It’s hard to ignore the beautiful overspill of flowers and wildlife filling up London’s streets and parks thanks to the recent influx of sunshine. With the Chelsea Flower Show and the Chelsea Fringe Festival that coloured London’s usually grey streets technicolour last month, we are left marvelling at the flora this surprising city has to offer.
The attraction of nature as a subject for paintings has always fascinated artists throughout history, however many artists were creating more than just decorative paintings. Before the invention of the camera, the botanical artist played a vital role in scientific classifications of plants, documenting new species being discovered all over the world.
Elizabeth Blackwell (born in the early 1700s) was one of the first women to achieve fame as a botanical artist, spending much of her time working in and around the wilderness of London. She led a fascinating life and career. Using the Chelsea Physic Garden as her resource for plants and specimens, she undertook a six year project to produce a book, 'A Curious Herbal', just to raise funds and pay off her troublesome husband's debts to release him from debtors prison. The book was in high demand due to there being no such information source existing in England. Unlike most apothecary resources which were unillustrated, Elizabeth's book documented the medicinal qualities of the different species alongside her detailed and ornate depictions, which allowed physicians to identify the various herbs and plants.
Botanical Artwork and 'A Curious Herbal" by Elizabeth Blackwell
Sadly for Elizabeth, her husband did not cease in his troublesome ways, and upon his release he left her, emigrated to Sweden and became involved in a conspiracy to alter the Swedish succession, resulting in him being put to death in 1747. Elizabeth continued living in Chelsea until her death in 1758.
Far surpassing the poor reputation of her husband and leading her own flourishing career as a botanical artist, she is commemorated as one of the four names on a plaque in Chelsea Old Church dedicated to Chelsea women distinguished by their learning and piety.
'A Curious Herbal' is a wonderful example of what London has to offer in terms of natural beauty and there is still a vast amount of wildlife just beyond your doorstep available as an endless source of inspiration. Whether it's the expanses of Richmond Park, the hidden secrets of some of London’s garden squares or Elizabeth Blackwell's own favourite Chelsea Physic Garden, take a leaf out of 'A Curious Herbal' and see the vibrancy of wildlife entangled within the city. Perhaps you'll be putting down your phone and picking up your sketchbook on your next walk around London!