The Oak Spring Garden Library houses the works of many great women artists in its collection -- most of whom were ahead of their time in one way or another. One of these women, Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758), is best remembered for A Curious Herbal, which was conceived and published under curious circumstances. The Oak Spring Garden Library has a copy of both volumes of A Curious Herbal, along with 73 of the original manuscript paintings she did for the book. Here is her story.
Around the time of Elizabeth Blachrie’s birth at the beginning of the 18th Century, Dioscorides’ De materia medica was the definitive herbal – describing plants and their usage in medicines – and had been since the first century BC. But when Elizabeth married Alexander Blackwell at age 28, a relationship and partnership began that would change the history of botanical art and medicine during a period of global transformation.
Alexander was a bright, well-educated, and slightly shifty character. While living in Aberdeen with Elizabeth, he gained respect working as a physician. When it came out that he neglected to acquire any formal medical training, however, the couple was forced to flee to London. There, he explored a new profession. Staying true to his character, Alexander established a printing house without bothering with any of the prerequisites, like serving an apprenticeship or joining a guild. He was charged with violating trade rules and slapped with heavy fines. Forced to close shop, the couple couldn’t afford the penalties, and Alexander was thrown into debtor’s prison.
Elizabeth, ever loyal and refusing to despair, sought a solution. Dioscorides’ reign over apothecaries had lasted for a millennia and a half, and had only started to be supplanted with the renaissance’s thirst for new knowledge. A gap had been created with trade from the New World, which had brought a wealth of exotic plants back to Europe. Elizabeth dove in. She had received an art education earlier in life and recognized the opportunity to illustrate an updated herbal describing these new plants. All she lacked was any botanical or medical knowledge.
Conveniently, she knew a bright, well-educated character who wasn’t going anywhere. Working with specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden, Elizabeth created drawings that she would hand over to her husband in prison, who would provide descriptions and names in several languages. Elizabeth proved to be a woman of broad skill by engraving the copper printing plates with her drawings and hand coloring each of the final prints – processes that usually employed several different artisans.
The final product was a two-volume collection titled A Curious Herbal containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physic, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physic. The work was endorsed on the title page by the president of the Royal College of Physicians and advertised by Elizabeth with word of mouth and in several journals. It met with enough success to pay off Alexander’s debts and release him from prison.
But Alexander was a man of consistency, and after his release he quickly entangled himself in more unsuccessful business ventures. His debts re-accumulated until Elizabeth was forced to sell partial publication rights to her life’s work for financial stability. Vowing to improve their situation, Alexander set sail to Sweden in 1742 to carry out agricultural experiments. His successes led him to be appointed court physician to Sweden’s King Frederick I. Alexander’s boldness in politics matched his record in business. He involved himself in a conspiracy over the royal line of succession and became imprisoned again – this time as a traitor. He was executed in 1748.
Not much is known about the rest of Elizabeth’s life, but that she died in 1758. Still, the legacy of her talent as an artist, artisan and business woman has lived on today. The Genus of plants, Blackwellia, is named after her.