Blackwell, Elizabeth (DNB00)

BLACKWELL, ELIZABETH (fl. 1737), wife of Alexander Blackwell [q. v.], is positively asserted by James Bruce (Lives of Eminent Men of Aberdeen, p. 307) to have been the daughter of a stocking merchant in Aberdeen, and to have eloped with her husband to London before he found employment as a corrector of the press. No authority is given for these statements. Blackwell's biographer in the 'Bath Journal,' who seems to write with a knowledge of the family, asserts on the other hand that the marriage took place subsequently, and describes Elizabeth as ' a virtuous gentlewoman, the daughter of a worthy merchant,' who gave his daughter a handsome portion. ' Virtuous ' and ' worthy ' were unquestionably epithets applicable to Elizabeth herself, who extricated her husband from his pecuniary difficulties by applying her talent for painting to the delineation of medicinal plants with the colours of nature. She was encouraged by Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Mead, and Mr. Rand, curator of the botanical garden at Chelsea. By his advice she took lodgings close by the garden, where she was supplied with plants, which she depicted with extreme skill and fidelity, while Blackwell himself supplied the scientific and foreign nomenclature, and, with the original author's consent, abridged the descriptions in Philip Miller's ' Botanicum Officinale.' After finishing the drawings, Elizabeth engraved them on copper herself, and coloured the prints with her own hands. The work at length appeared in 1737, in 2 vols. folio, under the title of ' A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants which are now used in the practice of Physic.' It was accompanied by laudatory certificates from the College of Physicians and College of Surgeons, and dedications to Drs. Mead, Pellet, and Stuart. As a monument of female devotion it is most touching and admirable, and its practical value was very great. 'If,' says a writer in Chalmers's 'Dictionary,' 'there is wanting that accuracy which modern improvements have rendered necessary in delineating the more minute parts; yet, upon the whole, the figures are sufficiently distinctive of the subject.' Rousseau complains of its want of method, but it was not designed to accompany treatises on botany. Its merits received the most substantial recognition from the fine republication undertaken by Trew (Nüremberg, 1757-73), with the addition of a sixth century of plants, and a preface pointing out its superiority to the more scientific work of Morandi alike in accuracy and delicacy of colouring and in the copiousness of representations of exotic plants. Having performed her task of delivering her husband and temporarily re-establishing his affairs, Elizabeth Blackwell disappears from observation. According to the contemporary pamphlet on her husband's execution, she was then in England, but had been upon the point of joining him in Sweden. The date of her death is not recorded. She must have left children if, as has been stated, descendants from her exist at the present day.

[Gent. Mag. vol. xvii.; Chalmers's Dict.; Bruce's Eminent Men of Aberdeen, 1841.]

R. G.