In Modena recently, we were having a nice mooch round the Biblioteca Estense in the Palazzo dei Musei, which also houses the Galleria Estense, the Lapidario Romano, the Musei Civici di Modena, and several other collections. (A tasting session for Lambrusco was also in full swing, but at 10 o’clock in the morning we decided it would not be prudent to buy tickets.)
The library is now owned by the university of Modena, but it began as the private collection of the Este dukes of Ferrara, who were forced to leave their city in 1598 by Pope Clement VIII, who on the death of Alfonso II, son of the great Ercole II d’Este and grandson of Lucrezia Borgia, claimed that the duchy belonged to the Papal States. The heir, Cesare d’Este, was unable to get any of the then Great Powers to support him, and retreated, with the family possessions, to the minor Este duchy of Modena, where in 1634 construction of the enormous Palazzo Ducale (today a military academy) was begun.
The library was/is one of the greatest in Europe, and while we were there it had on display some of its greatest treasures, including a remarkable Portuguese map of the world from the late fifteenth century, brought back from Lisbon by a merchant-cum-spy, Alberto Cantino. What I was gobsmacked by, however, was this:
The label said:
I had never heard of Elizabeth Blackwell, or her husband Alexander, so hot-footed it to the ODNB, which revealed a short but extraordinary story of love, elopement, bankruptcy, conjugal devotion, skulduggery, torture and execution …
The next step was a visit to Cambridge University Library, which holds the two volumes of A Curious Herbal (the first volume being the 1739 edition, ‘Printed for John Nourse at the Lamb without Temple Bar MCCXXXIX’, to go with the first edition of the second volume). Imagine my disappointment, when the two enormous books were delivered to my desk in the Rare Books Room, to discover that, although each of the 500 plates bears the rubric ‘Eliz. Blackwell delin. sculp. et Pinx.’, this set had not been coloured. But the content, though less beautiful therefore than it might have been, is none the less fascinating, as much for the text as for the illustrations.
The life of Elizabeth Blackwell, née Blachrie (1707–58), takes up a mere two paragraphs in the ODNB, and there seems to have been no biography, contemporary or later, of her (though Robert Chambers’ Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1835) has a joint entry on her and her husband) – her exact dates of birth and death are not known, and there is only one surviving possible likeness of her.
Elizabeth was the daughter of a prosperous Aberdeen stocking merchant, and seems to have eloped to London in about 1728 with her second cousin Alexander Blackwell (1700(?)–47), the black sheep of an otherwise respectable and scholarly Aberdeen family, who had attended the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh before going to Leiden in 1725 to study under Herman Boerhaave, anatomist, physician, botanist and friend of Linnaeus. In spite of all this education, he seems never to have qualified in medicine, though he was later known and employed as a doctor.
In London, he first worked as a printer’s corrector, and he then used Elizabeth’s money to set up on his own as a printer – an error of judgment, as the Stationers’ Company closed ranks against an outsider who had not gone through the conventional path of apprenticeship etc. The Stationers took him to court, he lost all his/their money defending the case, and, being declared bankrupt, he spent two years in a debtor’s prison.
It was to rescue her husband that Elizabeth Blackwell undertook her remarkable work. Encouraged by Sir Hans Sloane and other physicians, and living near the Chelsea Physic Garden, where she obtained the help of Philip Miller, she drew the plants and then made copper-plate engravings both of the images and also of the text, in neat, legible, flowing ‘hand-writing’.
The plates are presented in sequences of four pages, preceded by notes on the four plants depicted. These consist of: 1. size and colour; 2. origin, flowering period; 3. medicinal use; 4. names in various languages. (Alexander is supposed to have helped with the text, and it is probably from him that the Dutch names come – though the spaces for the different names are not always filled.)
After labouring for nearly three years on the plates (which were first issued in weekly fascicles), carrying out all the administration and book-keeping relating to them, and burying a son, William, in May 1736, Elizabeth was able to release Alexander from prison. She continued the work until 1739, and gave birth to a second son, Alexander, in 1742. Meanwhile, Alexander senior became briefly superintendent of works at Cannons for the duke of Chandos, but also in 1742 (it is not clear whether before or after the birth of his son) left for Sweden – another error of judgment.
His subsequent fate can be summed up briefly: after continuing his agricultural career in Sweden, he somehow became physician to King Frederick I. Fatally, he dabbled in politics, was imprisoned on extremely flimsy evidence, accused of conspiracy against the Crown Prince, tortured and finally put to death in 1747. A longer and extremely gruesome account (which however contradicts some of the known details of Blackwell’s life) can be found here, from p. 7. Another account was given by John Nichols in Volume 2 of the Literary Anecdotes, but this is not necessarily reliable, depending as it does on a letter from an ‘anonymous gentleman’ after the event.
He is supposed, after days on the rack, to have made quite a good joke: being told off by the executioner for putting his head on the block the wrong way round, he said that he could be excused for getting it wrong, as he’d never done it before. We can only hope that not too much of this got back to Elizabeth in England. Nothing else seems to be known of her except that she was buried in Chelsea Old Church in October 1758.
Here are some of the plates and texts (photos not brilliant, I’m afraid): it is fascinating to see how (in my opinion!) she gets better at the engraving as the work proceeds, especially in respect to shading and cross-hatching. But the point is that (even without colour) all the familiar plants are instantly recognisable, giving one confidence as to the usefulness of the work in identifying unknown ones; and the text is short, structured, and in English: a clear, succinct and invaluable guide for lay people.