A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell's Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art (Hardcover)
A complete edition of the first herbal published by a woman artist—which has a remarkable backstory
In the 1730s, Elizabeth Blackwell (1699–c. 1758) found herself penniless, with her ne’er-do-well husband confined to a London debtor’s prison. A talented artist, she came up with a unique and ambitious moneymaking scheme: the publication of a new illustrated guide to medicinal plants, including many New World species not depicted in earlier books. Blackwell’s Curious Herbal, published between 1737 and 1739, was hailed for its usefulness to doctors and apothecaries and met with considerable financial success.
This magnificent volume—the first modern edition of Blackwell’s herbal—reproduces all five hundred of her exquisite plates. Blackwell not only made the drawings, but prepared the copper plates and personally hand-colored them. Her handwritten descriptions of the plants, which she creatively adapted (with permission) from Joseph Miller’s Botanicum Officinale, retain considerable interest. This book features a previously unknown preface by Blackwell, in which she reveals her passion for art and nature, and her vision for the herbal. Two introductory texts contextualize Blackwell’s achievement: the noted garden writer Marta McDowell explores the history of herbals as a genre, and the state of botanical knowledge in Blackwell’s time; and the historian Janet Stiles Tyson relates the artist’s rather extraordinary biography.
A Curious Herbal will be essential for all lovers of botanical art, and for anyone interested in women’s history and the history of science.
About the Author
Marta McDowell is a gardener, lecturer, and horticultural writer. Her books include A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art (Abbeville), Gardening Can Be Murder: How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, and Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers, and Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, winner of the Gold Award from the Garden Writers Association.
Janet Stiles Tyson, an independent scholar, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal.
A Curious Herbal resurrects Blackwell’s determined vision, fills crucial gaps in her biography, and grants her the recognition that she has long deserved, but not yet received. . . . In all, the book is a captivating look at a moment when science, medicine, and — at least in the case of Blackwell — gender dynamics were drastically shifting in Britain. It’s a valuable reminder that more historical heroines are waiting to be rediscovered; we just need to look closely.
— Lauren Moya Ford, Hyperallergic
A woman of courage, ingenuity, determination and curiosity, Elizabeth Blackwell has an extraordinary story that deserves to be retold. Excellent scholarship by Janet Stiles Tyson and her discovery of a previously unrecorded manuscript written by Blackwell, unveil new information about Blackwell’s rogue husband and family lineage.
In Georgian-era London, it was nearly impossible for a woman to make her mark, yet the talented Mrs. Blackwell garnered the support of many men in learned society and created a practical and carefully illustrated pharmacopeia. Marta McDowell's essay provides historical context and firmly places Blackwell’s Curious Herbal in the pantheon of great herbals.
This gorgeous book has the heft of an ancient herbal. It is a treasure for anyone interested in the healing properties of plants. Blackwell’s precise depictions... are beautifully reproduced. It is a joy to turn every page.
— Susan Fraser, Director Emerita of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden
As a wife and mother excluded from the male institutions of eighteenth-century British botany and medicine, Elizabeth Blackwell created her Curious Herbal against tremendous odds. In this new edition, Blackwell’s gorgeous plates bloom afresh, while two engaging essays—by Marta McDowell and Janet Stiles Tyson—vividly capture the life and times of this brave, talented woman. Almost three centuries on, this stunning volume does justice to Blackwell’s great achievement in medical botany.
— Victoria Johnson, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
That Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal has been reprinted in full gives credit to its longevity as a text and set of illustrations that have stood the test of time, and remain relevant and worthy of recognition to this day.
The [text], so carefully researched, for the first time provides what feels to be a factual and fascinating insight into Blackwell’s life and the depth of her endeavor, in a world dominated by men, whilst dispelling some of the myths and misinformation that surrounded her.
— Sue Medway, Director and Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, London
McDowell and Tyson’s new volume is that rarest of things: a scholarly facsimile that’s also a thing of great beauty. Magnificent and long-overdue, it will surely become an essential reference for scholars of Blackwell, and anyone interested in 18th century botany.
— Will Beharrell, Librarian of the Linnean Society of London