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Significant Scots
Alexander and Elizabeth Blackwell


BLACKWELL, ALEXANDER and ELIZABETH, husband and wife. The former was brother to the more celebrated Dr Thomas Blackwell, the subject of the following article. His father, Thomas Blackwell, was at first minister of Paisley, whence he was removed, in 1709, to be one of the ministers of Aberdeen. He was there appointed to be Professor of Divinity in the Marischal college, and afterwards, in 1717, raised by the crown to the rank of Principal, which he held till his death in 1728. Alexander, his son, exhibited at an early period such symptoms of genius as induced his father to employ great personal care in his education. At fifteen, he was a perfect Greek and Latin scholar, and he afterwards distinguished himself very highly at college. It would appear that his union to Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the daughter of a merchant at Aberdeen, took place under clandestine circumstances, and was connected with a step which gave a direction to all his future fortunes. This was a secret elopement to London, where he arrived before any of his friends knew where he was. Blackwell appears to have been a man of mercurial and adventurous temperament; possessing, with these qualities, exactly that degree of ability and accomplishment, which has enabled so many of his countrymen to prosecute a successful career in London. His first employment was that of corrector of the press to Mr Wilkins, an eminent printer. Afterwards, he was enabled to set up as a printer on his own account, and for this purpose he occupied a large house in the Strand. But he did not long pursue this business before an action was brought against him for not having served a regular apprenticeship to it. The unsuccessful defence of this action ruined him, and one of his creditors threw him into jail, where he remained two years.

Hitherto we hear nothing of his wife—and, perhaps, but for the misfortunes of the husband, the virtues of this noble woman might have only decorated a private station, and never emerged into the light of public fame. Like the flower, however, which blooms most by night, the better quality of woman’s nature is chiefly developed under the cloud of sorrow; and it is only when the powers of man have been prostrated, or found of no avail, that her weakness shines forth in its real character—latent strength. Elizabeth Blackwell happened to possess a taste for drawing flowers;—a taste then so very rare, that there was hardly any engraved work in existence, containing representations of this interesting department of creation. The acknowledged want of a good herbal occurred to her as affording the means of exerting this gift in a useful way; and some of her first attempts being submitted to Sir Hans Sloane, Dr Mead, and other eminent physicians, she soon received sufficient encouragement to proceed in her work. A document, attesting their satisfaction with Mrs Blackwell’s specimens, and recommending her contemplated work to public attention, was signed by six eminent physicians, including these gentlemen, and bears date, "October 1, 1735." By the advice of Mr Rand, an eminent apothecary, demonstrator to the Company of Apothecaries in the Botanic Garden at Chelsea, Mrs Blackwell hired a house near that establishment, where she had an opportunity of receiving the necessary flowers and plants in a fresh state, as she wanted them; she also received great encouragement and assistance from Mr Philip Miller, so well known for his publications connected with horticulture.

Mrs Blackwell not only made drawings of the flowers, but she also engraved them on copper, and coloured the prints with her own hands. Her husband lent all the aid in his power, by attaching the Latin names of the plants, together with a short account of their principal characters and uses, chiefly taken, by permission, from Miller’s "Botanicum Officinale." The first volume of the work appeared in 1737, in large folio, containing two hundred and fifty-two plates, each of which is occupied by one distinct flower or plant; and was dedicated to Dr Mead, with the following address; "As the world is indebted to the encouragers of every public good, if the following undertaking should prove such, it is but justice to declare who have been the chief promoters of it; and as you was the first who advised its publication, and honoured it with your name, give me leave to tell the readers how much they are in your debt for this work, and to acknowledge the honour of your friendship." The second volume, completing the number of plates to five hundred, appeared in 1739, and was inscribed to Mr Rand, in an address breathing as fervent a spirit of gratitude, and acknowledging that, in her own ignorance of Botany, she was entirely obliged to him for the completeness of the work, so far as it went. The drawings are in general faithful; and if there is wanting that accuracy which modern improvements have rendered necessary, in delineating the more minute parts, yet, upon the whole, the figures are sufficiently distinctive of the subjects. The style of the engravings is what would now be called hard, but it is fully on a level with the prevailing taste of the age; and, as a piece of labour, executed, it would appear, in the space of four years, by the hands of one woman, the whole work is entitled alike to our wonder and admiration. While Mrs Blackwell was proceeding in her task, she attracted the attention of many persons of eminent rank and character, and also a great number of scientific persons, who visited her at Chelsea, and afforded her many marks of kindness. On the completion of the first volume, she was permitted in person to present a copy to the College of Physicians, who acknowledged her extraordinary merit by a handsome present, as well as a testimonial, under the hands of the president and censors of the institution, characterising her work as "most useful," and recommending it to the public. It seems to have been at this period of her labours, that, after having all along supported her family by her own exertions, she was enabled to redeem her husband from confinement.

Blackwell, after his release, lived for some time at Chelsea with his wife, and, on her account, was much respected. He attempted to perfect himself in the study of physic, and also formed schemes for the improvement of waste lands. This latter subject he studied to such a degree, as to be enabled to write an agricultural treatise, which attracted some attention. Among his other occupations, for some time, was a prosecution which he entered into against some printsellers, for pirating his wife’s botanical plates. By his success in this affair, he revenged in some measure the persecution to which he had been subjected for his inadvertent breach of another exclusive law. His agricultural knowledge gradually became known, and he was often consulted on difficult points connected with that science, and received handsome fees for his trouble. At one time he was employed by the Duke of Chandos in superintending some agricultural operations at Cannons. His work on agriculture, which was published at this time, recommended him to the attention of a still higher patronage—the Swedish ambassador, who, having transmitted a copy to his court, was directed to engage the author, if possible, to go to Stockholm. Blackwell accepted this engagement, and sailed for the Swedish capital, leaving his wife and one child in England, with a promise that he would soon send for them. He was received in the kindest manner at the court of Stockholm, was lodged in the house of the Prime Minister, and was allowed a pension. The king of Sweden happening soon after to be taken dangerously ill, Blackwell was permitted to prescribe for him, and had the good fortune to effect a cure. He was consequently appointed one of the king’s physicians, and styled Doctor, though it does not appear that he ever took a degree in medicine. While enjoying all this good fortune, he was not forgetful of his wife, but sent her several sums of money, and she was on the point of sailing to join him at Stockholm, when all his prospects, and life itself, were overwhelmed at one blow. It is probable, from the character of his brother Thomas, that he was a fervent admirer of the principles of civil liberty. Nothing, moreover, can be more probable than that a man, accustomed to all the freedom of speech which is so harmlessly permitted in Britain, mightnot very readily accommodate himself to that prudence of the tongue which is demanded from the subjects of an arbitrary monarchy.It is at least certain, that he was apprehended on suspicion of being connected with a plot,which had been formed by one Count Tessin, for overturning the constitution of the kingdom, and altering the line of succession. Being put to the torture, he is alleged to have confessed a concern in this conspiracy. Every reader, however, will acknowledge, that confessions under the torture form historical documents of a very questionable nature. Being tried for his supposed offence before a royal commission, he was sentenced to be broken alive on the wheel, and put to the death of a traitor. In the course of his trial, some imputations were thrown upon his Britannic Majesty, for which, in conjunction with other circumstances, the British ambassador was recalled from Stockholm. The unfortunate Blackwell was executed, July 29th, 1747, but not, it would appear, with the tortures assigned by his sentence. On the scaffold, he protested to the people his entire innocence of the crimes laid to his charge, and, as the best proof of what he stated, pointed out his utter want of all motive for engaging in an attempt against the government. He prayed with great devotion, but happening to lay his hand wrong upon the block, he remarked good-humouredly, that, as this was his first experiment, no wonder he required a little instruction. The date of Mrs. Blackwell’s death is not ascertained. [Soon after the death of Blackwell appeared "a genuine copy of a letter from a merchant in Stockholm, to his correspondent in London, containing an impartial account of Dr Alexander Blackwell, his plot, trial, character, and behaviour, both under examination and at the place of execution, together with a copy of a paper delivered to a friend upon the scaffold, in which he denied the crime imputed to him." This publication does not appear to have been genuine, and as it contains some particulars of the life of Blackwell totally at variance with the above more authentic and probable account, which is chiefly derived from a letter signed by G.J. and dated from Bath, in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1747, we have entirely rejected it. This spurious work is, nevertheless, chiefly used by Mr Nichols, in an account of Blackwell given in the Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century.] Her work was afterwards re-published on the continent.


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