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  Elizabeth Blackwell
1700 - 1758
 
 

Elizabeth Blackwell (nee Blachrie) was among the first women to achieve fame as a botanical illustrator. She was both artist and engraver for the plates of A Curious Herbal, published between 1737 and 1739. The book contained the first illustrations of many odd-looking, unknown plants from the New World. It was designed for physicians as a reference to medicinal plants.

Equally interesting is the story behind her book: Elizabeth published it in order to free her husband, Alexander Blackwell (1709-47), from a debtor’s prison. Cheston described him as a "...self-styled Dr. [and] handsome rascal...", an apt description of the man, as will be seen.

Daughter of a successful Scottish merchant in Aberdeen, Elizabeth was schooled as an artist. Afterwards, she secretly married her cousin, Alexander, and settled in Aberdeen where he maintained a medical practice. Although his education was sound, a question arose concerning his credentials, resulting in the young couple’s fast move to London to escape charges that Alexander was practicing under a bogus license.

In London he became associated with a publishing firm. Eventually, Alexander decided to establish his own printing house, even though he did not belong to the guild nor had he served the required apprenticeship as a printer. In so doing, he ran afoul of regulations: This time it was for ignoring strict trade rules. Consequently, he was subject to heavy fines that forced him to close shop.

Now Elizabeth's dowry was exhausted. Combined with Alexander’s free spending habits and the fines, a substantial debit was incurred, and it could not be paid. Alexander found himself in debtor’s prison.

Elizabeth must have been desperate at this point: husband in jail, no source of income, a household to support, and now a child to care for. Fortunately, she learned that a new herbal was needed to depict and describe exotic plants from the New World. She decided that she could illustrate it, and Alexander, given his medical background, could write the descriptions of the plants. As she completed drawings, Elizabeth would take them to her husband’s cell where he supplied the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German.

Unlike her husband, Elizabeth was unskilled in botany. To compensate for this, she was aided by Isaac Rand, then curator of the Chelsea Physick Garden, where many of these new plants were under cultivation. At Rand’s suggestion, she relocated near the Garden so she could draw the plants from life. In addition to the drawings, this unflagging lady also engraved the copper printing plates for the 500 images and text, and hand-colored the printed illustrations. She did not rise to the upper most ranks of botanical illustrators of her day, but her work reflects "... a highly personal style of painting [and the use of...] dense layers of body color." (Tomasi:323-4, Sitwell: 37-38)

The first printing of A Curious Herbal was quite successful -- not so much due to its scientific quality of the illustrations as to the great need for an updated herbal. Surgeons, doctors, and apothecaries acclaimed the work, yet its highest distinction was a commendation from the Royal College of Physicians. It was re-issued 20 years later in a revised and enlarged format in Nuremberg by Dr. Jacob Trew, a botanist and physician, between 1757 and 1773. (This is the edition available on this web site.)

Income from the book bought Alexander’s release from prison: however, he did not handle his freedom well. Family debts again accumulated, forcing the couple to sell some of the publication rights to the book. More, he became involved in several unsuccessful business ventures, and eventually left the family to try his luck in Sweden.

Alexander practiced agriculture and medicine in his new setting. The Swedish King appointed him a court physician, and life was good until things worsened when he became involved in a conspiracy to alter the Swedish line of succession. He was arrested and condemned to death by hanging. "He remained in good spirits to the last: on the scaffold, 'having laid his head wrong, he remarked jocosely, that being his first experiment no wonder he should want a little instruction." (Blunt:153)

Little is known of Elizabeth's later years except that she died in 1758, and was laid to rest in a Chelsea cemetery. She remained loyal to Alexander, continually sharing book royalties with him from the sale of additional book rights, even though he never sent for the family to join him in Sweden, as he had promised upon his departure.

Huber M. Walsh, Library Volunteer

References:

Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn. The art of botanical illustration. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Antique Collectors’ Club, Ltd., 1994. Pp151, 153, 154, (P39).

Cheston, Emily Read, "Elizabeth Blackwell and her ‘Curious Herbal." [in] Herbarist, A publication of the Herb Society of America, No. 8. Boston: 1942. Pp, 24-26.

Dunethorne, Gordon. Flower and fruit prints of the 18th and 19th centuries. London: Dulau & Colk 1938. Pp 177-8.

Sanders, Gill. Picturing plants: an analytical history of botanical illustration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Pp.32,36,39.

Sitwell, Sacheverell and Wilflrid Blunt. Great flower books 1700-1900: A bibliographical record of two centuries of finely illustrated flower books. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990. Pp. 37-39, 75.

Stafleu, Frans A. and Richard S. Cowan. Taxonomic literature: a selective guide to botanical publications and collections with dates commentarires and types. Volume 1 Utrecht: 1976

Tomasi, Lucia T. An Oak Spring flora: flower illustration for the fifteenth century to the present time. Upperville, Viriginia: Oak Spring Garden Library, 1997. Pp320-324. 

Digitized Works:
TitleRole
A curious herbal
A curious herbalauthor
Herbarium Blackwellianumauthor
 
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