Our new herb garden, in a section of the Walled Garden here at Chawton House Library, was officially opened by Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire, Mr Nigel Atkinson, on the 14th of July. It is a tribute to Elizabeth Blackwell, a pioneering mid eighteenth-century herbalist whose 2-volume Curious Herbal work is held in our library collection.

Elizabeth Blackwell (nee Blachrie), a merchant’s daughter, was born c.1700 in Aberdeen, Scotland. After her marriage to Alexander Blackwell, the couple were forced to flee Aberdeen when he was challenged for practising medicine without a licence. In London, and with the help of his wife’s dowry, Alexander set up business as a printer, once again without following the obligatory trade regulations. He was fined and his inability to pay the fines, and mounting debts, saw him thrown into debtors’ prison.

In order to provide for herself and her child, Elizabeth determined to produce an herbal. Like many young women of her class, she had received tuition in drawing and painting. She made detailed botanical drawings of plants, and later took them to Alexander in prison where he would use his medical knowledge to provide descriptions for their use. Elizabeth was responsible for sketching, engraving and hand-colouring the illustrations. Between 1737 and 1739 she published four plates each week until 500 images had been produced. The complete work was then published in two volumes as 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. Her achievement would normally have taken three artists and craftsmen.

Until this point in the mid-eighteenth century, all of the major English herbals – Gerard (1597), Parkinson (1640), and Culpeper (1653) – had been produced by men. Blackwell’s mid eighteenth-century herbal appeared at a critical moment that saw the gradual emergence of botany as a science distinct from simply the medical uses of plants. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was botany that had become widely accepted as the one suitable branch of scientific study for women. What marks out Blackwell’s herbal is the quality of the illustrations. Many of them are based on detailed observations of specimens being grown at the Chelsea Physick Garden, where she was supported and encouraged by Sir Hans Sloane, Richard Mead and Isaac Rand, the apothecary and the Physick Garden’s curator.

Herbals were of course closely tied to gardens like the Chelsea Physick garden, and our interpretation of a herb garden here at Chawton House Library honours this link. But for women living at estates like this one, some of the most important medicinal herbs were still to be sought in the fields and hedgerows of the countryside.

The Royal College of Physicians endorsed Elizabeth Blackwell’s book and it became a financial success enabling her to secure Alexander’s release from prison. In 1742 Alexander once again left his family to travel to Sweden, taking the remaining funds from the book. He was subsequently executed for treason in 1747 after becoming embroiled in a political conspiracy. Elizabeth died approximately ten years later, in 1758. She is buried in the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church.