Untold lives blog

81 posts categorized "Rare books"

05 May 2022

The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society

The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society was established in 1851.  On 31 March five boys were sent out for the first time to work in the streets of London for a fortnight’s trial.  By July, 30 boys were on the books.

Shoe-blacks at work - from the front cover of 'The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society. An account of its origin, operations, and present condition'Front cover of The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society. An account of its origin, operations, and present condition. By the Committee. (London, 1854) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The idea of reviving the obsolete occupation of shoe-black was prompted by the wish to cater for overseas visitors in London for the Great Exhibition who would want to have access to this service as they did at home.  The police were consulted, and approved stations were set up to ensure that the boys did not obstruct public footpaths.

Boys wanting to join the Shoe-Black Society had to be recommended by the superintendent of a Ragged Union School and submit a printed form stating their circumstances.  After a few days’ practice with the brushes, boys were given a month’s trial.  The shoe-blacks maintained the connection to their school and attended as often as possible on weekday evenings and Sundays.

Uniform and equipment were provided by the Society.  The shoe-blacks wore a red woollen jersey, a cap with a red band, and a black apron.  Two badges were displayed: one read ‘Ragged School Shoe-Black Society’, and the other was the boy’s distinctive letter sewn in glass beads by the girls of the Lisson Street Refuge.  Kneeling mats and boxes for resting customers’ feet were made by boys at the Grotto Passage Refuge.

Each morning the shoe-blacks from all parts of London assembled at 7.30 am at the Society’s office off the Strand to pick up their boxes and uniforms.  After prayers and a Scripture reading, they went off to their stations before returning in the evening: 4 pm in the winter and 6.30 pm in the summer.  The charge for brushing customers’ trousers and cleaning their shoes was one penny.  Officials from the Society visited the boys during the day to oversee their conduct and supply blacking.

A daily account of earnings was kept with each boy.  Sixpence was returned to the boy and the rest divided – one third to the boy immediately; one third retained by the Society; one third paid into a fund for the boy.  Once a boy had ten shillings in the bank, he could draw it out to buy good working clothes,  Further withdrawals were allowed at the discretion of the Society.  When a boy left, the balance was spent for his benefit by the superintendent of his school, on apprenticeship, an outfit for emigration, or clothing for a job.

The boys brought their own lunch to eat at their stations, but for evening meals a refreshment room was provided, run by a matron who received the profit and bore the risk. She sold bread and butter, eggs, herrings, pies, oranges, pudding, coffee and soup.

Punishments were imposed for misconduct.  Fines levied for lateness, absence, and misbehaviour were applied to a sick fund for the boys.  Rewards for earning the most money were given in the form of prizes and medals.  Entertainments and lectures were provided, with an annual treat at Midsummer.

The Society said it took boys who were ‘ragged, hopeless, and sometimes starving’ and gave them a means of livelihood and an incentive to industrious habits.   The occupation of a shoe-black was seen as a stepping stone to better and permanent employment.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society. An account of its origin, operations, and present condition. By the Committee. (London, 1854).


28 March 2022

Those who Lust and those who Lack: Tyranny and Passivity in Early Modern English writing on the Ottomans

In A Voyage into the Levant (1636), Henry Blount creates a number of stereotyped images of Turkish people he encountered during his travels through the Ottoman Empire by stating that they were ‘addict[ed] to sodomy’ (Tiryakioglu, 2015, p. 134).  Blount, according to Rosli and Omar (2017), travelled to the Levant and stayed there for 52 days.  He then made a five-day stop in Constantinople before making his way to Egypt.  Blount even goes as far as to circulate false information about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).  He claims that the Prophet himself thought those who followed his teachings were ‘rude and sensual’ (Blount, 1636, p. 121) and that he wished to trick them into believing in the false paradise for which they were fighting (for example, when the Ottomans invaded the Levant in 1516): ‘Mahomet [...] made not his Paradise to conflict in Visions, and Hallelujahs; but in delicious fare, pleasant Gardens, and Wenches with great eyes [...] he promises that their Souls shall suddenly have given them young lusty bodies, and set in Paradise, eternally to enjoy those pleasures [...]’ (p.122).

Castles Sultaniye and Kilitbahir on the European and Asiatic shores of the DardanellesThe castles Sultaniye and Kilitbahir on the European and Asiatic shores of the Dardanelles from Henry Blount, Zee- en Land-Voyagie Van den Ridder Hendrik Blunt, Na de Levant. Gedaan in het Jaar 1634 (1707) via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, it appears that Blount was attempting to demonise the Ottomans in the minds of his reader due to English anxieties about increased Anglo-Ottoman trade at the start of the 17th century (Ágoston, 2013; Erkoç, 2016).  This attempt to demonise the Ottomans as self-indulgent and barbaric also recurs in The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures and Painfull Peregrinations (1632) by William Lithgow.  Lithgow recounts what he witnessed of the Ottoman slave trade whilst visiting a market in Constantinople and, as a result of his experiences, warns his reader that Turkish people are ‘extremely inclined to all sorts of lascivious luxury ... besides all their sensual and incestuous lusts, unto sodomy, which they account as a dainty to digest [with] all their other libidinous pleasures’ (Lithgow, 1632, p.105).

The stereotyped cultural Ottoman figure that features in Blount’s and Lithgow’s writing also affected early modern dramatic portrayals of Ottomans as violent, lustful, and, politically corrupt.  The theatrical Turkish type may have generally encouraged early modern resurgences of crusading rhetoric, whereby the First Crusade in 1095 was seen as a means to relieve the Orient from what European Christians perceived as barbarism.  However, the endorsement of English crusading rhetoric against Ottomans in early modern writing are a point of contention for Roger Boyle in his play, The Tragedy of Mustapha (1665).  Boyle depicts his Sultan Solyman’s killing of Mustapha, not as being driven by violent impulse but instead, as being driven by the Sultan’s fear that his throne—and therefore, the safety of his subjects—is at risk of being disrupted by Mustapha.  Mustapha is also humanised by Boyle because, in submitting to his death sentence without retaliation, Mustapha fulfils his political duty to his father.  Thus, Boyle represents the disastrous consequences that occur (in the form of Mustapha’s death) when a ruler forces their actions to align with, or to conform to, the expectations of the stereotyped violent Ottoman.

Aisha Hussain
Doctoral researcher at the School of English, University of Salford

Further reading:
Ágoston, G. (2013). ‘War-Winning Weapons? On the Decisiveness of Ottoman Firearms from the Siege of Constantinople (1453) to the Battle of Mohács (1526)’. Journal of Turkish Studies, 39 (1), pp.129-143.
Blount, H. (1636). A Voyage into the Levant. London: Andrew Crooke.
Erkoç, S. (2016). ‘Dealing with Tyranny: Fulke Greville's Mustapha in the Context of His Other Writings and of His View on Anglo-Ottoman Relations’. The Journal of Ottoman Studies, 47(1), pp.265-90.
Boyle, R. (1665). The Tragedy of Mustapha, the son of Solyman the Magnificent. In: The Dramatic Works of Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery: Volume One, ed. by William Smith Clark II. (1937). Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Lithgow, W. (1632). The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures and Painefull Peregrinations of Long Nineteene Yeares Travailes from Scotland to the Most Famous Kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affrica.
Rosli, U.N.B.M., (2017). ‘References of Sexuality in Relation to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in 17th-19th Century Selected French and English Orientalist Travelogues’. Arab World English Journal, 1(4), pp.68-82.
Tiryakioglu, N. O. (2015). The Western image of Turks from the Middle Ages to the 21st century: the myth of 'terrible Turk' and 'lustful Turk’. Published Doctoral Dissertation, Nottingham Trent University.

This blog post is part of a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).  On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog will feature a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections.  Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BLMEMOS.


22 March 2022

Revealing prints at the British Library

I joined the British Library as a Curator of Prints and Drawings in January this year to work on a research project led by Felicity Myrone.  This aims to improve records for prints at the British Library, focussing on works held both by the Library and our sister organisation the British Museum.

I match books or albums at the Library with the relevant print records at the Museum, and an ingenious spreadsheet system devised by my colleague Victoria Morris creates draft MARC records for me to edit.  We are able to create quickly a high volume of print-level records for images within the British Library for the first time.

I examine each book, album or set of prints and alter and augment the relevant British Museum data to cover the history, condition and make-up of the Library’s copies.  The records will be uploaded to our online catalogue in due course, and in the meantime I plan to blog regularly, highlighting interesting items.

The first album of prints I catalogued was Venationes ferarum avium, piscium... [shelfmark: 1899.cc.71.], a set of engravings after Stradanus (1523-1605) depicting intriguing hunting techniques.

Crane Hunt Using ConesDetail from ‘Plate 40: Crane Hunt Using Cones’, from Venationes ferarum avium, piscium... Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The stamping and an inscription on the first page of this album confirms that it once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collection became one of the foundations of the British Museum and Library.  Tracing the ownership, or provenance, of the prints in the British Library is crucial as it will help shed light on how these objects were assembled and collected.

I was able to utilise the British Museum’s records [numbers 1957,0413.37 to 1957,0413.123] to identify that our album did not contain the full set of engravings from the Venationes, but a selection of 38 plates taken from different editions.  Our album shows many signs of use, with three different numbering sequences added in pen to the pages, a doodle, and some details which were pricked for transfer.

Doodle of a chicken and an owl

Doodle of a chicken and owl on the verso of plate 8 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Detail of a dog pricked for transferDetail of a dog pricked for transfer on plate 60 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The album also includes a print which does not belong to the original series.  It is a fragment of a woodcut map pasted on the first page.  Thanks to the lettering on the fragment, I was able to identify it as a section of the Mappe-monde nouvelle papistique, a satirical world-map published in Geneva in 1566.  The full map is made up of sixteen woodblocks, and the fragment preserved in this album is roughly half of one of the blocks which make up the map’s lower right section.

Fragment of the Mappe-Monde Nouvelle Papistique Fragment of the Mappe-Monde Nouvelle Papistique found pasted in the Sloane copy of VenationesPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Only five examples of this map are known to have survived. One of those is preserved in the British Library [shelfmark C.160.c.7.].  It is missing a couple of woodcuts, but unfortunately not ones that match our fragment.

Who assembled and used the album?  Does this fragment belong to one of the five known examples, or to another now lost copy?  Was it also part of Sloane’s collection, or was it perhaps mistakenly added to the album at a later date by a binder or conservator?  If it was part of Sloane’s collection, did he paste it in this album himself, or was it already there when he acquired it?  Attempting to answer these questions would require further research and technical analysis of the material.

There are undoubtedly many more exciting discoveries to be made during this project and I look forward to sharing them.

Alice-Anne Tod
Curator, Prints and Drawing


15 February 2022

Leendert Hasenbosch’s diary: the story of a gay soldier marooned on a desert island

Leendert Hasenbosch, a Dutch East India Company soldier, was marooned on Ascension Island as punishment for sodomy in 1725.  Abandoned on an uninhabited island, he kept a diary of his days as a castaway and his struggle for survival.

Views of Ascension Island circa 1596

Views of Ascension Island circa 1596 Wikimedia Commons

This diary was later recovered and published as Sodomy Punish’d: Being a True and Exact Relation of what befell to one Leondert Hussenlosch (London, 1726), surviving in a single copy in the British Library.  It is a rare first-hand account of the lived-experience and hardships of a gay man at a time when sexual relationships between men were punishable by death.

Title page of  Sodomy Punish'dSodomy Punish’d, London: 1726, British Library RB.23.a.6682

Leendert Hasenbosch spent his first month on the island searching for water and praying for rescue.  Lonely, he wrote in his diary and tried to keep a bird as a pet but it died.

May 5: '…They put on shore with me a cask of water, two buckets an old frying pan &c.  I made a tent on the beech'.
May 8: '…I trust God Almighty will deliver me by some ship that may touch here'.
May 11: 'I sat down very discontented, being almost dead with thirst'.
May 12: 'This afternoon put some onions, pease and calavances into the ground near my tent to try if they would grow'.

In June, Hasenbosch experienced hallucinations and his situation got increasingly desperate.  He linked these visions to his guilty conscience and prayed for 'forgiveness for [his] sins'.  He was haunted by 'devilish spirits', including one with 'the resemblance of a man [he] had been well acquainted with, whose name [he is] afraid to mention; he staid with [him] for some time'.

By August, Hasenbosch’s water supply had dried up and he was beginning to starve.  He’d failed to catch any of the goats on the island and rats had eaten his crops.  His entries became shorter and preoccupied:
August 8 to 10: 'Nothing particular. No rain'.
August 12 to 16: 'Still no rain'.
August 17: 'No rain falling. I am in the most deplorable condition…'

He resorted to desperate measures:
August 22: 'This morning I caught a large turtle, and drank near a quart of her blood, and took some eggs and fat…I drank my own urine'.

Hasenbosch survived for just over another month on eggs, turtle meat, blood and urine:
October 7: 'I was again oblig’d to drink my own urine; I likewise eat raw flesh'.
From October 9 to 14: 'I liv’d as before'.

His published diary ends here.

Entry from the journal of the East India Company ship Compton describing the discovery of Hasenbosch’s campEntry for 20 January 1725/26 from the journal of the East India Company ship Compton – British Library IOR/L/MAR/B/666A

In January 1726, the East India Company ship Compton discovered Hasenbosch’s camp – a tent, bedding, and items including a kettle and tea, pipes, a hatchet and nails, and his diary up to November.  The Compton’s men searched in vain for the man or his body.  They did not believe that he had left the island because ‘his Paper and a great many Necessarys’ had been left in the tent.

Tragically, there are two fresh water sources on Ascension Island but Hasenbosch didn’t find either.  His diary was brought back in the Compton to England where it was published.  Other editions followed, some more homophobic than others.  His identity was only determined centuries later.

As the sailors didn’t find a skeleton in Leendert Hasenbosch’s camp, there is a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, he was rescued by a passing ship and survived.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Read Leendert Hasenbosch’s diary in full
Journal of the East India Company ship Compton – British Library IOR/L/MAR/B/666A


13 December 2021

Miniature books for children

Among the books on loan from the British Library to an exhibition of Miniature Books at Newcastle City Library (until 13 March 2022) are Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741) and two small volumes from The Infant's Library (ca. 1800). These little books can be seen alongside The Jan Pienkowski Fairy Library (1977) and a tiny giveaway edition of The Borrowers (ca. 1980) from the Seven Stories Collection housed in Newcastle City Library. They were all designed to be easily held in little hands for the delight and amusement of young children. These historical books made for children are on display together with miniature books made by primary school children in Newcastle and across the UK in 2020 and 2021.

Photograph of the Miniature Books exhibition at Newcastle City LibraryThe Miniature Books exhibition at Newcastle City Library.

Curiosities in the Tower of London was one of 10 miniature titles produced by Thomas Boreman between 1740 and 1743, at a price of 4 pennies each. Boreman wanted his books to ‘join instruction with delight’ and so he focussed on entertaining children.

Curiosities in the Tower of London was published in two volumes, the first volume contains a description of the Royal menagerie at the Tower. Lively accounts of the wild animals – the lionesses Jenny and Phillis, the lion Marco with his ‘frightful teeth’, and the porcupine, ‘one of the strangest animals in the world’ – and the charming woodcut illustrations all made these little books very attractive to their child readers.

Image of a porcupine in Curiosities in the Tower of London published by Thomas Boreman in 1741Curiosities in the Tower of London.  2nd ed. London: Thomas Boreman, 1741. 2 vols. BL shelfmark Ch.740/7. The volume measures 60 x 65 mm.

A list of young subscribers is included. However as the cost of the book (4d.) would have represented around one third of a labourer’s daily wage, these children were probably from much more affluent families.

List of subscribers in Curiosities in the Tower of LondonList of subscribers in Curiosities in the Tower of London.

Boreman’s books were unlike other 18th century publications for young children that sought to improve their moral conduct through stories that carried a stern and overtly moral and religious message. Instead Boreman wished to improve his young readers’ minds by inspiring them with a sense of wonder and amusement. This unusual approach marked a turning point in the history of children’s literature.

John Marshall, printer and bookseller, issued 17 small volumes in The Infant’s Library at the end of the 18th century. These little books were intended to be educational, and the collection includes a picture alphabet, a short history of England and a description of scenes of everyday life. However Marshall advertised them as both ‘for the instruction and amusement of young people’. Like his other libraries for children that include The Doll’s Library and The Book-Case of Instruction and Delight, The Infant’s Library offered a practical system of learning through play.

Books 9 and 13 give us a particularly charming glimpse into some popular games for boys and girls. Each double page opening shows a few lines of clearly printed, simple text accompanied by a hand-coloured woodcut illustration of children at play.

Boys' Games in The Infant's Library with image of boys playing Battledore and ShuttlecockThe Infant’s Library. London: John Marshall, ca. 1800. Book 9: Boys’ games. BL shelfmark C.194.a.945. Each volume measures 57 x 47 mm. 

It is interesting to see that while Marshall wanted children to use his books as amusing playthings, his text is not without a corrective moral tone. Girls’ games carries a firm warning about playing on the swing as 'this is a very dangerous play and very improper for young ladies'.

Girls' Games in The Infant's Library with image of a girl on a swingThe Infant’s Library. Book 13: Girls’ games. BL shelfmark C.194.a.945

Helen Peden
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further images from these volumes can be found on the Discovering Children’s Books website:



Miniature Books – an exhibition of items from the collections of the British Library and Seven Stories is open at Newcastle City Library until Sunday 13th March, 2022. 

09 December 2021

Elizabeth Polwhele’s taste in reading

A recent acquisition at the British Library may potentially provide more information about the reading taste of the playwright, Elizabeth Polwhele (c. 1651-1691).  We believe we now have a book owned by Polwhele.  The first edition of Hannah Woolley's The Gentlewoman's Companion (1673) is signed with the name 'Elizabeth Polwheile' (Shelfmark C.194.a.1455).  Whether this is the playwright deserves further investigation - copies of Polwhele´s handwriting survive in the manuscripts of her comedy The Frolicks and her tragedy The Faithful Virgins.

Tilte page of The Gentlewoman’s CompanionTitle page of Hannah Woolley,  The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, A Guide to the Female Sex: containing directions of behaviour with letters and discourses upon all occasions Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Gentlewoman's Companion is a female conduct book that features recipes, advice, remedies for illness, including a cure for greensickness (anaemia) - a condition mentioned in Polwhele´s comedy by the rake Rightwit, who offers sexual intercourse with the heroine as a cure for this ailment.  Woolley's preface states that she ‘considered the great need of such a Book as might be a Universal Companion and Guide to the Female Sex, in all Relations, Companies, Conditions, and states of Life, even from Child-hood down to Old-age’.  On the subject of marriage, Woolley cautions: 'Whatever you do be not induced to marry one you have either abhorrency or loathing to; for it is neither affluence of estate, potency of friends, nor highness of descent can allay the insufferable grief of a loathed bed'.

Like Woolley, Polwhele´s work engaged with the complications faced by young women and young wives in maintaining a virtuous reputation whilst preserving their personal happiness.  Clarabell, the witty breeches heroine of The Frolicks, asserts her independence by telling her father who has chosen suitors for her that she 'would not have one to displease me' and will not let her father choose for her.  Polwhele's strong-willed heroine anticipates Hellena in Aphra Behn's The Rover (1677), who also actively resists the future planned for her.  Polwhele was ahead of her time in having Clarabell connect the breeches disguise with independence rather than eroticism, referring to her 'legs and a willing mind' that carry her across the city to free Righwit from debtors´prison.  Polwhele's The Faithful Virgins featured female rivals who unite through friendship, 25 years before this theme was explored in Catharine Trotter's Agnes de Castro (1696).

Charlotte Goodall  in the Breeches Role of Adeline for Battle of Hexham - plumed hat, long hair, cloak, left hand extended with shield, sword in right hand.Charlotte Goodall (actress, 1766 – July, 1830) in the Breeches Role of Adeline for Battle of Hexham by George Colman. Source Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 655229.

It would be wonderful to discover more books from Polwhele's library - even fragmentary traces of what she read could tell us more about her level of education, and her literary influences, to help provide a more complete picture of this talented woman, who described herself as ‘haunted with poetic devils’ and wrote ‘by nature, not art’.  Both Woolley and Polwhele are important figures in the history and development of early women's writing, so the possibility that this is the playwright herself united with Woolley in the British Library's collection is extremely fitting.

Beth Cortese
Assistant Professor in Restoration and 18th Century Literature at the University of Iceland. Her PhD entitled ´Women's Wit onstage, 1660-1720' focused on the representation of witty heroines in the work of female and male playwrights.

Further reading:
Polwhele, Elizabeth. c. 1671. The Frolicks, or The Lawyer Cheated, edited by Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
—— c. 1670. The Faythfull Virgins. Bodleian Library MS Rawl. poet. 195, fols. 49-78.
Woolley, Hannah. 1673. The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, A Guide to the Female Sex: containing directions of behaviour with letters and discourses upon all occasions. London: A. Mawell. British Library General Reference Collection, Shelfmark C.194.a.1455.


26 August 2021

Hilda Elizabeth Henry - 'a skilled craftswoman of exquisite taste'

The British Library celebrates the work of famous or professional historical figures but also gives an insight into the lives of lesser known people, one of whom was art teacher, Hilda Elizabeth Henry (1885-1936).

Sheffield School of Art in 1857 - view of exterior of buildingSheffield School of Art - these purpose-built premises in Arundel Street opened in 1857 - Illustrated Times 22 November 1856 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast.  The School was renamed Sheffield Technical School of Art in 1903.

At a time when women’s lives revolved around the home, Hilda was something of a pioneer.  She was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and when the family moved to Sheffield continued her education there at the High School, at University College and at the art school.  The Sheffield Technical School of Art accepted women students and furthermore recognised Hilda’s talent by awarding her a prestigious 'Montgomery medal'.

Both sides of a Montgomery Medal, one with the head of James Montgomery in profile

Sheffield School of Art , Montgomery medal, 1852

Despite periodic bouts of ill health, Miss Henry made a successful career in education. From 1910-25 she taught art at the Cheltenham Ladies' College where she bound a copy of Rolland’s Vie de Michel-Ange in 1915.

Spine and upper cover of Rolland’s Vie de Michel-Ange by Hilda E. Henry

Decorative detail from the cover of Rolland’s Vie de Michel-AngeSpine and upper cover of Rolland’s Vie de Michel-Ange by Hilda E. Henry

She has been described as 'clearly an amateur', but she took her work seriously and signed herself  'Hilda E. Henry. Binder'.  The fact that she chose to present it to the college is an indication of her satisfaction with her work.

Book label - 'Presented by Miss H. Henry'Interestingly, the College had another connection with bookbinding via one of their governors, the celebrated practitioner Sarah Prideaux, member of the College Council from 1907-1922.  Did Miss Prideaux ever see Miss Henry’s binding, which was kept in locked case (M19) and if so, what was her opinion?

From 1925, Miss Henry was much in demand in Tamworth as mistress of the Tamworth Art School, art mistress of the Grammar School and the Girls' High School, and supervisor of the art teaching in the elementary schools of the borough.  The council paid her £60 a year for the latter post.

Miss Henry’s interests were wide ranging.  She exhibited tooled and embossed leather work at the Autumn Exhibition of the Royal Society of Artists in 1929.  Her pupils were also encouraged to find new ways of artistic expression including leather work, lino cutting and embroidery as well as the customary design, painting and drawing.  Perhaps the most telling tribute to her abilities as an art teacher was a compliment paid by Mr F. Burkitt, the headmaster of the Grammar School: 'She had already made the boys look forward with pleasure to each art lesson, and what was more valuable, to do work of their own accord out of school'.

PJM Marks
Curator, Bookbindings, Printed Heritage Collections

The copy of  Rolland’s Vie de Michel-Ange bound by Hilda E. Henry was acquired recently by the British Library and is awaiting cataloguing.


24 August 2021

'A Curious Herbal' inspiring current day creatives

Let us introduce you to a remarkable woman called Elizabeth Blackwell and her book, A Curious Herbal.  The British Library is lucky enough to have three copies of this important book.  Elizabeth Blackwell, born in the early 1700s, was the first British woman to produce a herbal.  She drew, engraved and coloured the 500 illustrations single-handedly.  The unusual story behind the herbal’s creation makes it even more interesting.

Garden Cucumber by Elizabeth BlackwellGarden Cucumber, Plate 4, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s husband Alexander was a shady character.  He practiced as a doctor in Aberdeen but had no formal medical training or qualifications.   When he was challenged the couple fled to London.  Alexander then tried to establish himself as a printer.  However, the authorities discovered that he hadn’t completed the mandatory apprenticeship.  His breach of regulations incurred a heavy fine which he couldn’t pay.  So he was sent to debtor’s prison.  Elizabeth decided to publish a herbal to support herself and her child, and raise enough money to secure her husband’s release from prison.

Love Apple by Elizabeth BlackwellLove Apple, Plate 133, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth published A Curious Herbal in parts between 1737 and 1739.  Several leading botanists endorsed her.  She also approached Sir Hans Sloane who granted her access to the foreign plant specimens in his collection (see the blog post Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane).  There were 500 engraved illustrations in total, all hand-coloured by Elizabeth herself.  Normally this would require three separate professionals.  She drew specimens not only from England but also many from North and South America.  These specimens were brought to England by colonists and botanists who often had links to slave labour plantations.

'Female Piony' by Elizabeth Blackwell'Female Piony', Plate 65, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s plan worked. Her profits secured Alexander’s release from prison. But, despite his wife’s heroic efforts, he was not a reformed man. His debts built up once more and he became entangled in a political conspiracy in Sweden. He was beheaded for treason in 1748. Elizabeth Blackwell faded from the historical record after this – we don’t know much about the rest of her life. But she will always be remembered for being a pioneer in botanical illustration and for her heroic efforts to help her (useless!) husband.

Guinea Pepper by Elizabeth BlackwellGuinea Pepper, Plate 129, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This summer A Curious Herbal is being used to inspire current budding botanical illustrators taking part in the Entangled Sketchbook Challenge organised by Lancaster University.  The Challenge invites people to examine the natural world around them using a series of prompts to make daily notes, doodles and drawings to record details of what they find, including the date, time and weather.  The hashtag for sharing these drawings on social media is #EntangledSketchbooks.

Challenge participants can also ask for their favourite sketchbook pages to be considered for an online exhibition that will be part of the Entangled Festival, a week-long celebration of arts, environment and technologies, which is taking place online and outdoors in Morecambe Bay from 18- 26 September 2021.  To submit drawings for this, please email good quality photographs or scans to entangledfestival@gmail.com using ‘Exhibition submission’ in the email subject line.

Good luck to everyone taking part in the challenge.  We hope Elizabeth Blackwell’s wonderful illustrations provide delight and encouragement for you to draw some nearby plants, flowers and trees.

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom), Digital Curator 


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