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-coloured 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.
Marta McDowell teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. She has authored several books, including Unearthing "The Secret Garden" and All the Presidents' Gardens. Janet Stiles Tyson, an independent scholar, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal.
"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 introduction by Marta McDowell and subsequent essay by Janet Stiles Tyson, so carefully researched, for the first time provide 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
"In this new edition, Blackwell's gorgeous plates bloom afresh, while two engaging essays by Martha McDowell and Janet Stiles Tyson vividly capture the life and times of this brave, talented woman."
– Victoria Johnson, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for American Eden
"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
"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