Saturday 13 March 1999
The jars in question started life as storage containers in Kew Gardens' herbarium - a collection of some 6.5 million dried specimens ranging from teasel seed to opium poppy, and all manner of pods, roots, barks, twigs and other plant bits. They were gathered from all round the world on some of the most famous plant-hunting expeditions of the last two centuries. Each jar was labelled in brown ink and italic script with its contents, the date and its provenance. Tens of thousands of jars formed the reserve collection; many had lived at the garden's museum since it opened in 1857.
Three years ago, however, there was a crisis. Kew's three museums designed by Decimus Burton had fallen into a dismal state, and even Museum No 1 had been closed for 10 years. The award of a pounds 1.4m Heritage Lottery Fund grant to repair it was met with great rejoicing, but for the reserve collection it was a death knell. While one museum was to be kept with its historic furnishings intact, the other two were to be refitted and decked with bright, interactive displays; there would be no room for dull old duplicates.
The jars were therefore offered to every museum in Britain, but no one wanted or - more to the point - had room for them. Kew would like to have kept them as a collection, but with the work on the jars' building about to begin, it was forced to sell them to the highest bidder. This turned out to be Lassco, the London Architectural Salvage Supply Company. The original 9ft-high Decimus Burton display cases were similarly dispatched. The samples were removed from the specimen jars and the precise wording of their labels was catalogued.
At which point enter Maureen Docherty, whose Knightsbridge mews shop, Egg, purveys a mix of beautifully made clothes in ravishing fabrics, studio ceramics and designer objects. Maureen wandered into Lassco one day, and emerged three hours later the possessor of several hundred hauntingly empty jars. Hence next week's exhibition.
Maureen enthuses about the beauty of these botanic mementoes, with their cork lids intact and poignant original hand- and typewritten labels. They are as singular as one-off pieces of studio glass or pottery, and a tenth of the price (from pounds 15 to pounds 40). "I think they're mad at Kew," she says cheerfully. "They should have kept them all and sold them in their own shop." And there's the rub. Such historic relics may be of little interest to museums, but they make wonderfully fashionable and curious objects of desire.
"Kew Jars" runs 16 to 30 March at Egg, 36 Kinnerton Street, London SW1X 8ES (0171-235 9315)
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