A Curious Herbal

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on


Early Botanical Illustrations

Herbal illustrations, although being some of the earliest known type of Botanical illustrations, were not in print until the 15th century when the first printing presses were invented. Their purpose would largely have been for apothecaries to aid them when making up prescriptions for physicians. It was only in later years that they began to be appreciated as a creative art form, rather than simply for medicinal use. Today, botanical illustration is known to be the inspiration for some of the most exquisite floral fabric and wallpapers of William Morris. 

 William Morris Acanthus Print

William Morris, 'Acanthus' print

Elizabeth Blackwell 

Elizabeth Blackwell was born during the 18th Century in Aberdeen, making a name for herself after writing and illustrating the phenomenal book ‘A Curious Herbal’ published in 1737 - 1739. A typical affluent lady, living during this time would have participated in painting and drawing classes. As the daughter of a successful merchant, the skills Elizabeth obtained during her tuition were to stand her in good stead. When she was 28 she married Alexander Blackwell, a well educated man. Despite not actually completing his formal training in medicine he pursued a doubtful venture, if not fraudulent practice as a physician. After this was challenged the couple swiftly left for a new life in London. Following that, and partaking in a new career in the printing industry, he found himself in a spot of bother. Once again, due to not obtaining the necessary qualifications, he ended up with substantial fines for not following the trade regulations. This led him to a conviction at a debtors prison and Elizabeth and her child having to financially support themselves. 


 A Curious Herbal

A page from inside the book 'The Curious Herbal'

Fortunately Elizabeth Blackwell had an excellent head for business and saw a gap in the market for creating an up to date herbal book for apothecaries, covering some of the recently discovered species from overseas. She gained the support from the Society of Apothecaries, leading doctors and also took a room in the Chelsea Physic Garden all to aid her with support for her project. Whist spending time in the Chelsea Physic Garden she began illustrating the plants from life. She then sought  advice for their identification from Alexander, whilst he was in prison. Incidentally, he was able to name many of them in different languages. His skills from the medical and printing field was a near perfect collaboration for Elizabeth, and with their combined knowledge and talent she set about engraving copper plates for printing.


 Orchids at the Chelsea Physic Garden

An exotic Orchid growing at the Chelsea Physic Garden


A Curious Herbal

During 1737 -1739 Elizabeth printed 500 plates of the most useful plants, with the complete works in two volumes ‘A Curious Herbal’. The astute businesswoman she had been forced to become, took her on journey, establishing great deals with booksellers. Eventually the book became not only a valuable source of reference, but also financially lucrative. Unfortunately, Alexander’s time in prison wasn’t enough to dissuade him from returning to his old ways, and ultimately it ended in execution in the gallows, hung for treason. Despite their departure from one another in the years leading up to this, Elizabeth faithfully sent him proportions of her royalties made from the book.

A pioneering female Botanical Illustrator

Elizabeth’s book was such a relevant use of contemporary herbal species, alongside a vast knowledge of medical observations that  it became invaluable as a source of reference. Even finding its way onto one of Captain Cook’s voyages at sea, with Sir Joseph Banks, a renowned botanist, who proceeded to add his own annotations to pages within the book. Banks' collection of natural history was perhaps one of the most exceptional of its time, and to this day is preserved at the London Natural History Museum. It is quite an accolade for a female illustrator, that from her innovative ambition of illustrating plants of unseen species led to connections with some of the world’s most exciting visionaries of her time.  

Inspiration from Elizabeth Blackwell 

Moving forwards into the modern day, back in 2019 an email arrived in my inbox with an exciting commission to work with BrewDog, an alcoholic drinks brand on their latest creation from their Scottish distillery. As I entered the initial discussions I was thrilled to learn how they had created one of the worlds first Botanical Rums, from a story they had discovered of the tenacious and inspiring Elizabeth Blackwell. I was familiar with the history from previous research I had made for my book, and couldn't wait to get started on such an illustration.


Launch for BrewDogs, 'Five Hundred Cuts'

Illustration for BrewDog's 'Five Hundred Cuts' Botanical Rum

After weeks of excellent art direction and some long hours in my studio I completed the illustration to be used on the final packaging for the Botanical Rum bottle 'Five Hundred Cuts'. With the name coming from the 500 cuts (or cuttings') of plants Elizabeth Blackwell illustrated in the 'Curious Herbal' book all those years ago.

BrewDogs 'Five Hundred Cuts'

To celebrate the launch of BrewDogs 'Five Hundred Cuts' I was invited to a very special evening at The Chelsea Physic Garden in London where the story all began and coming full circle again to a marked location in history. I find it fascinating how the curiosity and and appreciation for Botanical Illustration is still as much respected and adored today even in the most modern and edgy respects.


Botanical Rum

 BrewDog's 'Five Hundred Cuts' Botanical Rum

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.