A series of posts from our volunteers …

Helen Bennett

Photograph of Helen Bennett working at a raised bed in her garden
Helen Bennett in her garden

A period of secondment from Scottish Arts Council in 2006 confirmed my ambition to volunteer with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, long one of my favourite places. When, in 2011, retirement finally arrived, I tentatively offered myself to RBGE Archive, hoping to revive the curatorial and research skills developed during an earlier museum career. Jane, the then Head of Library Services, had an ‘I have been waiting for you’ look on her face when she handed over my first project: several hundred glass negatives, in their original but now mouldering envelopes, stored in the roof of Inverleith House since being donated 20 years before. The instruction was ‘Please re-pack these and see what information you can recover’.

The negatives proved to be part of the archive of George Paxton (1850-1904), a brewer by profession but artist and talented amateur photographer by inclination. A founder member of the Kilmarnock Amateur Photographic Society, he went on to develop an expertise in photographing and writing about botanical subjects, particularly trees. He was commissioned by RBGE to create an album of photographs of Remarkable Trees in Ayrshire, presented in January 1895 – and still a treasure of the Library collection.

Black and white photograph taken by George Paxton of a young birch tree
One of my favourite George Paxton photographs from the 1890s: nominally a portrait of a young birch, it was surely a memento of an outing on a perfect summer’s day; keeping still has proved more difficult for Bevis, his dog, than his human companions

Uncovering Paxton’s story, forgotten since his early death, was immensely enriching. It resulted in an exhibition circulated round the Gardens; the gift of much of the rest of his archive, including his camera, following reconnection with the original donor, his last remaining grandson; and learning about early photography, a whole new area of knowledge.

I appreciate the respect for volunteers’ work. When I needed to travel, a grant was forthcoming from the Sibbald Trust, and as a matter of course the resulting journal article was reviewed by the Head of Science before being approved for publication. As one long-term colleague said: ‘Of course we regard you as a member of staff – it just happens that you don’t get paid!