Botanical Women: an exhibition of forgotten botanists

Included with admission price, Botanical Women, a stunning new exhibition at Chawton House in UK, Elizabethan manor house that once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, will officially open again on Wednesday 9 February 2022. Curated by Chief Executive Katie Childs, Botanical Women is a visual celebration of horticulture’s hidden heroines. From weeder women to heiresses, social reformers and wives setting about to free their husbands from debtor’s prison, the exhibition recounts the remarkable stories of these exceptional women who played key roles in botanical artistry and scientific discovery.

On curating the exhibition, Chief Executive, Katie Childs says: “Whilst the visual beauty of these works often took my breath away, the stories of the lives who created them made their ground-breaking work all the more intriguing and impressive. These were bright and resourceful women, often married to a ne’er do well, navigating the unfair vicissitudes of eighteenth and nineteenth-century society. Yet still, they produced stunning artworks, as well as contributed to early modern science. It’s a joy to bring these botanical writers and artists out of obscurity and back into the public consciousness.”

Botanical Women includes loans from archive collections, not usually seen by the public, as well beautiful and rare works that capture the talent of pioneering women scientists. Star objects include rare, newly conserved and never-before-displayed items, including Elizabeth Blackwell’s fascinating and beautiful work A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739, the first herbal produced by a woman. Blackwell created the Herbal – a huge tome containing 500 hand-painted etched plates – in order to raise funds to free her husband from debtor’s prison. She succeeded in this endeavor, taking lodgings near Chelsea Physic Garden and drawing the plants from life before etching them onto folio plates.

The tradition of the herbal – a book describing plants that can be used for medicinal purposes, alongside their appearance and properties – dates back over 5,000 years, but it was not until 1735 when Elizabeth Blackwell began preparations for her work that this form overlapped with female print culture and production. There are only 12 recorded copies of this first edition, with only 5 held in public collections in the UK, and fewer than 60 recorded copies across editions in total. Pages of the Herbal will be turned with the seasons to offer a different look at the artistry on display. Scheduled is a conservation in-action day, with dates to be confirmed on the Chawton House website. With thanks to the Leche Trust who funded the conservation project.

Also on display are loan items from the Hampshire Cultural Trust and the Surrey History Centre. This latter object is a planting plan for flower borders for a garden at Mavins End in Farnham created by Gertrude Jekyll [pictured below]. It was through her ground-breaking work as a craftswoman and gardener that Gertrude Jekyll led the way in making horticulture a viable profession for women.

Botanical Women is open to visitors seven days a week, 10am – 4.30pm and runs until Monday 18 April 2022. Walk-in spaces are available but to avoid disappointment, pre-book the tickets here.


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