In Focus: Jemima Blackburn, the extraordinary artist of nature who became the real-life Jemima Puddle-Duck

Once regarded as a rival to Bewick and Audubon, but now largely forgotten, ornithological artist Jemima Blackburn (1823–1909) was a formative influence on the young Beatrix Potter. Ian Morton takes a closer look.

Consider Jemima Puddle-Duck, one of the most revered figures in children’s literature. The name, mellifluous and memorable, is a subtle creation, its two internal alliterations inducing an endearing quality that has sustained this quaint character through the decades.

Within that name lies a personal tale: the choice of Jemima was a tribute to a Scottish artist who had been influential in Beatrix Potter’s early development as a writer and illustrator and who remained lifelong in her high regard. On her 10th birthday, Potter had received a copy of a book of paintings by Jemima Blackburn, one of the most respected ornithological artists of the time. In due course, the two were to meet.

Heron by Jemima Blackburn, 1895.

Blackburn was one of those Victorian women much admired in her day, but largely forgotten except by specialists and historians. Born in Edinburgh in 1823, into the prosperous and well-connected Wedderburn family — her great-grandfather, the 5th Baronet of Blackness, had been executed for his part in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and her father was Solicitor General for Scotland — she showed an early interest in drawing.

As a sickly four year old, she was encouraged by the family doctor and Scotland’s first consulting physician John Abercrombie, who recommended it as ‘good amusement’. The girl was given Thomas Bewick’s Land Birds, a book known to have inspired the Brontës.

The family’s social standing was such that, at 19, Blackburn was presented to Queen Victoria during a royal tour of Scotland. In her teenage years, the painter was a friend and pupil of John Ruskin and Sir Edwin Landseer, both of whom appreciated and encouraged her talent. She was only 20 when Landseer declared that ‘in portraying animals, I have nothing to teach her’.

Blackburn’s understanding of animal anatomy was much improved after her brother, a surgeon, advised her to skin and dissect mice. She became one of the most popular illustrators of the time and her work enhanced 27 books.

Long tailed field mouse; mouse facing to front, eating a berry, surrounded by leafy overgrowth. 1854. Watercolour, over graphite by Jemima Blackburn. Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum.

At 34, she contributed to the first exhibition of British art held in America and her pictures are held by the British Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Based in India Street, Edinburgh — Clerk Maxwell’s birthplace — the foundation honours one of Scotland’s greatest physicists. He and Blackburn were first cousins.

She married Hugh Blackburn, professor of mathematics at Glasgow University, with whom she lived in college rooms before they bought the 4,500-acre Roshven estate on Scotland’s west coast. Much of her painting here recorded day-to-day aspects of rural life in 19th-century Scotland, including the humblest tasks of the local folk, such as peat-cutting, collecting bracken, harvesting and hay-making. Blackburn also painted portraits of family, friends and visitors — remote as Roshven was, the couple welcomed a succession of distinguished guests, including Ruskin, Sir John Everett Millais, the Duke of Argyll, Lord Kelvin, Lord Lister, Anthony Trollope and Benjamin Disraeli.

‘Woodcock.’ Illustration by Jemima Blackburn, 1895.

The artist and her husband travelled extensively in European and Mediterranean countries, too, joining the Prince of Wales on a visit to Egypt. She drew compulsively. On a cruise to Iceland aboard the Mastiff, with a party that included Trollope, Blackburn produced 56 drawings in 15 days and collaborated with the author on a travel book, How the Mastiffs went to Iceland, published privately in 1878.

In their later years, the Blackburns took a keen interest in the developing craft of photography and she also worked in stained glass — a window of her creation is in Glasgow Cathedral. Yet the artist was most treasured for her ornithological paintings, mainly watercolours, and her most acclaimed work, a limited-edition book published in 1868, was Birds Drawn From Nature. A copy, hand-coloured under her supervision, was presented to the Zoological Society of London. The Scotsman newspaper placed her among the era’s greatest of bird painters, declaring: ‘We have seen no such birds since Bewick’s. We say this not ignorant of the magnificent plates by Selby, Audubon, Wilson and Gould.’

This was the book that the young Beatrix (she didn’t use her first given name, Helen) received for her birthday, when on holiday in Scotland in 1876, and which further impelled her blossoming devotion to wildlife. Potter recalled years later, in her journal: ‘I remember so clearly — as clearly as the brightness of rich Scottish sunshine on the threadbare carpet — the morning I was ten years old — and my father gave me Mrs Blackburn’s book of birds drawn from nature, for my birthday present. I remember the dancing expectation and knocking at their bedroom door, it was a Sunday morning before breakfast. The book was bound in scarlet with a gilt edge. I danced about the house with pride [that] never palled.’

Beatrix Potter standing in the doorway of her farm, Hill Top, in the English Lake District, c1907. 

The Potter family lived comfortably in Bolton Gardens in the London suburb of West Brompton, now subsumed by South Kensington (the house was destroyed in the Blitz, but the new building there carries her blue plaque), where she and her brother kept numerous small animals as pets — not only the furry kind, but also newts and bats, some of which they took on holiday. For 15 years, the family visited the Dalguise estate on the River Tay, the young Potter exploring the countryside, developing her sketching abilities, as well as her knowledge of flora and fauna, and forging a great affinity with Scotland. When the estate became unavailable, they spent summers near Lake Windermere, where Potter would, in due course, buy a holiday home and move permanently after her marriage in 1913.

Her developing interest in the countryside focused at one stage on fungi and she conceived a theory of how they reproduced, illustrating a paper with technically accurate drawings under the tutelage of an eminent Scottish naturalist, Charles McIntosh. It was presented to the Linnaeus Society in 1897, but this was still the era when men clung to science as their preserve and a male mycologist from Kew had to present it on her behalf. She rather lost interest in the subject.

Jemima Blackburn.

When resident in London, Potter had spent time walking in Brompton Cemetery and is thought to have taken inspiration from names on gravestones for some of the characters in her children’s books, including McGregor and the anthropomorphic Nutkin, Fisher, Brock and Tod. The first books grew out of her illustrations in letters to the children of her old governess. Although her style was distinctive, some, particularly The Cat’s Tale in 1870 and Red Riding Hood in 1894, appear to reveal the early influence of Blackburn.

The two women met in 1891 and 1894. Potter found her heroine ‘a broad intelligent observer with a keen eye for the beautiful in Nature. I consider that Mrs Blackburn’s birds do not on average stand on their legs so well as Bewick’s, but he is her only possible rival’. She was as impressed by Blackburn’s personality as by her painting: ‘I have not been so much struck by anyone for a long time,’ Potter wrote in her journal.

Blackburn’s reaction to the publication, in 1908, of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is not recorded — she died the following year, aged 86.