The most recent project in my online Botanical Sketchbook Painting course is inspired by the work of a remarkable botanical artist who has been mostly forgotten in the 250 years since her death. A few remaining copies of her once-famous work still may be found in rare book collections and in the archival libraries of some of the world’s finest botanical gardens. Some people see Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell’s story as a tragic one, and certainly it was not an easy life. But to me, it’s a story of incredible strength and determination.
Growing up in a seaport on the Scottish coast, Elizabeth inherited her keen intelligence and love of hard work from her father. William Blachrie was a wealthy merchant, a Burgess of Trade for the city of Aberdeen, Scotland — a self-made success who had started out as a humble seller of stockings and built up a considerable fortune for himself and his family.
Even in the puritanical 1700s, he was a forward-thinking man who insisted that both his sons and daughters were educated and independent. Elizabeth was trained in art, as well as in general subjects. When a favorite brother took up studies in botany, she soon became interested in the structure of plants. Three decades had passed since the publication of Maria Merian’s work on butterfly metamorphosis, and Elizabeth would have been aware of the celebrated German-born botanical illustrator. The world seemed full of possibilities.
And then Alexander Blackwell came into her life. A member of Aberdeen’s highest society, his father was the Rev. Thomas Blackwell the Elder, a renowned classical scholar with a long and illustrious pedigree. His brother, Thomas Blackwell the Younger, became a leading author and historian. Alexander was a brilliant young man, the pampered favorite of his stern father, and his family expected him to accomplish great things.
But Alexander, handsome and impulsive, moody and irresponsible, was an adventurer. To the dismay of both families, Alexander and Elizabeth were drawn to one another. In personality, they were not at all alike: Alexander’s biographer calls him a “charming rascal” who swung unpredictably from one outlandish scheme to the next; Elizabeth was steady and was regarded as virtuous and kind, unremarkable in appearance but naturally cheerful and gregarious. The Rev. Blackwell refused to grant his son permission to marry. He had decided to send Alexander to Sweden to study medicine — and besides, Elizabeth did not fit his strict view of an acceptable wife. Her education in art, her interest in science, and her father’s merchant-class heritage all disqualified her from becoming a suitable partner for his son.
Undeterred, the couple did what so many have done before and since: they eloped. They were away, and married, before anyone realized they were gone.
And so it was that Elizabeth accompanied her husband to Sweden, where he excelled (for awhile, at least) in his medical studies. His instructors considered him a genius. But his usual restlessness made him impatient, and he decided he had enough training. Without actually attaining his doctor’s credentials, he abruptly returned to Scotland and began practicing medicine. Within months, local authorities demanded he produce proof that he was a trained physician — so he packed up his wife and fled to London. Soon he was working as a proofreader in a large printing house.
Printing was regulated closely in those days, and all legitimate printers had to complete a seven-year apprenticeship and receive an official charter before going into the business. Alexander ignored the law, opened his own unlicensed printing house, and began attracting business away from rival printers. A reckless businessman who spent money lavishly, he eventually used up Elizabeth’s pre-marriage savings and then borrowed against future earnings. Several years passed and while they slowly sank deeper into debt, Elizabeth gave birth to four babies. Three died, but a little son survived. Somehow, Elizabeth never lost faith in her mercurial husband.
And then everything collapsed. Angry printers made an official complaint against Alexander and his print shop was shuttered by the authorities, the presses confiscated and hauled away. The family’s meager possessions were seized and Alexander, unable to pay the enormous fines levied for the illegal operation, was sentenced to debtor’s prison. Elizabeth was left alone in London with no source of income and a baby to care for. It would have been easy, in those bleak days, to turn back toward Aberdeen and go home.
But Elizabeth would not abandon her beloved Alexander in prison, and she had the flickering spark of an idea that just possibly could catch fire and win his freedom. During the time her husband represented himself as a doctor, Elizabeth had seen that there was a great need for an up-to-date medical herbal. New therapeutic plants were constantly arriving from the New World, and doctors needed accurate information on their cultivation and uses in treatment.
She sought — and secured — a grant to allow her to begin work on a new herbal. Elizabeth rented a modest room just outside the wall of Chelsea Physic Garden, an eclectic collection of medicinal plants from around the known world, and she began her work. Most herbals were created by three to five artisans who each performed one step of the process. But with no one to help her, Elizabeth had to complete the entire process herself: For each plant, she began with detailed drawings made at the garden. Then she used a steel needle to carefully etch her drawing into the surface of a copper plate for printing, and finally she hand-colored it using watercolors. Using impossibly fine lines and great skill, she even engraved beautiful calligraphy labels and notes on the plates — each letter and flourish in reverse! At night, she carried her drawings through the city streets to Alexander’s prison cell and he dictated Latin names, dosages and plant descriptions. Day by day, one by one, Elizabeth created 500 separate pages — each with a different and highly detailed botanical subject. The task took more than three years.
Her completed book, A Curious Herbal, was an enormous success. Elizabeth marketed the herbal in professional journals and earned the endorsement of The Royal College of Physicians, a rare and wonderful accomplishment. It was praised by apothecaries and botanists. A savvy businesswoman, she negotiated deals with booksellers while retaining valuable rights to future publication of her work. Best of all, she paid off all Alexander’s fines and settled his debts. He was a free man.
Unfortunately, his years in prison had not dampened the adventurer’s appetite for getting into legal trouble. Within five years of his release, Alexander’s lavish spending and a string of bad business decisions saddled the Blackwells with a fresh burden of debt. Elizabeth reluctantly sold most of her publication rights to raise enough money to give her husband a chance at another fresh start.
Ever charming, with an uncanny ability to impress strangers, Alexander arranged a position as a court physician to the royal family of Sweden. (Conveniently, he failed to mention that he was a medical school dropout.) He sailed away with a promise to send for Elizabeth as soon as possible. She remained in London, managing a small income from continued reprints of her popular herbal — and faithfully continued to send a portion to Alexander every month, knowing that he was often out of money.
What happened next is recorded in several versions, depending on the age of the account. The story appears in letters and journals from the late 1700s and early 1800s, and in historical references from the beginning of the 20th Century. Scottish historians tell the story differently from the way it is remembered by Swedish or English writers. But the general facts are these:
Alexander somehow inserted himself into a shady conspiracy to alter the line of succession to the Swedish throne. And, reckless as always, he was caught. As far as anyone afterward could see, there was no financial gain to be had — but playing an important role in a secret plot would have appealed to his sense of importance. And it would have been a grand adventure. There were international implications involving Denmark and the British royal family, so Alexander had committed a terrible crime.
Unsuspecting, Elizabeth was at last preparing to make the journey to join her husband. She had booked passage and was concluding her business in London when the news was announced: Alexander Blackwell had been executed for treason.*
Self-assured to the very last, Alexander joked with the crowd who awaited his beheading. After he placed his head wrong upon the block, he joked that he required instruction from the executioner from since it was his first experience with decapitation.
Elizabeth fades from sight that year, invisible from written history as most women were during that period. We know that she did not return to Aberdeen, but remained in London near the garden where she created her masterpiece. Successive reprints of her herbal provided a modest living, and she was surrounded by friends she had made during her years of botanical labor. There is no record of what happened to her young son, but we know that Elizabeth died in 1758 and is buried in the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church.
Her beautiful herbal continued to be a valuable reference long after Elizabeth’s death. An edition was published in Latin. A major reissue in German was undertaken near the end of the century. English botanist Sir Joseph Banks brought his copy of A Curious Herbal on a 1768 South Seas expedition with Captain James Cook. The herbal was still a popular medical book well into the first decade of the 1800s. It was reprinted in a limited edition in the 20th Century.
Today, you can turn the pages of A Curious Herbal and see Elizabeth’s finely drawn botanicals online by visiting the book’s page at the British Library website:http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/blackwells/accessible/introduction.html
The scanned images of the herbal used in this post were provided by biodiversitylibrary.org.
*A conflicting account describes Elizabeth actually arriving in Sweden, encountering what seemed to be a festival of some sort in the city. Arriving in the public square, she learned that the crowds were gathered to witness Alexander’s execution. I have not been able to find reliable evidence for this story.