Feature of the Month - December 2018

 December 2018

Plate 205 in A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants,: which are now used in the practice of physick ... To which is added a short description of ye plants; and their common uses in physick ...by the botanical author and artist Elizabeth Blackwell (1707 – 1758), showing the holly tree – “This tree grows to be pretty large; the leaves are a deep green, the flowers yellowish, and the berries red.” 

Elizabeth was born at St Nicholas, Aberdeen. In 1728 she eloped with her second cousin Alexander Blackwell to London. Elizabeth’s dowry was sufficient to establish for her husband a printing press at the Atlas, opposite Catherine Street in The Strand. By 1734, however, the business failed and in 1736 Alexander was sent to the debtors’ prison. Alexander had worked as a physician (although unlicensed) and so, with a view to paying off his creditors and releasing him from prison, Elizabeth applied her talents to drawing and painting medicinal plants and took lodgings at 4 Swan Walk near to the Chelsea Physic Garden, the source of many of her subjects. The Garden cultivated species imported from all over the world, so Elizabeth was able to add several plants brought from the Americas and not included in earlier English herbals. 

A Curious Herbal was published in weekly parts in 1737-39 by Samuel Harding. They were subsequently published together in 2 volumes. Elizabeth drew all of the illustrations, engraved them on copper plates, and coloured all 500 prints individually by hand. She also saw to the business side of publishing and selling the work, eventually rescuing her family from debt. 

In 1739 John Nourse “at the Lamb without Temple Bar” printed two large folio volumes containing all 500 of Blackwell’s engravings. 

The Library of the Royal Society of Medicine holds both volumes of A Curious Herbal.


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