Eliza Beulah Blackford Watercolors
Eliza Beulah Blackford was born Eliza Larsh in Eaton, Ohio. Little is known about her early years, even her birth date is a matter of some confusion. It appears as 1847, 1849, and even 1855 depending on the source although it was most likely 1849.(1) Blackford was educated in the Ohio public school system and held an "inborn love of all nature from childhood" (2). Her interest in the natural world led her to spend much time outdoors, collecting and painting the plants and fungi that she found there.
Blackford was "of Quaker stock" (3) and married a schoolmate who was called to the ministry. They moved to the Boston area sometime in the early 1890s and she enrolled in The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1895. This school, then less than twenty years old, was one of the most distinguished art schools in the United States. Here she studied drawing and painting in what she described as a "busy five year course." (4) Upon graduation she had pupils of her own and briefly served as a substitute teacher at the school. (5) In September 1901 Blackford joined the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as Assistant in the Ticket Office. It is interesting that, after 1918, the Museum stopped charging admission but her title remained the same. Her exact duties are unclear although orienting visitors was probably involved and she sometimes sold postcards and photographs to visitors. (6 & 7) According to a 1924-1925 staff list she was still employed and her salary was $15 per week (about $190 in adjusted dollars), more than that of the MFA secretaries and equal to the porters. (8) She retired from the Museum after twenty-five years of service.
About the same time that Blackford enrolled in the Museum School, she began to seek out others interested in the study of fungi. This was an opportune time. Previously there were not many opportunities for amateur or even professional study in this field. Noted cryptogamist William Gilson Farlow (1844-1919) had to travel to Europe to pursue his study of cryptogams only 20 years earlier! During this period there was a growing interest among affluent American's in the culinary aspects of mushrooms. Numerous books and articles were published including Mushrooms of America, Edible and Poisonous (1885), A Few Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms (1894), Student's Hand-Book Of Mushrooms of America Edible And Poisonous (1897), Studies Of American Fungi : Mushrooms, Edible, Poisonous, etc. (1899). The U.S.D.A. published numerous handbooks and guides to edible and poisonous mushrooms during the 1890s and even our own W.G. Farlow published Notes for Mushroom-Eaters in 1894 and Some Edible and Poisonous Fungi in 1898.
Local papers received many letters from New Englanders looking for information on the difference between edible mushrooms and poisonous toadstools. "Soon a few men conceived the notion of displaying the better known fungi at the free public exhibitions of fruit and flowers held every Saturday through the summer by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society." (9) These displays were well received and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society offered the group a meeting room for those who wished to talk in depth about the fungi that had been exhibited.
A group of approximately a dozen gentlemen and a single lady took advantage of this chance to meet in Horticulture Hall and, on August 24, 1895, they voted to form an association to be called the Boston Mycological Club (B.M.C.). There is no record of the attendees so it is impossible to know if Blackford was the lone female representative. We do know that she became a member of the B.M.C. in 1895 so, if she was not the present at that inaugural meeting, she was one of the first women to join.
While Blackford had no formal training she was a quick and eager student. She looked for mushrooms daily on the route between her home and her job at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.(10) She also spent much of her leisure time collecting all over Massachusetts, everywhere from Boston to Gloucester, Amesbury to Ware. In order to increase her knowledge and identify her collections, Blackford began to correspond with many important botanists including George Francis Atkinson (1854-1918), Edward Angus Burt (1859-1939), Curtis Gates Lloyd (1859-1926), Charles Horton Peck (1833-1917), and William Ashbrook Kellerman (1850-1908). She read whatever articles she could find on mushrooms and painted each night before after work and each morning before work. (11) "Howard Griggs has a book which he calls 'The Margin'. I have called my work just that. Naturally time was secondary. I went to the woods and collected them mostly and painted them in my spare time. I tried to feel the things placed before me. This is the way I learned the mushrooms."(12)
In addition to her watercolors, Blackford made spore prints and dried specimens of many of the mushrooms she gathered. She provided duplicate specimens to the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station and to influential botanists outside of New England. There was no good guide to New England fungi in the late 1800s and early 1900s. W. G. Farlow's Icones Farlowianae: Illustrations of the Larger Fungi of Eastern North America would not appear until 1930. Blackford, with her seemingly endless energy, filled an important role by providing specimens to trained mycologists for identification. This was an invaluable aid in creating a clearer picture of what fungi were growing in Massachusetts and increased the knowledge of the range of specific species of fungi. Blackford worked with local botanists including Harvard's own David Hunt Linder (1899-1946) and Carroll William Dodge (1895-1988). Amongst her papers are letters from both complimenting her on interesting specimens that she sent them and requesting additional information and/or specimen material. She recalls, in her fungi notebook, an 1898 meeting where she had the opportunity to collect with Farlow himself; "Trip to Weson Woods... Small Mirasmius oreades from Chestnut Hill. Dr. Farlow at once told his man to bring a bottle of alcohol to place it in. Unusual shape." (13)
Blackford regularly collected specimens for the Ohio mycologist C.G. Lloyd. Their correspondence dates from 1901-1920. Lloyd sent out form letters to colleagues who collected for him, alerting them to what he was most interested in each season. In an amusing twist they all begin "Dear Sir." Obviously there were not many women providing collections to Lloyd!
Many of the fungi she sent were common and easily identifiable but Lloyd was always happy to acquire materials from her. In 1914 he wrote, "Your contributions are always gladly received because you make nice specimens...." (14) For many years Lloyd requested that she pay special attention to any puffballs or any Hydnums that she might find. He was especially interested in Hydnum ferrugineum and Hydnum scobiculatum. In 1913 he wrote "The receipt of fresh specimens of these two species from Mrs. E.B. Blackford, Boston, Mass. and a study of the European figures that are cited clears up to my mind a subject concerning which I have never before had a clear idea."(15)
Charles H. Peck, mycologist and New York State Botanist was her most important collaborator. Their correspondence began in 1899 and ended in 1915. During these years she provided him with hundreds of specimens and at least ten new species were described based on her findings including:
Blackford not only collected new species but also found fungi in Massachusetts that were previously unknown in New England. She was indefatigable in her search for fungi. On a single day, February 13, 1934 Blackford identified over 40 genera of fungi and counted 417 specimens. She compiled careful field notes identifying where and when she gathered her specimens. Taking a quick glance at her paintings one finds a myriad of Massachusetts locations including Cohasset, Saxonville, Franklin, Brookline, Fenway, Waltham, the Middlesex Fells, Arlington, and West Roxbury, just to name a few. She was not afraid of getting dirty and some fungi were collected in the Natick swamp and the Fenway dump. She collected in Back Bay and even found a specimen "growing on a dump in the Museum school basement." (16)
Blackford also had an important role educating children, amateurs, and the general public. She often spoke on mushrooms to area garden clubs, she wrote articles for local newspapers, and showed her mushroom watercolors in various New England galleries. She worked with children and often led groups of girls on nature walks from the Naulahka Camp near Brattleboro, Vermont . "Mrs Blackford took the girls on mushroom hikes, setting them to find different varieties, calling their attention as they went to differentiations of beauty and form, and helping them to distinguish one family from another." (17) She was very active in the Boston Mycological Club until her death in 1935, serving as President of the society from xxxx-xxxx. She led many walks and gave many lectures. In 1929 the Boston Herald wrote a flattering and amusing article about the club.
But it is her paintings that are of particular interest today.
According to her own reckoning she produced approximately one thousand watercolors of fungi alone.(20) The paintings vary in scientific accuracy and quality but some colleagues "...at the Museum said, her want of initiative was all that prevented her from making a name for herself." (21)
In 1933 William "Cap" Weston (1890-1978) was a member of a committee administering the Farlow. He contacted Blackford in regard to the disposition of her artwork. He writes, "It would indeed be a very valuable acquisition if we could secure this collection of your illustrations...Is there any possibility that you might give this collection to the Farlow Herbarium? I assure you it would receive the most excellent care and would comprise a valuable collection that would be kept available for the use of interested workers for all time". (22) Blackford was interested and quickly responded. She asked however that the Farlow also accept her correspondence, spore prints, specimens, "these things have lived together so long it seems to me they ought not be separated". (23) Weston agreed and after her death on January 25, 1935 her collection came to Harvard. It yielded some unexpected delights. The Farlow Annual Report for 1935-1936 reads:
The paintings in her gift include about 100 of vascular plants and 605 watercolors of fungi. They date from 1899 through 1930, although the majority were painted from 1907-1926. A handful of mushrooms from Ohio are present as well as a few dozen collected in New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island. The vast majority of the paintings however depict fungi found all over Massachusetts. The collection really provides a glimpse into the diversity of mushrooms in the state as she found it.
Eliza B. Blackford died on January 25, 1935 at the age of 87. A small service was held for her Boston friends and then and after a service in Boston was buried in the Mound Hill Cemetery, Eaton, Ohio on January 31, 1935 in section 7, lot 518.
(1) A Union City Newspaper obituary lists her birthdate as 1847, The Boston Globe obituary lists it as 1855, and other articles list it as 1849. Her family bible also lists it as 1849.
Click here to access cryptogamic watercolor list.
Click here to access the collection of Eliza Blackford's watercolors of flowering plants.
Botany Libraries • Harvard University
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