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A fruitful enterprise

Elizabeth Blachrie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, early in the eighteenth century but eloped with her doctor cousin, Alexander Blackwell, to London amidst doubts as to the veracity of his medical qualifications. Here, Alexander worked for a printing firm for a short time before setting up his own print shop. However, as he had not served an apprenticeship, he was fined heavily for breaking the trade rules and ended up in a debtors’ prison. In order to make ends meet, Elizabeth came up with the idea of creating a new herbal – a description of plants and their medicinal uses – to include more exotic, unfamiliar plants as well as those found in Britain.

Having a not inconsiderable talent as an artist, she would herself draw the images, make the copper engravings and colour the printed pictures and her husband would provide the Latin names and the medical information. Supported by a number of eminent physicians and aided by horticulturalists and visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden, Elizabeth produced a two-volume work containing 500 plates, which was published in London, the first volume in 1737 and the second in 1739. It was a great success, enabling her to secure Alexander’s release.

Blackwell’s Herbal was subsequently translated into German by Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), a doctor – Head of the Medical Association – and botanist with a passion for books, who also added more information to the descriptions with a view to producing a five-volume set. The drawings were corrected according to the recent teachings of the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778); Nikolaus Friedrich Eisenberger (1707-1771) re-engraved the plates; a sixth volume was also added and this edition was published between 1750 and 1773.

Trinity College Dublin Library acquired this work (Shelfmark: Fag.GG.3.5-10) in 1802 as part of the Fagel Collection. This collection consists of around 20,000 items amassed by several generations of the Dutch Fagel family. Many of the family held high public office in Holland but during the Napoleonic wars they had to flee the country and their library was sold by Christie’s auction house. It is the largest private Dutch library still intact in the world. On display in the foyer of the Berkeley Library at the moment are the red rose (rosa rubra) in Vol.I and columbine (aquilegia) in Vol.V.

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