Monday, November 29, 2010

Elizabeth Blackwell, Botanical Illustrator

The eighteenth century proved to be the time for budding female botanists. Women were allowed to pursue the study of plants and encouraged in illustration, but any deeper interest such as, a professional career, in the actual science of the field was discouraged. It seems a natural evolution that women who have always been involved in herbal preparations for the sick in their homes would develop such an interest. Those who came from a wealthy family with an education would be the ones to push the boundaries. Elizabeth Blackwell would be one of those women. She was of a later time than Maria Sibylla Marian and more than likely knew of her work.
Elizabeth Blachrie was born into a wealthy merchant family (1707–1758) in Aberdeen, Scotland. She trained as an artist and also studied music and languages. She fell in love with her cousin Alexander Blackwell, a medical practitioner. They eloped, and moved to London. In London, Alexander started out as a proof reader in a printing house, but opened his own printing house in the Strand in 1730. He met opposition from other rival printers. Alexander was charged with not having served an appropriate apprenticeship and sent to prison. 

Elizabeth was now destitute. She had one child to care for, with no income, and in debt from Alexander’s lavish spending and from the court fines. However Elizabeth was quite a resourceful woman. Realizing that there was no up to date reference book for apothecaries on the newly discovered plants from the new world (North and South America), she set out to fill the gap. While Elizabeth held an interest in botany, and could draw very well, she knew that she would need assistance in writing the book. Elizabeth enlisted the help of her husband (while still in prison) for his medical knowledge of plants. She also found the support of the Worshipfull Society of Apothecaries and other leading doctors. She befriended Isaac Rand, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden (a teaching garden established in 1673) and took rooms in Swan Walk next to the gardens to be able to draw and paint the plants from the new world. 

Her book ‘A Curious Herbal, containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants which are now used in the Practise of Physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in Physick’ was published in several volumes between 1737 and 1739. Elizabeth engraved her own images on copper plates and then hand-coloured the prints herself. The book was a financial success, which allowed the release of Alexander from jail and freed Elizabeth of all debts.
Unfortunately Alexander could not keep himself out of trouble. He  eventually was retained as physician for King Frederick of Sweden., but was soon accused of quackery.  Alexander next published an essay on agriculture and was put in charge of a farm which he mismanaged and again found himself in a delicate position with King Frederick. He was later alleged to have been involved in a plot to dethrone the king, and was sentenced to death in 1747.
Between 1747 and 1773 “A Curious Herbal” was later enlarged and improved by Christoph Jacob Trew, and was published in both English and Latin. It was entitled Herbarium Blackwellium in five volumes, the sixth volume titled Herbarii Blackwelliani auctarium.

Little is known of Elizabeth’s later life. She had three children, all of whom died young. It is said she took up midwifery. She was a devoted wife to her husband, working hard to free him from jail and clear all their debts. She shared loyalties with him from her book and also gave up the copyright of her book to pay his debts. Elizabeth never gained the popularity like others of her time, and has been overlooked by history, however she made great contributions to the science of botany and left behind detailed botanical illustrations.
 Elizabeth Blackwell’s herbal was reprinted once in the 20th century and, in the 1920s.

*Elizabeth should not be confused with another Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman to be openly recognized as a physician in the USA.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Woman's Work

By Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Chores in the field and garden were often divided between men and women by body strength, a strategy that has been passed down through time. It has its benefits, but truly is unnecessary. Most of the time the basest of garden chores were handed down to women; the weeding. 

In English estates weeding was done almost exclusively by women. English records from Rotherhithe (Surrey) for 1354 list women as weeders. Women employed in the 16 century show rates of pay at 3 d a day to remove convolvulus, dandelions, charlock, cockles, dock, dodder, groundsel, thistles and nettles. The women were paid less than the men, but also seemed to hold less value than many of the garden implements they may have used: wheelbarrow 1 s3 d, a shovel 4 d, a ceramic watering pot 1 d. In France, La Quintinie, head gardener to Louis XIV, preferred hiring married men over single men, as their wives might be available for weeding or scraping of pots. In the Orient women weeded the rice paddies. I am sure countless of other examples can be found.

Queens and their kings, estate owners or nobles from any country in any time period had slaves or paid labourers to do the gardening for them. Often times women were part of the labour force. Wives of garden labourers, widows or other respectable women in need of extra income, peasants from the nearby village,  would all be willing to work as weeders. It was monotonous, labourious work that was little regarded and poorly paid. 

By Pieter Bruegel the Elder

On the other end of the scale were the peasants who farmed the land of the wealthy. Woman, man and child were all involved in the success or failure of the farm. Weeding was part of the women’s work but not limited to it.

“Gentle huswyfes” of the low to middle class, took care of most aspects of the kitchen garden. If they were fortunate to have help, it was a young girl sent out to the garden to weed. If not, they did it themselves.

The question must be asked of times past, why was the woman not allowed to become head gardener? Why  was she not allowed to take care of growing the fruit trees or design a garden? It was only by the 17th century that European upper class women were learning to read. It was only in the 18th century they could travel to distant lands to paint exotic plants, or learn the new and exciting field of botany. It was not until the 20th century that womens names were among those of garden designers. There are names not listed among the lists of great botanists, explorers, designers. Female names. Why was woman’s work not valued?

Of course we know why. The type of work women have done has always been too demeaning for a man to do. Whether in the economy of the 16th century or the 21st century, the pay rates and working conditions for women are lower than those of men. However it is not the actual physical labour but the value given to the labour that is important. The more a particular type of work has been valued the more male dominated it has become. When it is a necessary work it is done by women. 

For a short time at Woburn Abbey in England, in the late 1600’s, there was a stone statue of an old weeding woman. The Duke of Bedford had her made to commemorate the working woman. Alas, she stands no longer.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chinese Flower Goddesses

While researching for another post I came upon this web site from China that lists gods and goddesses and the flowers that they represent. In my attempt to confirm the names and the story behind each one I was only able to find one other listing. This listing had some duplication of goddess and flower but not all. Perhaps there is more than one list, or perhaps it depends where in China you live. It seems that these goddesses were real people, usually of high society and from what I can tell of ancient times. I was able to confirm a couple of the stories, which were quite lengthy, but not all. My lack of Chinese history and culture, and of course language, is obviously a detriment in this case. Modern China does not appear to follow these gods and goddesses. If someone knows differently I would love to hear from you.

The list numbers twelve flower gods and goddesses: five gods and seven goddesses, one for each month. I am copying directly from the web site, omitting some pictures and the male gods. The link to the site will follow at the end of the post. Enjoy. 

Chinese Flower Goddesses

 Goddess of the Daffodil - Ehuang and Nu Ying

Ehuang and Nu Ying, daughters of Yao (the Emperor of China during 2358 – 2258 BC), were the wives of Shun (a 23rd-22nd century BC leader of ancient China). They got along with each other very well. When they heard the death of their husband, both of them throw themselves into the river. Legends said that they became the Goddess of Daffodil after their death.

Goddess of the Laurel Blossom - Xu Hui

Xu Hui was a concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty. It was said that she was so clever that she was able to speak when she was five months old and when she was at the age of 8, she can even write poems.
Due to her talent, she was selected as one of the concubines for Emperor Taizong. However, such a genius died when she was 24 years old because she could not overcome the grief of the Emperor’s death.
She wrote many poems about Laurel Blossom when she was alive. Therefore, she was chosen as the Goddess of Laurel Blossom because of these poems and her intelligence.

 Goddess of the Hollyhock Blossom - Lady Yi

Lady Li, the favorite concubine of Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty, was a dazzling beauty.
There was a song as the witness of her extraordinary beauty.

In the North there is a beautiful woman,
Unique, Unequal in the world.
With one glance she conquers a city of men,
With another glance a country of men.
Don’t you know? A city and a country conquering
Beauty cannot be found again. (Hans H. Frankel)

However, Lady Li’s physical condition was not so good and she died several years later after she was chosen as a concubine. Her life was just the same as the hollyhock blossom, short but flowery. Therefore, she was regarded as the Goddess of Hollyhock Blossom.

 Goddess of the Lotus Blossom - Xi Shi

Xi Shi, a legendary beauty, was one of the Four Beauties in ancient China. Legends said that in summer she always went to pick lotus on Lake Jinghu. She was so beautiful that no one could rival her beauty. Therefore, she was crowned the Goddess of Lotus Blossom.

Goddess of Peach Blossom - Lady Xi

Lady Xi, renowned for her beauty, was the wife of the ruler for the State of Xi during the Spring and Autumn Period in ancient China. Salivated over her beauty, the King of Chu defeated the ruler of Xi and took lady Xi.
Lady Xi had children with him but never spoke a word to him any more. She killed herself later when she heard the death of her ex-husband. She died in March, when all the peach trees are in blossom. Moved by her firmness, people called her the goddess of peach blossom to show their respect.

 Goddess of Apricot Blossom - Yang Yuhuan

Yang Yuhuan, also called Yang Guifei by most Chinese (Guifei was the highest-ranking imperial concubine at her time), was one of the Four Beauties in ancient China.
During the Anshi Rebellion, she was forced to hang herself. Legend said that after the rebellion, the emperor wanted to locate Yang’s body and rebury her with honor. However, they could not find her body but apricot blossoms. People believed that she was ascended to the heaven and became the Goddess of Apricot Blossom.

Goddess of Plum Blossom - Princess Shouyang

Princess Shouyang, the daughter of Emperor Wu in the Nan Dynasty’s Song Era, was a plum blossom lover. On lunar January 7th, when she slept beneath a tree, a plum blossom fell on her forehead, leaving a floral imprint. With the imprint, she looked much more beautiful. Soon, all the ladies followed her to paste plum blossom shaped ornaments on their foreheads. It was then called Plum Blossom Makeup. Hence, Princess Shouyang was crowned Goddess of Plum Blossom and lunar January 7th was regarded as the birthday of plum blossoms.
Photos and text from :

Friday, November 5, 2010

Magic Carpet Ride : Persian Gardens

Now we turn our thoughts to ancient Iran or Persia. The history of Persia is one of a country invaded many times over. In the 7th century the Arabs invaded and conquered the Persian people. The Moguls with leader Genghiz Khan invaded in the 13th century and again in the 16th century by Tamerlane. Each conqueror brought something to the existing culture and yet the traditions and culture of Persian garden design remained and was absorbed and integrated into the cultures of each occupying force.

As Egypt was a leading influence on garden style and design in the Mediterranean region, (in particular the Romans who brought it to the lands they vanquished) Persian gardens became the ideal from Spain to India. The earliest gardens were most probably influenced by the  Egyptians, with walled enclosed gardens, primarily rectangular in shape, and shallow crossing water channels. Within this formal arrangement would be fragrant flowers such as rose, narcissus, tulip, lilac, jasmine and orange tree, some of which were brought in from China in exchange for grapes and horses as early as the second century. However the greatest influences on Persian gardens were climate and  geography, religion and the love of beauty; their culture.

The majority of the country is high above sea level and is arid desert or steppe. High temperatures with searing sun in the summer, cold temperatures and blizzards in the winter, strong winds, fierce sandstorms and a lack of fresh water created a need for protected areas with ample shade. Enclosed gardens protected against wind, trees for shade and wind barriers, and where possible water was channeled in. Within this difficult terrain are green valleys and lush forests. Recreating this paradise in the more inhospitable areas became a goal.

On the small scale the garden was attached to the house with perhaps a portico as the link. On a grander scale, beyond the palace there were pavilions connecting gardens along with channels of water. Outside of the walls were parks. Parks were just as important, if not more so, than gardens. Persians revered trees and had cults dedicated to trees (as did the Egyptians). Part of every young boys education was to learn to plant and care for trees. Tree planting was a sacred occupation. Parks were planted formally, in rows. The initial intention of the park was a hunting ground but also served as an area for feasts and audiences for great princes to take place.

Court of the Lions, Spain

The gardens were designed in the classic arrangement of the chahar bagh. The chahar bagh, or four gardens, has a fountain in the centre where two channels of water intersect. Channels of water may also follow the perimeter of the garden, along with paths of stone. It is thought that the chahar bagh may represent the four quadrants of the Persian empire. This basic form became the ideal for all Islamic gardens.

To the Persians gardens were like heaven, filled with birdsong, fruit to eat, fragrant flowers, water and cool shade. The Persian word for garden is pairi-daeza; pairi (all around) and daeza or diz (shape) or wall enclosed. They followed the teachings of Zoroaster who spoke of a heaven with paths of gold and pavilions that glittered like diamonds, filled with fruit and fragrant flowers. To the Arabs that arrived later, the gardens looked like the gardens promised in the Koran, with the chahar bagh symbolizing the Four Rivers of Paradise that flowed to the north, east, south and west.  “This is the Paradise which the righteous have been promised. There shall flow in it rivers of unpolluted water, and rivers  of milk forever fresh; rivers of delectable wine and rivers of clearest honey. They shall eat therein of every fruit and receive forgiveness from their lord.”

Persian "Wagner" Garden Carpet

Almost all of the original gardens are gone, in ruins or built upon by later civilizations. It is by the sheer force of the Persian love of beauty that we can know today something of their gardens. It is from their poetry, paintings or miniatures and carpets they we weave together this information. Miniatures give us some examples of how the garden may have looked, what flowers and trees they grew. We know that they built platforms into trees to enjoy the flowering spring time. On the platforms they laid pillows and carpets for comfort. Carpets were also placed on the grass and under trees. The designs on carpets were filled with gardens. Explosions of flowers, birds and other animals filled the interior. Borders of colour or borders with swimming fish may have represented the channels of water typical in gardens. Bare tree branches may symbolize the four rivers of paradise and squares of colour may be the garden beds.

One of the earliest extant accounts of a Persian carpet belonged to the Sassanid prince 
Persian Carpet
Chosroes 1 (531-579). The carpet was woven of the finest materials with coloured stones and threads of gold and silver. It was 60 yards square. It “represented a pleasure- garden,  with streams and paths, trees and beautiful spring flowers.” Unfortunately when the Arabs found the carpet they had it cut up and sold, but not before recording it by their historians.

The Persian garden became the ideal for all Islamic gardens and were taken eastwards to the Taj Mahal in India and westwards to the Alhambra in Spain where wonderful examples live on.