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An 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants Honors the Groundbreaking Artist Elizabeth Blackwell
August 11, 2023
Slices of quince revealing tiny seed pockets, serrated dandelion leaves cradling spindly stems, and juicy elderberries growing in dense clusters are a few of the specimens that intrigued Elizabeth Blackwell (1699–c. 1758). An always passionate artist living during a time that saw a burgeoning interest in the natural world, Blackwell illustrated a thick, detailed compendium of approximately 500 plants and their properties to aid doctors and medical professionals in treatment.
Titled A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants, Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick, the book today is hailed for both its exquisitely detailed renderings and the fact that it’s the first of its kind created by a woman. Abbeville Press released the first modern edition earlier this year, finally granting Blackwell long-deserved recognition and offering today’s readers a chance to peek inside the vivid, botanical encyclopedia. The new release is also the first to include a preface by the author herself, which speaks to her long-running passion for botanicals and art.
Always creatively talented and ambitious, Blackwell first got the idea for A Curious Herbal when she needed to make money after her husband was jailed in a debtor’s prison. The project was all-encompassing, with the artist not only researching, drawing, engraving and hand-coloring the copper printing plates, and writing the descriptions for each specimen but also selling the book herself.
In addition to undertaking such a herculean amount of work, Blackwell was doing so at a time when women were largely barred from scientific institutions and medical professions. Given its commercial success, A Curious Herbal was not only a creative feat but also a social one, emphasizing the value of women’s knowledge and artistic output particularly as it related to male-dominated fields.
A Curious Herbal is available now on Bookshop. (via Hyperallergic)
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