Photograph by Alinari of Florence (1852)
1 May 1823|
|Died||9 August 1909
Roshven, Moidart, Scotland
|Notable work||Birds from Moidart, Birds from Nature|
|Spouse(s)||Hugh Blackburn married 12 June 1849, Edinburgh|
Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1 May 1823 – 9 August 1909) was a Scottish painter whose work gives us an evocative picture of rural life in 19th-century Scotland. One of the most popular illustrators in Victorian Britain, she illustrated 27 books. Her greatest ornithological achievement was the second edition of her Birds from Nature (1868). Most of the illustrations are watercolors, with early paintings often including some ink work. A few are collages, in which she cut out a bird’s outline and transferred it to a different background, in a similar manner to John James Audubon. Her many watercolours show daily family life in the late 19th-century Scottish Highlands as well as fantasy scenes from children's fables. She achieved widespread recognition under the initials JB or her married name Mrs Hugh Blackburn.
Early life and family connections
She was the youngest child of James Wedderburn (circa 1782-1822), Solicitor General for Scotland, who died some months before her birth, and Isabella Clerk, whose family were holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik. Her paternal relatives, connected through the Wedderburn baronets, included her great-grandfather Sir John Wedderburn, 5th Baronet of Blackness, executed for his involvement with the Jacobite rising of 1745. The family was attainted and so several of the next generation went to Jamaica, where they grew rich as sugar planters. Two of these sons were John Wedderburn of Ballendean, who eventually reclaimed the family title, and James, Jemima's grandfather. The former was notable for the case brought against him under Scots law by Joseph Knight. The latter fathered Robert Wedderburn, the radical preacher, whom he did not acknowledge; Andrew Colville, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company; Jean, who married Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk; and James, the judge, who was Jemima's father.
On her mother's side, Jemima was the first cousin of James Clerk Maxwell, who lived with her family in Edinburgh when he was a schoolboy and she a young woman; she encouraged him to learn to draw.
She married the mathematician Hugh Blackburn and they bought the Roshven estate in 1854. This home became the focus of visits from some of the most celebrated figures of the century, including the Duke of Argyll, Lord Kelvin, Lord Lister, Hermann von Helmholtz, Sir John Everett Millais, Anthony Trollope and Benjamin Disraeli.
Work and legacy
Much of her work portrayed Roshven, its animals and birds. She became one of the leading bird painters of the day. "...in portraying animals, I have nothing to teach her..." - Sir Edwin Landseer, 1843
Jemima Blackburn was a keen observer of bird behavior, as evidenced by her writings. She describes the ejection of nestling meadow pipits (Anthus pratensis) by a blind and naked hatchling common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), accompanied by a small drawing. This behavior had been reported by Edward Jenner in 1788 but dismissed as impossible by Charles Waterton in 1836. Blackburn’s account was originally published, not in a scientific journal, but in a popular narrative for children, The Pipits 1871. Charles Darwin refers to Blackburn’s observations in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species.
In 1857 Blackburn was asked to contribute to the first exhibition of contemporary British art in America. Her works have been exhibited in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London and examples have been acquired by the British Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, Royal Collection, the National Portrait Gallery and more recently by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.
In 1868 she published Birds drawn from Nature, which won immediate public acclaim. A copy, hand coloured under Blackburn's own supervision, was presented to the Zoological Society of London. "...We have seen no such birds since Bewick's. We say this not ignorant of the magnificent plates by Selby, Audubon, Wilson and Gould..." - The Scotsman, 1868
Beatrix Potter, famous for her own illustrations of wild and domestic animals, was a fan of Blackburn from childhood. Potter recalls her delight when given a copy of Blackburn's Birds drawn from Nature on her tenth birthday. As an adult, Potter assessed her as a "broad intelligent observer with a keen eye for the beautiful in Nature", commenting: "I consider that Mrs Blackburn's birds do not on the average stand on their legs so well as Bewick's, but he is her only possible rival". The two women met in 1894, when Blackburn was visiting Putney Park, near London, the home of a cousin of Potter's. Potter found her an extraordinarily interesting woman. "I have not been so much struck by anyone for a long time." 
It is quite likely that Blackburn's work influenced Potter's 1894 illustrations for "Little Red Riding Hood", and possibly for "The Cat's Tale" a generation earlier (1870). The botanist Mary Noble argues persuasively that Potter modelled Jemima Puddle-duck, at least in name if not ornithological behaviour, on Jemima Blackburn. Blackburn died barely a year after Potter published her Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck to great success.
During her life at Roshven, Blackburn created a priceless legacy of paintings covering every facet of the life and customs of her time. Hardly a day passed without her recording some aspect of her varied and wonderful life. She painted her family and friends, important visitors and local people going about their everyday work: cutting peat, gathering bracken, making hay and many other rural activities. These paintings provide us with a treasured insight into the people and pursuits of her time and of this area. Her abiding interest lay in the countryside and the wealth of wildlife which it supported. The very best of her work is to be found among her paintings of Roshven, its animals and its birds. It was through this that she became acknowledged as one of the leading bird painters of the day.
Modern reprints of her work
Blackburn, Jemima; Fairley, Rob (1993). Blackburn's birds.
- "Jemima Blackburn (1823 - 1909)". Roshven.com. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
- Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter. A Life in Nature.(2007):p.459,note 20.
- Blackburn, Jemima (April 1998). Jemima: The Paintings and Memoirs of a Victorian Lady. ISBN 9780862418182.