materials, and convey the sensory aspects of the plants and journeys within.

Journeys, Real and Imagined

Location: Herbarium Reception, display case, left hand side


Journeys, Real and Imagined



Picking up one of the large, heavy volumes of the Miscellaneous Reports: China, I sensed a series of buzzing, conflicting views on what was of value, interest and worth; multiple voices bound together, often at odds.

The writers observe how plants help local people live, and consider which plants could solve problems. They discuss plants to send to Kew, and record these with lists, shipping notes, and insurance bills.

Local plant names are occasionally recorded, in a variety of Chinese dialects and Indigenous languages. Yet the writers rarely name the Chinese people who helped them to obtain this information. Most plants are re-named for European botanists.

In response to the 11 volumes, I created a series of ink paintings and compositions for voice and piano. I aimed to convey the sentiments and at atmospheres conjured by reading the strange and provocative materials of Kew’s Miscellaneous Reports: China, a place and a time quite unlike the present in more ways than one.

Item labels

  1. No.1 Route Chart Yunnan-Fu to T’eng-Yueh, 1878
    Edward Colborne Baber (1843-1890)
    From ‘Report by Mr Baber on the route followed by Mr Grosvenor’s mission between Tali-fu and Momein’

    This is one of four maps included within an account of a journey to western China. The Miscellaneous Reports: China contain copies of many similar reports, where writers made extensive notes on local plants and plant products. This map is labelled with areas of interest and short descriptions of places encountered.

  2. An epitome of the reports of the medical officers to the Chinese imperial maritime customs service, from 1871 to 1882: with chapters on the history of medicine in China; materia medica; epidemics; famine; ethnology; and chronology in relation to medicine and public health
    Charles Alexander Gordon
    London: Baillière, Tindall, and Cox, 1884

  3. My Chinese collectors, all faithful and true. Ichang. Feb 15, 1911
    E H Wilson (1876-1930)
    From ‘Arnold Arboretum Expedition to China, 1910-1911, volume 3’

    Ernest Henry Wilson was a British plant collector who introduced many Chinese plants to Western gardens from the early 20th century. He photographed his expeditions extensively. This group photograph of Wilson’s Chinese team was taken in Yichang at the end of his 1910-1911 expedition. He expresses warmth towards the team in the photograph caption; but unlike the plants in the three volumes of photographs, the men are not named.

  4. 11 Volumes of the Miscellaneous Reports: China, 2022
    Alice Nelson

    This photograph shows the location of these volumes in the Archive Store. It features Anushka Tay’s hands.

  5. Wilson’s China: a century on
    Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham
    Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: 2009

    This book documents a journey in Sichuan, west China, which attempted to retrace E H Wilson’s early 20th century plant collecting routes and re-take his photographs. It was written by botanists Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham. Kirkham was the head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens until 2021.

  6. Ilex cornuta Lind. Shrub 12 feet. Cultivated in grounds of British Consulate, Ichang
    E H Wilson (1876-1930)
    From ‘Arnold Arboretum Expedition to China, 1907-1908, volume 2’

    Many of Wilson’s photographs of Chinese trees feature one of the Chinese team-members from his expedition standing near the trunk. I read these photographs as a double-portrait. They document and express both plant and person.

  7. List of seeds sent Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by NH Cowdry, Peking Union Medical College, 1st April 1920
    N H Cowdry (1849-1925)
    Miscellaneous Reports 4/2/1 f55

  8. Pinus Bungeana, 1850s
    Artist unknown
    Ink and watercolour on paper
    From the Robert Fortune Collection Illustrations of Trees

    Pinus Bungeana is one of the seeds that N H Cowdry sent to Kew in 1920 (item 7). Its botanical name refers to the Russian botanist Alexander von Bunge (1803-1890). It is native to north and central China. This illustration is from a series of 23 given to Kew by the British plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812-1880). They were drawn by an unnamed Chinese artist, who apparently insisted that the trees were accompanied by sketches of people. This is reminiscent of E H Wilson’s later photographs of Chinese men standing next to trees.

  9. Diospyros kaki
    Engraving on paper
    From ‘The Gardeners' chronicle: a weekly illustrated journal of horticulture and allied subjects’, July 13th, 1907
    With the caption ‘Fruits of Diospyros kaki, var. costata grown in the Isle of Wight’

  10. Kew Inwards Book 1916-1927, ff103-104

    N H Cowdry’s parcel of 26 seed packets from Pekin Union Medical College [Beijing] is recorded at the top right-hand side. It was received at Kew on 12 May 1920.

  11. Astringent Persimmon Fruits Preserved in Spirits
    Diospyros kaki L.f. var. yokono
    Spirits Collection
    Donated from the Japan-British Exhibition, 1910

  12. Sweet Persimmon Fruits Preserved in Spirits
    Diospyros kaki L.f. var. bon-gafi
    Spirits Collection
    Donated from the Japan-British Exhibition, 1910

List of Seeds Sent

Location: Herbarium Reception, display case, right hand side


I became intrigued by this List of Seeds Sent to Kew by N H Cowdry in 1920 (item 7). It opens with flowers that I grow in my garden – iris, clematis – and the locations of their gathering –by the temple grounds. I imagine fingers reaching up towards branches and snatching a pine-cone.

N H Cowdry was 71 when he wrote this list. He corresponds to Kew using his son’s work stationary. I imagine he was visiting his son abroad, and was delighted by the trees, flowers and fruits around him. Many of the seeds came from the market: ‘26 Persimmon - - - - - - - ? Market.’ I imagine slicing fruit and saving the seeds for later. ‘24 Bought from a seed vendor. Near spinach’

People often wrote to Kew to identify their plant specimens - but there is a sense of mystery here. I was captivated by ‘10 Large black seed’ which I imagined to be dark and shiny like the seed inside a lychee.

In the Archives, we found his parcel logged in the Inwards Book (item 10). Then I hunted through theDeterminations Lists – a botanically-accurate record of the seeds received, which would clarify ‘21 A mixed lot of wild seeds’. This parcel was not logged. I wonder: will ‘1 Tree’ from the Chang Chun Temple grounds ever grow at Kew?

Juicy: Lychee Princess

Location: Reading Room, Window 1



Voice, looper


I encountered the Lichi Princess in one of the documents describing Chinese uses of fruits. It is an abbreviated retelling of the Tang Dynasty Royal Consort Yang Guifei (719-756CE), a woman who was desired by her Emperor father-in-law. She rose up in the ranks of wives after marrying him, then met a grisly end at 37 years old.

The writer describes lychees and the Lichi Princess with the typical Orientalizing prejudice of his time. Yet what stayed with me was the hunger for delicious, luscious morsels of fruits, rhyming with his thirst for botanical knowledge of China. A certain kind of fantasy is invoked, a fear of tumbling towards terrible decadence and lust. A man could eat a hundred in a day…

The botanical name for lychee is Nephelium litchi. The fruits grow from a tree in the Sapindaceae family of other juicy fruits, like longan (Dimocarpus longan) and rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum). Kew lists 23 accepted species of Nephelium. Lychee fruits are considered to have heating properties in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Item labels

  1. Concertina sketchbook: Juicy, 2022
    Anushka Tay
    Ink, paper, cardboard

    The writers in the Miscellaneous Reports sometimes doodled plants in the margins of their letters. My drawings explore real and imaginary juicy fruits, sketched using a dip pen and different coloured inks to convey texture and sensation. The concertina sketchbook format plays with the expression of time. It is displayed here fully expanded, suggesting a linear timeline where the future can be easily glimpsed.

  2. Nephelium - Litchi variety, early 19th century
    Artist unknown
    Watercolour on paper

    This painting is from the William Kerr Collection of Chinese Plants, a collection in two sets thought to have been commissioned on behalf of Joseph Banks. The first set arrived in London in 1805 and the second in 1807. No information about the artist is currently known, but they were probably painted by a Chinese artist.

  3. Dried Lychee Fruits
    Sapindaceae Nephelium euphoria
    Economic Botany Collection

  4. Lychee Fruits Preserved in Spirits
    Sapindaceae Litchi chinensis
    Spirits collection

  5. Dried Lychee Seeds
    Sapindaceae Nephelium litchi
    Economic Botany Collection

    These seeds were collected in Singapore.

Astringent: Wild Persimmon

Location: Reading Room, Window 2


I want you.

Voice, looper


Learning more about economic botany – the study of useful plants – reveals that plants are shapeshifters. They can slide in to almost every single use imaginable. Tracing the different related species within a family is a fascinating exercise. The sweet caramel of overripe persimmons I would eat every autumn, with a blink, becomes a tonic, or a paint, or a table, or a chair.

There are many types of persimmons. Their genus name, Diospyros, is from the Greek and means ‘divine food’. They are a tree from theEbenaceae family. Kew lists 737 accepted species of Diospyros, of which the common edible fruit is Diospyros kaki. Other species of diospyros are used as ebony timber. Several Diospyros trees grow near the Temperate House in Kew Gardens, and are ripe with yellow and orange fruit this autumn.

Persimmons have astringent properties and far-ranging uses, including as medicines and varnishes. They are considered cooling in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Item labels

  1. Diospyros kaki, early 19th century
    Artist unknown
    Watercolour on paper
    From the William Kerr Collection of Chinese Plants

  2. Life-sized Model of a Persimmon Fruit
    Ebenaceae Diospyros kaki
    Economic Botany Collection

    The Economic Botany Collection was established in 1847 as the Kew Museum. An aim of the collection was to educate people further about the uses of plants and plant products. This life-sized model of a persimmon fruit is shown with a historical display label used in a past exhibition.

  3. Type of Diospyros armata Hemsl., 1889
    Hubei, China
    Herbarium specimen
    Donated by Augustine Henry (1857-1930)

  4. Shì zi [Persimmon]
    From ‘Zhongguo ke xue yuan. Hua nan zhi wu yan jiu suo’
    [Coloured illustrations of Chinese medicinal herbs in common use. Volume 3]
    Kwangtung: Botanical Research Institute, 1970

There and Back Again

Location: Window 3


I found that somehow, I became all of them.

Voice, field recordings


The Miscellaneous Reports: China reveal that fantastical Chinese landscapes of sinuous trees and floating clouds are often a harsh terrain to be endured by the European writers. They are populated by tough, creative and knowledgeable locals who demonstrate ingenuity, resilience, and a deep knowledge of plant uses and cultivation in their local environment. This is quite unlike the gilded treasures, glossy ceramics and glowing silks which typically come to represent Chinese heritage.

Some writers bewail deforestation across China. Yet the 19th century Western industrialists were looking to produce and process goods en masse: surveys of Chinese plant products Reports represent the global search for new products and markets. Some of these have become commonplace; whilst others, like the industrialisation of ramie fibre processing, fell by the wayside with the development of synthetic fibres.

Exploring the Archives can lead to new discoveries and experiments with plants and plant products once again.

Item labels

  1. Notes on Chinese Materia Medica
    Daniel Hanbury
    Reprinted from ‘The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions’. London: John E Taylor, 1862

  2. Articles Sent, 1893
    Foreign Office
    Miscellaneous Reports 4/2/3 ff468-469

    Kew requested a selection of fruit stone carvings for the Kew Museum (now the Economic Botany Collection). This list shows the items which were sent to Kew, and their price. Three necklaces of carved fruit stones were originally sent, but only one survives today (item 3).

  3. Balsaminaceae Impatiens hosieana Hook., 1904
    Herbarium specimen
    Donated by Alex Hosie (1853-1925)

    Diplomat Alexander Hosie undertook several journeys to research the botany and economics of Chinese communities across western China and Taiwan (then called Formosa), and sent many plant and fibre specimens to Kew. His reports are notable for their length and detail, written in a characterful style which is sometimes humorous, other times infuriating.

  4. Elaborately Carved Fruit Stones, 1893
    Burseraceae Canarium pimela
    Donated by the British Foreign Office, south China
    Economic Botany Collection

    This case contains ornamental hand-carved fruit stones, featuring detailed scenes of flowers and people. They were sold as decorative ‘curios’ and were popular with foreigners in China. At the bottom of the case, the fruit stones have been turned into beads and are strung onto a necklace.

  5. Notes on Economic Botany of China
    Augustine Henry
    Shanghai: Presbyterian Mission Press, 1893

    Augustine Henry (1857-1930) regularly wrote to Kew about economic and medicinal Chinese plants. Several versions of his reports are included in the Miscellaneous Reports. He was a central figure connecting Kew to other Westerners working in China, including E H Wilson and Alex Hosie. Henry sent many specimens to Kew, including dried plants specimens and plant products.

  6. ‘Indispensables’. Men laden with sandals made from Bamboo fibre and Bamboo sheaths used in making soles for women’s shoes. Min valley. Alt.5800 ft. North of Mao-chou
    E H Wilson (1876-1930)
    From ‘Arnold Arboretum Expedition to China 1910-1911, Volume 3’

    E H Wilson’s photograph albums include several portraits of local men transporting heavy loads across the mountainous terrain. Here, the labourers are transporting similar sandals to item 6.

  7. Chinese Sandal from Yichang, 1890
    Tileaceae Tilia sp.
    Economic Botany Collection
    Donated by Augustine Henry

    The British Treaty Port at Ichang [Yichang], located on the Yangtze river, was an important location for Western scientific and commercial explorers. It provided access to the west of China, and overland routes towards Tibet and India. This handwoven shoe is of the kind typically worn by working-class Chinese men during this period. It is made using fibre from a Chinese species of linden (also called lime) tree. These trees are commonly planted in public spaces in the UK.

  8. China grass or Ramie fibre (Boehemeria nivea). Length of strand 55-60 inches. Ichang. Feb 24, 1911
    E H Wilson (1876-1930)
    From ‘Arnold Arboretum Expedition to China 1910-1911, Volume 3

    This photograph shows bundle of ramie fibre which is ready to be spun and processed into yarn.

  9. Skein of ramie string, 1891
    Urticaceae Boehmeria nivea
    Economic Botany Collection
    Donated by Alex Hosie

    Many writers described local Chinese textiles and cloth which they observed on their expeditions. Common textiles used in rural China included cotton, hemp, and ramie. Ramie fibre is derived from the stems of Boehmeria nivea, a plant in the nettle (Urticaceae) family. Ramie is a versatile fibre which is extremely strong and absorbent. When finely woven, its cloth resembles linen, with excellent drape and shine.

  10. Ramie Sock, 1908
    Urticaceae Boehmeria nivea
    Economic Botany Collection
    Donated by W J Freuther

    Kew was greatly interested in the industrialisation of ramie fibre processing. Two volumes of the Miscellaneous Reports are dedicated to ramie, also called ‘China grass’. The Economic Botany collection contains specimens of ramie at every stage. Kew also grew ramie plants for experimental processing in England. This sock is a factory sample from France. It demonstrates the fineness and lustre of ramie yarn, and its richness of colour once dyed.

  11. Impressions - Lychee, I - IV 2022
    Anushka Tay
    Ink on paper

    This series of abstract painting elaborates on textures, sensations and bodily responses to the archival materials. It develops the explorations in the Concertina Sketchbook (Window 1).

  12. Map to Accompany Epitome of Medical Reports &c.
    from ‘An epitome of the reports of the medical officers to the Chinese imperial maritime customs service, from 1871 to 1882’
    London: Baillière, Tindall, and Cox, 1884

    This map is marked with the sites of British Treaty Ports. These were established following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860). Treaty Ports operated under foreign laws, the most famous example being the British Colony of Hong Kong. Many figures in the Miscellaneous Reports: China wrote to Kew from British Treaty Ports at Ichang [Yichang] and Canton [Guangdong]. .

  13. I found that somehow, I was all of them, 2022
    Anushka Tay

    Sitting in the Archive of Kew Gardens and studying the Miscellaneous Reports, I could easily slip between multiple points-of-view. Reading the correspondence, I could be the original recipients in Kew; but also the Europeans in China writing to Kew; and the often-nameless Chinese people who were only occasionally mentioned. Early on in this project, I wrote this poem out by hand in my sketchbook in one take. I edited it very slightly when I typed it up. I recorded a reading of this poem, which you can listen to above.

  14. Handknitted Ramie Socks, 2022
    Anushka Tay
    Bamboo knitting needles, yarn (70% cotton, 30% ramie)

    Today, ramie is still worn by some people in East Asia. But overall, it has been eclipsed by the cotton industry. In the West, ramie is a speciality fibre and not commonly used. Due to this, it can be expensive and hard to find. Ramie blends well with other fibres. I knitted this sock in response to the archival sock (item 10). It is an example of how historical materials hidden in an archive can inspire new discoveries, experiments and processes. Coincidentally, I was able to find yarn in the same shade of coral red.


Thanks for viewing the exhibition, I hope that you've enjoyed it! Here is some additional information for those interested in pursuing the Miscellaneous Reports: China further.

Further reading & resources

More about the project

Read a blog post on Kew Gardens' website about my time spent researching in the Archive

Creative explorations and botanical imaginations at Kew Gardens - a blog post on UAL Post-Graduate Stories about the process of the artist residency

Researching at Kew

Learn more about researching the collections at Kew

Search the public online catalogue for the Miscellaneous Reports: China

Search the online catalogue for the Economic Botany Collection

The books featured in the exhibition will be available to borrow from the Library at RBG Kew; and many are available as modern reprints, or in digital form.

Search the RBG Kew Library Catalogue.

Find out more about the Miscellaneous Reports cataloguing and digitization project

Bio: Anushka Tay

I am an artist based in London, UK, working across text, textiles and music. I’m currently completing my PhD on Chinese diaspora dress histories at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, for which I was awarded an AHRC studentship by Techne DTP.


Thank you so much to the staff at RBG Kew for your help and support across this project, especially Kiri Ross-Jones, Mark Nesbitt, Erin Messenger, Alice Nelson, Julia Buckley, Kim Walker and Frankie Kubicki. Huge thanks to Francis Botu for music production and audio engineering. And finally, thank you very much to Techne Doctoral Training Partnership for funding this project.

-Anushka Tay London, November 2022

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