The curious Blackwells

The curious Blackwells

On September 11 2001 I was flying in to Jordan to set off on a trip of a lifetime. The plan was to drive across the desert into Iraq to interview Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and report for Radio 4 on the impact of UN sanctions on the country.


Landing in Amman I received a message from the producer saying that two planes had just flown into the Twin Towers in New York.

I never got to Iraq, but a few weeks later the World Service commissioned me to make four half-hour programmes on religious fundamentalism. It involved trips to Egypt, India and the US.

It was in Washington, on the last leg of that memorable tour, that I met Elizabeth Blackwell. Trying to stay awake and adjust to jet lag, I went for an early-evening stroll and discovered a shop selling old engravings. On a table was a pile of beautiful, hand-coloured botanical pictures, each inscribed at the bottom: “Eliz Blackwell delin sculp et pinx.”

The paper had a linen quality, and carried the indentation of the copper plate on which the original drawings had been engraved – an impression you do not get, I learned later, with more common 19th-century lithograph prints. I did not understand the significance of this tactile detail at the time, but I could sense the history of the pictures and was captivated. I bought three for the equivalent of a day’s pay.

It was only when I returned home that I learned more about the artist. The engravings were nearly 300 years old – they were made between 1735 and 1737. The Latin inscription showed that Blackwell had drawn, engraved and coloured the images herself – unusual at the time, as drawing and engraving at least were deemed roles for separate skilled individuals.

Blackwell’s story, it emerged, was every bit as interesting as many I covered for the BBC. According to accounts online, Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Aberdeen around 1707, the daughter of a stocking merchant [1]. She married her cousin, Alexander Blackwell.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Alexander (b1709) was the son of the Rev Thomas Blackwell, a Church of Scotland minister who records [2] show had a reputation as a great witchfinder in the late 17th century. In 1697 Blackwell Snr was responsible for sending two men and four women to the stake – first hanged, then burnt – to quell the “great rage of Satan in this corner of the land”. He later moved to Aberdeen, where he became the principal of Marischal College – the second university to be founded in Scotland. “Strange to say, shortly after he had gone, the Satanic manifestations against which he had fought so valiantly, began to cease, and the prosecution of witches and the search for them came to an end.” [3] It is perhaps not surprising If his son later appeared to be somewhat lacking in sensitivity towards his wife.

The story commonly told is that Alexander – a bright student who was adept at classical and modern languages – married Elizabeth in secret. They eloped to London, where Alexander began working as a proof corrector for a printer.

He later set up his own print shop in the Strand but failed to undertake the necessary apprenticeship required by the Worshipful Company of Stationers, the guild that governed the print industry. He was sued by another printer and forced to pay damages. In September 1734 he was declared bankrupt and, according to some accounts, thrown into the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea.

Elizabeth, pregnant and destitute, needed to earn some money. She learned of the need for an illustrated modern herbal of medicinal plants. She won the support of Sir Hans Sloane at the Chelsea Physic Garden and notables from the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries after showing them some of her initial drawings. With their encouragement, she set about producing A Curious Herbal – 500 drawings issued four parts a week, leaving the buyers the responsibility of deciding whether and how to bind them.

It was a compendium of pictures of plants that had medicinal value, many grown at the physic garden and others brought to England by Sloane and in his private collection. It included plants common to the United Kingdom and others relatively new, like the tomato, tobacco, coffee and tea plants. Each set of four plates was accompanied by a fifth plate of text outlining uses for the plants, most often abridged notes from Joseph Miller’s Botanicum Officinale of 1722. [4]

Elizabeth’s need for regular income dictated the need to release the work in parts. She could not wait till she had finished the whole herbal to publish it, compiling the drawings in a particular order. She drew the plants as and when they appeared in nature.

Her reliance on Miller’s text underlines the fact that herbals had been written before. Gerard’s Herbal, from 1597, is perhaps the best-known example. However, whereas Gerard’s Herbal is illustrated with monochrome block engravings, A Curious Herbal showed every plant in colour and detail so that pharmacists could identify them correctly when creating concoctions.

Moving to rented accommodation opposite the garden (on what is now Swan Walk), Elizabeth laboured over the work for months. Although today her artistry is considered not to be as fine as many – she was doing too much too quickly for it to be as good as it might be – A Curious Herbal was a success. With the proceeds, Elizabeth was able to secure her husband’s release.

The restless Alexander soon found a new avenue for his energies, studying the reclamation of marshland and drainage – a major economic activity of the time. He wrote a treatise on the subject – A new method of improving Cold, Wet and Clayey Grounds – which earned him an invitation to Sweden. In 1742 he moved to Stockholm, leaving behind Elizabeth, who was pregnant.

Rosa rubra from Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal

The king took dangerously ill soon after Alexander’s arrival at the Swedish court. Alexander was allowed to prescribe a medicine, perhaps drawing on his knowledge of his wife’s book. It worked, and he was appointed one of the royal physicians.

Unfortunately, his star waned. In 1747 he was accused of being part of a plot to overthrow the king and was tortured to extract a confession. After being tried and found guilty, he was sentenced to be broken alive on a wheel – later commuted to being beheaded.

A report that year in the Gentleman’s Magazine [5] suggests that on the day of his execution he put his head on the block the wrong way, then awaited his fate. When told of his mistake, he light-heartedly asked for the crowd’s forgiveness on the grounds that he had never done this before.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, again in dire straits, sold the remaining rights to her publication and is believed to have died in poverty around 1758. Today hers is one of four names on a plaque in Chelsea Old Church dedicated to the memory of women from the parish distinguished by their “learning and piety”.

It is quite a story – but not quite the true story. More recent research by academic Janet Stiles Tyson paints a slightly different – though still compelling – picture of Elizabeth’s origins.

In a copy of A Curious Herbal in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, North Carolina, Stiles Tyson discovered a preface written by Elizabeth herself.

She was not Scottish. And she was not Alexander’s cousin (or his sister, as one writer has claimed recently [6]). Elizabeth tells us she was the daughter of a London painter, Leonard Simpson, and his wife, Alice. Leonard died when Elizabeth was a child, but she inherited his passion for drawing and painting, often painting the wildflowers she came across on walks.

Stiles Tyson, using baptismal records, puts Elizabeth’s date and place of birth at April 23 1699 in Poultry Street in the City of London. She married Alexander on October 1 1733.

And her husband? He was certainly executed in Sweden, though whether he actually partook in a conspiracy against the crown or was the victim of court jealousies and intrigue is another question. It seems safe to say that he was an irresponsible adventurer whose reckless escapades left his wife and family in dire financial straits. Stiles Tyson tells us that the great botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who knew of his wife’s work, met Alexander in Sweden and in a memoir reported that he was “impressed with neither Alexander’s abilities as an agricultural improver nor his character”. Linnaeus accused Alexander of being unfaithful to Elizabeth.

Stiles Tyson’s essay is one of two – the other is written by well-known New York garden writer Marta McDowell – that serve as an introduction in a new book recently published in the US. It is a beautifully presented reproduction of all 500 plates of A Curious Herbal.

There are quite a number of complete copies of A Curious Herbal in collections around the world. I have seen the volumes in the library at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Others can be found in the British Library and the Royal College of Physicians and at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

I still grieve over the copy that was being sold plate by plate in Washington all those years ago, even if I participated in its destruction by buying and framing these pictures. And I have since bought four more.

They remind me of an exciting time in my life. They offer a physical connection to the woman who, quite literally, created them – although it is unlikely that she hand-coloured the plates herself. Three of my seven pictures are coloured very differently to those in this book and in the volumes at the Royal Society of Medicine.

My prickly sow thistle (plate 30) is a faint cornflower blue – not yellow, as it should be. My common mallow (plate 22) is purple, whereas the Duke University copy is a deeper pink (the actual plant is something between the two). And my pansies (plate 44) are blue and yellow, whereas Duke University’s plate shows them as bright red and yellow (though the accompanying description describes the flowers as “spotted with a light purple, a deep purple and yellow”).

Left, prickly sow thistle from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Centre, my copy. Right, the real thing

Left, mallow from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Right, my copy

Left, pansies from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Right, my copy

One can only assume that Elizabeth’s printer used the services of others – quite possibly women and children, paid by piece rate, illiterate and unable to read the descriptions. This was certainly common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when an assembly line of “artists”, each with a single colour of paint, helped produce coloured illustrations for books at scale.

Still, A Curious Herbal is a remarkable piece of work – and more remarkable not just for the artistry and commercial acumen it demonstrates but for the resilience Elizabeth Blackwell showed in bringing it to the world. She was the first woman to produce a herbal.

You get something of the sense of that achievement when you read “The Lives of eminent men of Aberdeen”, written a century after the publication of her work by James Bruce. In a chapter on Elizabeth Blackwell, Bruce reminds us starkly how even decades later women of rank were expected to demonstrate “those retiring virtues and graces which are the real solid ornaments of the female character”. He describes A Curious Herbal as “a noble and marvellous monument of her enthusiastic and untiring conjugal affection” and proclaims that “there is something offensive in a woman putting out a book except on some such subject as Mrs Blackwell handled; or on dancing, or cooking, or anything of that kind which women ought to know about”.

As McDowell points out, the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians were all-male institutions at the time and would remain so until the early 20th century.

But this was far more than a work produced to redeem her husband. Elizabeth Blackwell was at the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, writing on the cusp of an era when, as McDowell tells us, “medical practice was shifting from the traditional view of ailments caused by imbalances in bodily humours – blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile – toward the construct of disease as an outside force, a separate, identifiable entity treatable with specific therapeutics”. Hers may not have been the greatest work of its kind, but it was important in its time.

And it is important as a reference work today. As McDowell says: “A Curious Herbal may be read as a history of Georgian Britain in five hundred plants.”

It is a thrill to now own a complete copy – even if it is a reproduction! A Curious Herbal is published by Abbeville Press

  1. Lives of eminent men of Aberdeen, by Bruce James, 1841.
  2. A History of the County of Renfrew from the Earliest Times, Chapter XX, by William M. Metcalfe, D.D., 1905.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Botanicum Officinale or a compendious herbal: giving an account of all such plants as are now used in the practice of physick, by Joseph Miller, 1722.
  5. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol XVII, p424.
  6. Alexander the Corrector, by Julia Keay, 2006.

Alexander the Corrector, by Julia Keay, 2006.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.