Elizabeth Blackwell (illustrator)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell NLM 01 (cropped).jpg
Known forillustrator
SpouseAlexander Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell (1707[1] –1758) was a Scottish botanical illustrator and author who was best known as both the artist and engraver for the plates of "A Curious Herbal", published between 1737 and 1739. The book illustrated medicinal plants, and was designed as a reference work for the use of physicians and apothecaries.


Elizabeth Blackwell10.jpg
Figure 1: Illustration from A Curious Herbal
Figure 2: Illustration from Herbarium Blackwellianum

Elizabeth Blachrie was the daughter of a successful Scottish merchant and wife of Scottish doctor and economist Alexander Blackwell.[2] Elizabeth fled her hometown of Aberdeen when questions arose regarding her husband's qualifications. In fear that Alexander could be charged for illegal practice, Elizabeth and her husband moved to London post-haste.  Elizabeth's husband continued his questionable decision-making in London. Alexander became associated with a publishing firm and established his own printing house despite not belonging to a guild or serving the required apprenticeship. Alexander was charged with flouting trade rules and was heavily fined. These heavy fines in addition to Alexander's lavish spending habits led to his subsequent stay in debtors' prison.


Left to her own devices with no income a house to run and a child to raise Blackwell decided to put to use her training as an artist. She learned that a herbal was needed to depict and describe exotic plants from the New World. She decided that she could illustrate it and that Alexander, given his medical background, could write the descriptions of the plants. As she completed the drawings, Blackwell would take them to her husband's cell where he supplied the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German.[3]

Blackwell was an amateur in botany. To compensate for this, she was aided by Isaac Rand, then curator of the Chelsea Physick Garden, where many of these new plants were under cultivation. At Rand's suggestion, she relocated near the Garden so she could draw the plants from life. In addition to the drawings, Blackwell engraved the copper printing plates for the 500 images and text and hand-colored the printed illustrations.[3]

The first printing of A Curious Herbal met with moderate success, both because of the meticulous quality of the illustrations and the great need for an updated herbal. Physicians and apothecaries acclaimed the work, and it received a commendation from the Royal College of Physicians. A second edition was printed 20 years later in a revised and enlarged format in Nuremberg by Dr. Christoph Jacob Trew, a botanist and physician, between 1757 and 1773.[3]

Revenue from the book led to Alexander's release from prison. However, within a short while debts again accumulated, forcing the couple to sell some of the publication rights to the book. Alexander also became involved in several unsuccessful business ventures, and eventually left the family to start a new life in Sweden. Where Alexander's trail of bad decisions lead him to death by execution for conspiracy against the Crown on August 9 1747 as Elizabeth was leaving London to join him.

Little is known of Blackwell's later years. She was buried on 27 October 1758,[4] and her grave is at All Saints Church in Chelsea, London.[5] She remained loyal to Alexander throughout, even sharing royalties with him from the sale of additional book rights.

Blackwell has a genus of plants named after her, Blackwellia of the class Dodecandria Pentagynia. There are six sub species of Blackwellia; Blackwellia Panticulata, Blackwellia Glauca, Blackwellia Nipaulensis, Blackwellia Axillaris, Blackwellia Siralis, Blackwellia Padifolia. These species are native to Réunion, Mauritius, Nepal, Madagascar, Peru and China respectively.[6]

Analysis of illustrations[edit]

Blackwell's illustrations clearly articulate the fine details of botanical features. Blackwell details the vein-like striations of the leaves. Her drawing of plant roots is clear and distinct to each plant. The roots of the plants in Figures 1, 2, and 5 are distinct from each other. In Figure 1 many small roots grow out from the underside of a single thin horizontal-like root: with flowering stems growing from the upper side. In Figure 3 a few small roots grow out from the top of a bulb-like root growing downward from the bottom of the onion-like bulb of the plant. Figure 4's roots are similar to Figure 1's in that many smaller roots extend from a horizontal-like root. However, Blackwell distinguishes the two from each other in that the horizontal root in Figure 4 is quite thick with leaves growing from the right-most edge, not the side opposite to the smaller roots as so in Figure 1. Figure 5's roots are distinct from all other figures in that they display far more of the stem attached to a large bulbous root from which smaller roots extend at random on all sides. The inclusion of the stem's attachment to the root in Figure 5 articulates a sturdiness of the plants that otherwise may not be apparent. This sturdiness is also articulated in the detail of the bulb in Figure 3 and the transition from root to stem in Figure 1. Blackwell not only clearly illustrates the roots and leaves of the plants in detail but also articulates the relationship between the two with distinct transitions between the plant structures: roots to stem, stem to leaves, stem to flowers, and stem to fruit. Figure 2 and Figure 5 are unique in this group of illustrations as Blackwell clearly features the plants’ seeds. In Figure 2 Blackwell displays the placement of seeds inside of the fruit through the apparent splitting of the fruit itself: as if a slice had been cut out to show its center. Blackwell details the transition of colored meat within the fruit gradually growing darker towards the center where the seeds are located. The illustration of the seeds in Figure 2 provides a unique understanding of the interior of the plant that would not otherwise have been apparent. The seeds illustrated in Figure 5 are unfortunately not as detailed as those in Figure 2. Figure 5's seeds are drawn to the side of the plant like an afterthought and the relationship between the seeds and the plant: where they are located or from what they are attached is not obviously apparent.

Blackwell's illustrations are skillfully detailed and clearly articulate the structures and features of the plants featured. These qualities are vital to a medicinal reference manual as was the intention of A Curious Herbal. Blackwell clearly kept this intention in mind as she worked and her training as an artist allowed her to articulate the necessary information in extreme detail a precious quality for botanical illustrations.

Featured at the British Library[edit]

Blackwell's "A Curious Herbal" has featured on the British Library website as a "classic of botanical illustration." The book is available to view online using the Turning the Pages system.[7]


  • A curious herbal: containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick engraved on folio copper plates, after drawings taken from the life / by Elizabeth Blackwell. To which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physick.[8] (London, 1737–1739), her great herbal, which contained engravings drawn from specimens in the Chelsea Physic Garden
  • Herbarium Blackwellianum emendatum et auctum, id est, Elisabethae Blackwell collectio stirpium :quae in pharmacopoliis ad medicum usum asseruantur, quarum descriptio et vires ex Anglico idiomate in Latinum conversae sistuntur figurae maximam partem ad naturale exemplar emendantur floris fructusque partium repraesentatione augentur et probatis botanicorum nominibus illustrentur. Cum praefatione Tit. Pl. D.D. Christophori Iacobi Trew; excudit figuras pinxit atque in aes incidit Nicolaus Fridericus Eisenbergerus ...

By : Blackwell, Elizabeth, - Eisenberger, Nicolaus Friedrich, - Trew, Christoph Jacob, - Christiani de Launoy. - Io. Iosephi Fleischmanni. Publication : Norimbergae : Typis Io. Iosephi Fleischmanni, 1750–1773. online and download



  1. ^ Madge, Bruce (30 July 2001). "Elizabeth Blackwell—the forgotten herbalist?". Health Information & Libraries Journal. 18 (3): 144–152. doi:10.1046/j.1471-1842.2001.00330.x – via Wiley Online Library.
  2. ^ "Scots in Sweden – Eighteenth Century". www.electricscotland.com.
  3. ^ a b c Garnett 1886.
  4. ^ "Ancestry® | Genealogy, Family Trees & Family History Records".
  5. ^ "Elizabeth Blackwell". National Library of Scotland.
  6. ^ Miller, Philip (30 July 1835). "The gardeners dictionary" – via Google Books.
  7. ^ "Virtual books". The British Library.
  8. ^ Blackwell, Elizabeth; Harding, Samuel; Nourse, John (30 July 1737). A curious herbal :containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick engraved on folio copper plates, after drawings taken from the life. Printed for Samuel Harding.
  9. ^ International Plant Names Index.  Blackw.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGarnett, Richard (1886). "Blackwell, Elizabeth". In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 5. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Historical editions