Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Good and Faithful Wife

                        I’ve mentioned before how the spheres of magic and science often overlapped in the past. Early herbals had their occult elements, with plants classified by their planetary or zodiacal properties – Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653) includes this information in the descriptions. As Enlightenment values spread across Europe, these superstitions were relegated in favour of a more scientific approach. New herbals were published, and the story of one of these is a fascinating tale of poverty, loyalty, debt and death. It begins in Scotland. 

A Nievve Herball - Robert Dodoens - 1578

Elizabeth Blachrie was born into a wealth Aberdeen family at some time between 1707 and 1713 (the records are vague). She secretly married her second cousin, Alexander Blackwell, who practiced medicine in Aberdeen, but there were disputes about the validity of his qualifications, so the couple fled to London. Alexander became involved with the printing trade, as a proofreader, and he opened his own print shop in the Strand but the tight trade restrictions brought him into conflict with the powerful guilds. He was forced into debt, convicted, and sentenced to two years in Highgate Prison, leaving Elizabeth penniless and in desperate poverty. Elizabeth had had some artistic training in Aberdeen, and she set about producing botanical illustrations to which her husband, from his cell, added medicinal information. She approached Sir Hans Sloane and Dr Richard Mead, who encouraged her, and she gained access to the Chelsea Physic Garden, where she drew the plants from life. Elizabeth drew, engraved and coloured four plates a week, which she sold, together with a page of accompanying text, in weekly instalments, over 125 weeks. A bound volume of 250 plates was issued in 1737 and a second in 1739. We can see the quality of Elizabeth’s illustrations if we compare them with those from earlier herbals. 

Illustration from Culpeper's Complete Herbal
Illustration from Dodoen's A Nievve Herbal

Illustration from Blackwell's A Curious Herbal 1737
Title Page - Elizabeth Blackwell - A Curious Herbal 1737

A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants which are now used in the Practise of Physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in Physick’ was a moderate success, and the profits bought Alexander’s freedom from prison, although further debts meant that the copyright was eventually sold. Some of the plates were pirated in inferior versions and Alexander took great satisfaction in prosecuting those very same printers responsible for his imprisonment. 

Illustration from Blackwell's A Curious Herbal 1737
Example of a text page from Blackwell's A Curious Herbal 1737

The volumes were republished over the years, in 1739, 1751 and 1782, and later editions appeared on the continent. Alexander Blackwell came to the attention of James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, and he became director of improvements on site at the Duke’s new mansion, but was dismissed and left under a cloud. 

Illustration from Blackwell's A Curious Herbal 1737

At the same time he wrote A new method of improving Cold, Wet and Clayey Ground which brought him to the attention of the Swedish Ambassador, who invited him to Sweden in 1742, leaving his wife and child in London. He passed himself as a physician, and attended King Frederick, but there were accusations of quackery, and he fell back on agriculture as a secondary career, publishing An essay on the Improvement of Swedish Agriculture in 1745. He took charge of a model farm at Ållestad, which he mismanaged, further souring his relationship with Swedish royalty. He became involved in court intrigues, ill advisedly, and may have been in on a plot to place the Duke of Cumberland on the Swedish throne (or he may simply have been a victim of court jealousy). He was imprisoned on treason charges and was sentenced to death. On 9th August 1747, just as Elizabeth departed London on her way to join him, Blackwell went to the Swedish executioner. One story, probably apocryphal, is that he put his head on the wrong side of the block, and apologised, saying that this was the first time he been beheaded. His astonishingly loyal wife then dropped from history, and may have ended her days as a midwife. There is even some dispute about the year of her death, but it seems likely she died in 1758, and is buried at Chelsea Old Church, near to her old friend Sir Hans Sloane. 

Constance Smedley - A Curious Herbal - 1922

In the 1920s, the playwright Constance Smedley moved to Chelsea and heard the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, which inspired her to write a verse-play The Curious Herbal (1922), honouring this exemplary artist. It tells how Elizabeth went to the Physic Garden and won over the misogynistic head gardener Miller with the quality of her illustrations and devotion to her imprisoned husband, thereby gaining access to his greenhouses and rare plants. There are no records of the play being performed since the 1940s.


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