Alexander Blackwell was a handsome ‘ rogue’ who had the good sense to marry his cousin Elizabeth Blachrie. Elizabeth was born around 1700 into a respectable Aberdeen family whose father was a successful merchant. Elizabeth trained as an artist and having met her cousin Alexander, had the impulse to move to London having secretly married him. He was a doctor and had had to move to London to practice since questions arose over his qualifications . ( In fact his qualifications were sound). In London he spent unwisely, and found himself in debtors prison whereupon his wife had the sense to use her drawing skill and Alexanders knowledge of medicinal properties of plants to provide illustrations for a new herbal, ‘A Curious Herbal’. A herbal is a compendium illustrating the properties of plants for medicinal purposes. Elizabeth relocated near the Chelsea Physick Garden in order to draw the plants form life, and she herself engraved the copper printing plates for the 500 images, hand-colouring the printed illustrations. Not having any knowledge of the plants herself, she wrote the descriptions of them r by visiting Alexander in his cell where he would provide the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German. This adventure worked, and provided enough money to procure Alexanders release from prison. Blackwells ‘Herbal’ was printed on a weekly basis between 1737 and 1739 and was an unprecedented endeavour by a woman at that time. Elizabeth was a remarkable character to have coped with the misfortunes that the marriage had brought upon her, she showed how resilient she was. She also sought the the approval of leading physicians and apothecaries who declared it to be very useful. Not only was she talented, dedicated and skilled, but had the nouse to market the herbal in a way that secured its success. There is a finely-bound copy of A Curious Herbal is from the collection of King George III, held in the British Library. Alexander was indeed a lucky man. Which begs the question why did he not fulfil his promise to send for her ( and the family) after his relocation in Sweden, where he himself procured some early success in agricultrual management and diplomacy between the Swedish court and the English.This later degenerated when he was accused of being embroiled in a plot against the Swedish King and was beheaded for it. Oh dear. He would have been better with his wife beside him, since she never abandoned her love for him, continuing to send him a percentage of the money from the publishing rights to the ‘Herbal’.
Elizabeth will always be known for the painstaking work she put in to ‘The Curious Herbal’ , and we have a fantastic resource online where each page is available. I love reading about the considered properties of the plants, and imagine Elizabeth immersed in a project that returned a great amount of solace and satisfaction. Perhaps there would be some plant that could obviate the propensity for disaster that her husband apparently had in his genetic make up.
Curiously, a hundred or so years later another Elizabeth Blackwell would make history, becoming the first doctor in American history. I only know this because Wikiedia’s page for the doctor incorrectly references my Elizabeth, and for a few minutes I was moderately confused over the possibility of a time warp. I love Wikipedia!! Nice coincidence though. I became interested in my Elizabeth when I came across her drawings at a museum online , http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/571
The other resource is at the British Library where you can view the ‘Herbal’ as a ‘turn the page’ experience, with an opportunity to read the fabulous descriptions of the plants in her selection. I like the idea of the tomato as a ‘love-apple’, and interested to read that it was considered poisonous before it became the ubiquitous addition to salads we know today. Elizabeth also warns of the danger of using the opiate from the poppy without the accompanying advice from a physician. Good advice. Enjoy.
British Library online