Elizabeth Blackadder, also known as Mrs. Houston, was a Scottish painter and printmaker. She was born to Violet and Thomas Blackadder in Falkirk, Scotland on 24th September 1931. Thomas had an ancestral company named Blackadder Brothers’ Garrison Foundry and Engine Works was built in 1851. Her love for drawing and painting was instilled in her by her father, Thomas Blackadder; who she claims often drew with her. After his passing in 1941, she began drawings and painting on her own. Having spent most of her time alone, Elizabeth collected leaves, flowers, and plants.
During the war in Germany, Elizabeth’s mother thought it safe to send her daughter to her grandmother’s at Holy Loch. During her time there, she picked up gardening and quickly knew Linnaean names of almost all local wildflowers. She also often pressed flowers in books and albums. This love for flowers helped her create a botanical library/ database of sorts. This combined with her love for gardening shows up in her work consistently.
With parents who were extremely supportive of her art as well as serious about her education, she took the course of the joint-fine-and-applied arts at Edinburgh University in September 1949. Here she studied various artists, and art forms and learned under the tutelage of David Talbot Rice.
Blackadder went to both Edinburgh University, and the Edinburgh College of Art. She continued to be associated with the institution as a lecturer from 1962 until 1986 when she chose to retire. She also had the opportunity to study under the able guidance of William Gillies, Anne Redpath, and other artists of their caliber. Her work is a reflection of her time and learnings from such artists and mentors. During her final year at the university, she met fellow student and artist John Houston (1930-2008), who she later married in 1956. They both traveled to various places across Europe and oftentimes, even painted together.
Travelling, as they say, teaches you just as much if not more than any educational institute. Something similar happened to Blackadder, as she traveled around Europe with her travel scholarships post her graduation. Her travels to various places like Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece enabled her to observe the work of various artists and draw inspiration from them in her artwork back home.
She was unafraid to experiment and that clearly shows in her early works. She tried everything ranging from still-life, nude portraits, abstracts, and landscapes. She managed to land her first solo exhibition at 57 Gallery in Edinburgh at the young age of 28!
By the 1960s she had built herself a reputation as an artist who had the flair to draw delicate flower color lithographs. She painted lilies, orchids, poppies, tulips, irises, hellebores, and anemones. Her botanical study of flora and fauna benefited her art in more ways than one.
She was the first woman ever to be a member of the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy. She had damehood conferred upon her in 2003 and was also made Her Majesty’s painter and liner in Scotland in 2001.
She worked with various media including watercolors, oil paints, and printmaking. Most of her artwork comprises delicate flowers and still-life compositions. Her flower paintings were first noticed in the 1960s although not many appreciated or acknowledged them then.
Her keen interest in painting flora and fauna around her stems from her childhood. Having collected numerous flowers, leaves, and stems, she not only painted them but also categorized them according to their scientific name. One can see a glimpse of this in her artwork of various elements from nature and it shows up not in a very analytical but a very poetic manner.
Elizabeth Blackadder also traveled to Europe and Asia and drew inspiration from the floral carvings, motifs, and landscape. Her works in the 1970s depict such patterns and influences. Her travels also led her to Japan and she fell in love with Japanese culture and traditions. Her paintings of the souvenirs she brought back home from these places are clear proof of the awe and admiration she felt for everything she saw there.
Her paintings are a clear depiction of how one can paint simple yet beautiful things. Most of the floral paintings by Blackadder have been simple; with white background and a pop of color with the petals are not only eye-catching but also seemingly simple. Her contribution to the fields of art as well as science is stupendous! One must also keenly notice that her flower paintings have more to do with botany than just being, well, floral paintings! Her love for flowers comes from a very scientific approach and her keen observation of these flowers in the past eventually led her to paint them with as much detail and finesse.
Mrs. Houston once mentioned, “The space between flowers (in her work) is as important as the flowers themselves. A few of her works are as follows: Orchids and Pears, Wildflowers (2013), Oriental Poppies (2010), Louis in a box (2013), Black Chinese fan (1985), Lilies and Poppies (2003), Venice cats (2003). She also painted cats, kimonos, tortoiseshell combs, and fans among other things.”
She passed away aged 89 on 23rd August 2021.
References: Elizabeth Blackadder
- Charles Darwent (2021). Dame Elizabeth Blackadder obituary. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/aug/25/dame-elizabeth-blackadder-obituary [Accessed 06 May 2022].
- Lydia Figes (2019). The versatility of Elizabeth Blackadder. [online]. Available at: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-versatility-of-elizabeth-blackadder [Accessed 04 May 2022]