In 1843 Anna Atkins published the first book of photography made using the cyanotype process called British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. If you are a cyanotyper, you may also be interested in our tribute event to this true pioneer.
Anna Children (maiden name of Anna Atkins) is born 16th of March 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, UK, the daughter of John George Children (1777-1852) and Hester Anne Holwell (1777-1799). The house of the Children’s family is marked with a plaque. Anna was the only child of John George Children (1777-1852), a scientist well-known in London scientific circles, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 30. John Children became a widower soon after the birth of Anna, and Anna grew up with her father at their family home at Ferox Hall in Tonbridge. Anna’s interest in science was encouraged by her father who had an interest in electricity, chemistry and entomology (the study of insects).
By her early twenties, Anna Atkins has already become an educated botanist collecting and recording plants. She is also a skilled illustrator and helps her father illustrate his collection of shells in a book called Lamarck’s Genera of Shells.
In 1825 Anna marries John Pelly Atkins (1790-1872) from London and becomes Anna Atkins. They move to John Pelly Atkins’ estate at Halstead Place, near Sevenoaks, Kent, UK.
In 1839 Anna Atkins, now a renowned botanist is accepted into the Botanical Society of London. This is also the year that Henry Fox Talbot announced his discovery of a photographic process at the Roal Society. Anna Atkins was most likely inspired by this invention and Talbot’s photograms (objects printed on paper). Talbot’s process was known as the Calotype (later known as Tablotype) and was expensive to produce. It was also patented by Talbot, which may be the reason Anna sought other means of printing her collection and herbarium.
In 1841 Anna’s father gives her a camera which she and her father spend time experimenting with. There are no photographs of hers that are known to have survived, but this event also makes her the first woman documented to have taken a photograph.
The Children’s family are friends of W.H. Fox Talbot and, more importantly, Sir John Herschel who invented the cyanotype process. In 1842 Sir John Herschel published the cyanotype process at the Royal Society and Anna Atkins was also introduced to Sir John Herschel’s laboratory and the process of cyanotype printing. The cyanotype process was cheaper than Talbot’s Calotype, more permanent and more accessible. Perhaps this is why Anna focuses on the cyanotype process. She puts her knowledge to use by creating photograms (shadow images) as a tool to document her botanical specimens.
In 1843, when Anna is 44 years old, the first book is created and called Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Her idea was to create a book that was something between a herbarium and a printed portfolio. This of course makes her the first person to ever use photographs in a book. The artistic, as well as the scientific merits of this, are hers and hers only. The book is distributed to her friends with instructions on how to bind it, which is why copies may vary a little in order of the prints.
Amongst the first prints she sent to Sir John Herschel, there was a handwritten note:
“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.”
The book was sent to the Royal Society, Sir John Herschel, Henry Fox Talbot and Robert Hunt amongst others. Over the years Anna documented over 400 plants, in a dozen of books, and printed over 6000 cyanotypes. To speed up printing, Anna enlisted help from a friend, Anne Dixon (born Austen) who helped provide specimens and also assisted with the printing of the thousands of cyanotypes needed.
Anna produced two more books after the British Algae. One in 1853 is called Cyanotypes of British Algae and Foreign Ferns and one in 1854 is called Cyanotype of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, as well as a memoir of her father and a novel.
For many years her cyanotype prints were not credited to her. This was mainly because she signed her prints with “AA” which some assumed meant “Anonymous Author” and it was not until after her death that researchers could accredit her work to the rightful owner.
In 1865 Anna donates her herbarium and all botanical pictures to the British Museum.
Anna Atkins died at 72, on the 11th of May (though some sources state the 9th of June) in 1871 at her home in Halstead place. She apparently died of “rheumatism, paralysis and exhaustion”. A blue plaque has been placed on the Gate House, Halstead Place, to commemorate her there.
After her death, her husband John Pelly Atkins produce an album of her drawings.
The book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions and other tribute books
The book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was printed in 1843 by Anna Atkins. Until Anna Atkins created the book, plans were illustrated by hand, or dried and pasted onto paper. Using the cyanotype photographic process, Anna created photographs, starting with her algae collection. This was a way of capturing the plant more accurately.
The book was self-published and Anna kept adding to it for over a decade, sending out prints to friends with instructions on how to bind it. She sent out a total of at least 6000 prints and there are currently around 15-20 copies of the book in existence. Each of them was a little different, depending on how her friends bound the pages. 3 copies are held at the Royal Society in London, one is held at the British Library of Printing in London and one at the Met Museum in New York. Copies are also held by the Linnean Society of London, the British Museum, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinborough.
In 1985 a book called Sun Gardens: Victorian photograms by Anna Atkins was published b Aperture Books in New York. The text is written by Larry J. Schaaf. The book has an extensive biography of Anna Atkins and also reproduces many of her prints of plats, feathers and lace. This book is no longer in print. It is a nice edition, so if you can get hold of one at a reasonable price it’s worth it, but it seems to sell for way over 200 dollars. Try BetterWorld for used books.
Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins, also by Larry J. Schaaf, is unfortunately out of print and thus very expensive, at the time of writing nearly 400 dollars(!). If you are one to search antiquarian stores or used books online and find a copy, be sure to pick it up!
The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the first book of photographs is a children’s book about Anna Atkins with text and illustrations by Fiona Robinson. Despite it being published by Abrams Books for Young Readers I would highly recommend it for adults as well. Anna Atkins’ life is described in an accessible and intriguing manner and the book is beautifully illustrated throughout.
Anna Atkins: Blue Prints by Rolf Sachsse, is a detailed work of history and starts with a history of illustrated systematic works of botany. It gives an account of Anna Atkins’ life, the invention of photography and the people around her.
The book is richly illustrated with reprints of Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes. There is a German edition and an English one.
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