MILIEU Gift Guide 2021
MILIEU Gift Guide 2021

Every cloud has a silver lining, and for Virginia botanical artist Anne Blackwell Thompson, it just happened to be growing beyond the garden gate.

A former historical decorative artist, Blackwell was recovering from a serious illness that rendered her housebound. While spending quiet days reading home and garden magazines, Blackwell came upon a vignette by Oscar de la Renta that featured stunning framed botanicals. So inspired was Blackwell by the botanicals that she set out to locate the artist, Stuart Thornton. A master of the botanical arts, Thornton was practicing from his studio in Turin, Italy, the centuries-old technique of dissection and preservation of natural material. An enthusiastic phone conversation ensued in which Blackwell offered to be Thornton’s apprentice. Three weeks later, the eager student was on a plane bound for Italy, fearlessly following her new-found passion.

Learning to preserve blooms and foliage, each employing a different technique, was only part of her training. Blackwell also gained knowledge in the intricacies of species and documentation using the correct Latin botanical nomenclature. Serendipitously, it was another great woman of botany with the same name, the Scottish-born Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758), who pioneered plant identification and botanical illustration. “My all-time favorite bot crush is Elizabeth Blackwell and I want to claim her as my long-lost Auntie.” (Side note: Anne Blackwell was invited to study first-hand Elizabeth Blackwell’s seminal work, A Curious Herbal, published in 1737, at Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring Garden Library.)

Buoyed by her newly acquired skills, knowledge, and quite possibly the trailblazing spirt of the former Blackwell, Anne returned to Virginia inspired and ready to pursue her art.

On sunny days from March to October you will find Blackwell armed with the tools of her trade: scalpels, tweezers, clippers, axes, machetes, scissors, ladders, and, of course, snake boots, ready for the hunt. Foraging in her adopted state of Virginia (Blackwell is a native Texan), along the East Coast, and throughout the South, the artist collects endless varieties of flora and fauna. From lacey hydrangeas, exotic orchids, and showy peonies to ferns, native grasses, seaweed, and waterlilies, there is no plantscape off limits.

Back in her studio, with the skill of a surgeon, the artist deconstructs, dries, reconstructs, mounts, and presses each specimen. Some pieces take six to nine months to complete. Each finished work brings back a distinct memory, imbued with a powerful sense of place.

Photos: Kip Dawkins

“My goal is to give an ancient art form – the pressing of plant specimens – a modern, fresh spin that engages the imagination. My work is a snapshot of the natural world – a gorgeous bloom or a composition of leaves that are frozen in time. I believe that art and nature enrich us as individuals and as a community.”

Designer: Lizzie Cullen Cox  |  Photos: Gordon Gregory

Blackwell has seamlessly combined her love of nature, talent as an artist, scientific skills, and passion for history into her life’s work. In the process of preserving the beauty of the natural world, she has found fulfillment and brought joy to others. Her predecessor, the great Elizabeth Blackwell, would most certainly be proud!

Quirk Gallery, Charlottesville  |  Photos: Gordon Gregory

Anne Blackwell Thompson is the former artist-in-residence at Tuckahoe Plantation in Virginia and Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland. She is currently artist-in-residence at Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Blackwell will participate in the US Department of State’s Artist Exchange Program in Ljubljana, Slovenia, May 2023. Upcoming botanical exhibitions include Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Virginia, June 20 – August 20, 2023; and Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, November 19, 2023 – January 6, 2024.