Blackwell was born around 1700 in Aberdeen, daughter of a successful merchant. At the age of 28, she married Alexander Blackwell, a shady character whose ill-advised ventures would inadvertently lead to her magnificent herbal. Alexander was well educated and practiced as a physician – but without, it seems, troubling to acquire any formal medical training. When his right to call himself a doctor was challenged, the couple fled from Aberdeen to London. After working briefly with a publishing company, Alexander set up in business as a printer. This brought him into conflict with the authorities yet again, since he’d not served the obligatory four-year printer’s apprenticeship. His breach of trade regulations incurred hefty fines – fines he was unable to pay. The print shop was closed down. Alexander’s debts continued to mount up, until he was finally ordered to a debtors’ prison.
With Alexander in prison, Elizabeth was forced to rely on her own resources to keep herself and her child. Before her marriage, she had received tuition in drawing and painting, as many well-to-do young women then did. She also proved to have a keen business sense, discerning that a gap existed in the book market for an up-to-date reference work for apothecaries, one that would include the many species recently discovered in North and South America.
She determined to produce a new herbal, making the illustrations herself and enlisting her imprisoned husband to use his medical knowledge to write the texts to accompany them. Elizabeth’s project received the support of the Society of Apothecaries and several leading doctors. She took rooms in Swan Walk next to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had been established in 1673 as a garden for teaching apprentice apothecaries to identify plants and was now cultivating the exotic new plants from the Americas.
With the support of the Isaac Rand, curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden’s, Elizabeth began drawing the plants from life. She took the drawings to her husband in prison, who identified them and provided their names in several different languages. Elizabeth then engraved the copper plates for printing. Finally, she hand-coloured each of the printed images. This great accomplishment would usually have taken at least three different artists and craftsmen.
From 1737 to 1739, Elizabeth Blackwell published four plates each week, until she had produced 500 images. The complete work was published in two volumes and entitled 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.
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