Jemima Blackburn

Artist, Children's Book Writer | Number 31

Jemima Blackburn (1823-1909) was born Jemima Wedderburn at 31 Heriot Row. Both her parents came from wealthy and cultured families. Her father, who died before she was born, was Scotland's Solicitor General. Her mother Isabella's family were the Clerks of Penicuik. Isabella's sister married the Earl of Selkirk.

Jemima was the youngest of seven children. She was often sick as a child and took to drawing and painting. These became lifelong passions. These are some of her memories of life in the street.

"My father bought our house in Heriot Row soon after it was built. It was a large house 5 stories high. The sun shone brightly in it, but so much so as to blister the paint on our windows and make the Venetian blinds smell bad. It had a hot bath in it, a rarity at that time, a great leaden thing generally with black beetles floating in in it, of primitive construction and requiring a boiler to be heated by a big fire in the laundry half a storey underground... Every Friday we girls were scrubbed in it with yellow soap, every Saturday the boys from top to toe. I do not remember a bath in any of the big country houses I used to visit."

"When I was aged 2 and very delicate our doctor... had my head shaved and constantly had leeches put on my temples. How well I remember their bites and the heavy way the flopped down on my cheek when they were full. After they were stripped, salt was applied to their sides and they vomited forth much blood... I kept them to make pets out of but they seldom lived long."

"Many of my schoolboy friends and young students attended the hanging of Burke. He was hanged and skinned too. I remember my teacher offering me a present of a piece of the skin as I had done my lessons well. I declined it with thanks."

"One of my early recollections was the passing of the Reform Bill... There was a great rejoicing among the radicals. An order... was announced for an illumination of the houses. A riot was expcted and the yeomanry were called out. I remember the clattering of the horses hooves when our neighbour, young Dundas, went off after dark to join the troops' rendezvous... Soon the streets were filled with men in light brown fustian with torches in their hands, shouting and throwing stones at our windows as we would not light them up. They soon smashed all the windows and then began hammering on the door... I did not feel afraid, only fierce, and paced about the house with the sword belonging to my father's court dress... All the other windows in the front of the house were smashed and a comfortless state were in for several days as glaziers were not to be had. The only thing that escaped was a white plaster horse on the lunette above the door; afterwards we called him the Duke of Wellington."

Jemima became a skilled and serious artist. She exhibited twice at the Royal Academy, a rare achievement for a Victorian woman. She wrote and illustrated children's books. Her depiction of the natural world - for example in her 'Birds from Nature' was precise and of scientific value. She depicted an outing to Dundrennan Abbey, visits to London galleries, the grim smoky industrial centre of Glasgow, scientific experiments with her brother, cousin James and friends, bathing at Biarritz, Icelandic glaciers and Egyptian antiquities. Most appealing are her many pictures of life in and around Roshven, the remote house she and her husband had built on Loch Ailort to the west of Fort William.

She was an astonishing social networker. She made early contact with the Duke of Wellington, who named her 2 pet frogs and later invited her to a ball, She met at least two other Victorian Prime Ministers - Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli. She had no formal training in art, other than a few lessons from Landseer. But she attracted the interest and help of John Ruskin, the great arbiter of Victorian taste. She was friendly with John Millais and William Makepeace Thackeray. She toured Iceland with novelist Anthony Trollope and picnicked in the Egyptian temples at Karnak with the young Prince of Wales. Her lively picture of the Prince of Wales and his entourage on that occasion is still in the Royal Collection. William Thomson - later Lord Kelvin and a highly distinguished Scottish physicist - was a close friend and regular visitor. James Clerk Maxwell was a childhood companion.

You can see some of her work by arrangement in the National Gallery of Scotland, and read more about her in 'Jemima - The Paintings and Memoirs of a Victorian Lady', edited and introduced by Rob Fairley, published by Canongate Books Ltd.

She toured Iceland with novelist Anthony Trollope and picnicked in the Egyptian temples at Karnak with the young Prince of Wales