The history of anthotypes

An excerpt from Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants. The history of anthotypes and ow the anthotype was discovered.

Writer / Malin Fabbri
Photography / Sir John Herschel, Julia Margaret Cameron

Anthotypes by Malin Fabbri including a brief history of anthotypesToday’s photographers can raise their camera and within a few seconds produce a picture, import it into the computer and print it out. In these times, it is wonderful to take a few steps back and produce a print over a few days or weeks, with a lot of random events along the way. It is a great way to reflect over both the photographic process and the image you are about to produce.

The fascination with plant color existed long before the invention of anthotypes. From the beginning of mankind, plants have been used to make clothes and tools, and also to color these objects, decorate people’s skin for ceremonies and festivities and give color to food.

The impact of plants and flowers throughout our history is immense. Evidence suggests the medicinal properties of plants were used over 60, 000 years ago by Neanderthals [1]. Burial grounds also show that flowers were part of their burial ceremony. Modern humans, evolving alongside the Neanderthals, also used flowers and plants in their cultural rituals.

In Egypt, living in the midst of a desert, with the Nile as the prime source of water for vegetation, plants were a crucial part of the ceremonies. Pharaohs were buried with wreaths of flowers, foliage and fruit to accompany them on the perilous and complicated journey to the afterlife. In a country where droughts were devastating, the plants were a sign of wealth.

Japanese tattoo masters used safflower for reds, indigo for blues, green from minerals and yellows from arsenic, gardenia and gamboge. A geisha’s face would be whitened by rice powder and her lips painted red with safflower pigment.

Researches on Light a good read on the history of anthotypes
Researches on Light includes a good chapter on anthotypes.

Plants have been used as medicine, but also as poison. There is the famous example of hemlock (Conium maculatum) used for poisoning the Greek philosopher Socrates.

The discovery and use of plants and flowers in photography is more carefully mapped. Many discoveries require a whole ensemble of people to get the final masterpiece in place. The discovery of anthotypes was no exception, though it can mainly be attributed to a handful of people:
Henri August Vogel, who in 1816 set the first note by discovering that plant juices are sensitive to light.
Theodor Freiherr von Grotthuss discovered that the absorbed light rays are active in the production of chemical changes in 1817, also setting the note.
Sir John Herschel in the lead with his extensive research and publishing his discovery in 1842.
Mrs. Mary Somerville, who did extensive research – building on Herschel’s experiments – on the action of rays on vegetable juices, but could not publish her findings on her own – because she was a woman!
Robert Hunt and Michel Eugene Chèvreul, who extended the research on their own, were also important figures in the band. In 1844 Hunt published Researches on Light which includes a good chapter on anthotypes.

A few biographical notes on the key players and some important events in the history of anthotypes

Henri August Vogel (1773-1867)

Vogel was studying lard – of all things – and published Dissertation on Lard and Some Medicinal Preparations Which Are Produced from It. Lard, as well as Vogel’s interest in how phosphorous emits light, did not contribute to anthothypes.  More important were his experiments with plants.

In 1816 Vogel experimented with making emulsion from violets and poppies and found them to be photosensitive. The experiments are described in Schweigger’s Journal (1813, IX, 236) He writes:

“An alcoholic tincture of red carnations turned white in a few days behind blue glass, while behind red glass it was still purple after about the same length of time. Cotton and paper colored with this tincture showed the same differences. The petals of a corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), mounted behind a blue glass, turned whitish after a few days; behind a red glass the color remained unchanged.”

An important discovery indeed!

Portrait of Mrs. Mary Somerville
Portrait of Mrs. Mary Somerville

Mrs. Mary Somerville (1780-1872) 

Mrs. Somerville’s father was Sir William George Fairfax and she was born in Jedburgh, in Scotland. She was interested in philosophy, astronomy and mathematics, which were quite unusual interests for women at that time. She was married to Captain Samuel Grieg and they had two children. When he died she married Dr. William Somerville by whom she had another four children. Despite looking after all the children, she still had time to do experiments on magnetism, and in 1831, as a popular science writer, she published a book called The Mechanism of the Heavens. In 1835 Somerville and Caroline Herschel became the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Somerville was not able to publish papers herself – since she was a woman, but was published through a letter to Sir John Herschel. On the Action of the Rays of the Spectrum on Vegetable Juices. Extract of a Letter from Mrs. M Somerville to Sir J.F.W. Herschel, Bart., dated Rome, September 20, 1845. Communicated by Sir J. Herschel. Received November 6, – Read November 27, 1845, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 136 (1846), p.111-120. This very elaborate letter describes Somerville’s important research on the “action of rays” using the spectrum of light to determine the effect it had on vegetable juices. Sometimes she added distilled water, sometimes sulphuric acid, sometimes hyposulphite of potash, muriate of ammonia, iodide of potassium or just common salt. Experimenting with chemical mixes, the different rays in the spectrum, sometimes combining the chemicals or rays with the element of heat by placing an iron at the back of the paper, she found that often the action was much increased by the addition of sulphuric acid. The juice of the same plant would react differently depending on whether the pigment was extracted in water or in alcohol; and they would react differently to different colored rays in the spectrum, that for example, the lavender rays had a different effect than the red rays on the bleaching or color changes in the juice. Here is an example of her report:

“On the juice of Plumbago auriculata the lavender and violet rays produced a pale brown image; the indigo rays had no effect, while all the rest of the image under the mean and least refrangible rays was blue and indigo.”

Supermum Somerville managed to find time to experiment, raise children and allegedly even putter about in the kitchen, making orange marmalade for the expedition of Sir William Edward Parry, the arctic explorer. Perhaps in return, he named an island in northern Canada, near the Alaskan border after her. It is still called Somerville Island.

Theodor Freiherr von Grotthuss (1785-1822)

Grotthuss was from Leipzig and only lived to 37 years of age. In his short lifespan, he set a basic law of science called “Grotthuss law of photochemical absorption” in 1817, after discovering that “only the absorbed light rays are active in the production of chemical changes”. He placed dyestuffs behind colored glass and discovered that they fade only by the action of those color light rays that they absorb, the complementary colors, but are preserved by the rays of their own color, which they reflect. A remarkable discovery.

Robert Hunt (1807-1887)

Hunt was a librarian and keeper of mining records at the Museum of Practical Geology and professor of mechanical engineering at the Royal Schools of Mines, London, though he was originally from Plymouth, UK. Hunt was one of the founders of the London Photographic Society and a member of its first council. He experimented with organic and inorganic light-sensitive substances. Hunt, like most discoverers, also published his work in many instances. One of the most important, to the anthotype process, is Researches on Light; an Examination of All the Phenomena Connected with the Chemical and Molecular Changes Produced by the Influence of the Solar Rays (1844). He also invented the energiatype and the fluorotype – perhaps those processes will be dealt with in another book!

Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889)

Chevreul, a Frenchman who carried out several experiments in the art of dyeing, was a professor of chemistry at the Lycée Charlemagne, a member of the Académie des Sciences in Paris and of the Royal Society in London. In his long lifetime of over 100 years he studied the changes and permanence of dyes on fabric made by water, air, sun and heat. He also investigated how oxygen in the air and moisture affects decomposition of colors when they are exposed to light. One of the documents where he published his findings on research on color contrast (in French in 1839 [2] and in English in 1854) was called The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours.

According to S.D. Humphrey in his book A system of photography, second edition, published in 1849 by Albany: C. Van Benthuysen, Hunt and Chevreul were indeed important players:

“The influence of light upon the growth and germination of plants is very curious and interesting. The facts connected with this subject have been investigated by Mr. Chevreul, Mr. Hunt and Sir John Herschel. To the latter gentlemen we are indebted for the enquiries which have led to the publication of the Anthotype process.”

That is a lot more than 15 minutes of fame!

J.F.W. Herschel taken by Julia Margaret Cameron
J.F.W. Herschel taken by Julia Margaret Cameron using the wet collodion process. Cameron made four portraits of Herschel, all from the same sitting which took place at his residence Collingwood, at Hawkhurst in Kent, UK 1867. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) the key player in the history of anthotypes

Photographers today are deeply indebted to Sir John Herschel. He was the man who first managed to fix photographs, after his discovery that hyposulphite of soda could be used. It is basically the same “hypo” in use today. He coined the terms photography, negative, positive and snap-shot. He discovered, or was the key player in the discovery of, several photographic processes: the cyanotype, also called the blueprint process, the anthotype process, also called “Herschel’s flower-essence prints” and came up with the basis for the ambrotype and tintype processes. The chrysotype process was another of his contributions to photography. Photography was just one of his many interests, as he was also a mathematician, a chemist, a botanist, an astronomer, a philosopher, a skilled draughtsman, and as a musician he played the piano and the flute. Thank you Herschel!

Trying to understand how one man could come up with all these discoveries and inventions is mind boggling. The short biography that follows is just an attempt to highlight a few events that may be of importance.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel was born into the intellectual circles. He was the son of Sir Frederick William Herschel, a composer, astronomer and prominent scientist, famous for discovering Uranus and infrared radiation.

Herschel achieved the highest honors at Cambridge, in getting his BA in 1813, after influencing the approach to mathematics in Britain.

He was soon elected a Fellow at the Royal Society. In 1814 he moved to London to read for the bar. It was the wrong decision and he soon tired of legal studies and gave up. He later returned to Cambridge as a tutor, but finding the work unsatisfying he accepted his father’s wish, and moved back home to take up his father’s astronomy observations. In 1816 he originated the Julian day system in astronomy, named seven moons of Saturn and four of Uranus.

Being a man with many irons in the fire, he also continued his studies of chemistry, physics and especially optics and light, under the influence of William Hyde Wollaston, a scientist and inventor of the “camera lucida,” a very simple, but brilliant drawing instrument.

Herschel made plenty of use of the camera lucida in his field research and through his travels through Europe. His interest in geology took him as far as the crater of Vesuvius and the volcanic peak of Mount Etna. In Munich Herschel met Henry Talbot, and an important friendship developed.

On his return to England, Herschel became secretary of Royal Society and President of the Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society). These tasks took too much time to administer and he resigned in 1827 and 1829. Herschel actively pursued his own interests, and by 1830 he had published over 60 scientific papers. One of the most influential early articles was “Light” for the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, recognizing the limitations and advantages of the wave theory.

Following two failed attempts of finding a wife, his third attempt was lucky. Margaret Brodie Stewart made a perfect partnership with Herschel in 1829. They shared several interests, and she was introduced to the camera lucida during their honeymoon. Already a skilled watercolorist and sketcher, she took to it.

Still young, Herschel was knighted in 1831, “recognizing a full life of scientific contribution”.

Herschel also continued his father’s investigations of light. Using a tincture made of red rose leaves he explored the properties of infrared light. Later, at the birth of anthotypes, the properties of the red rose leaves themselves would be explored.

Hershel and his wife travelled to South Africa in 1834 to study astronomy and botany. Together they made botanical illustrations of the Cape’s flora. During this time the competition to be the one inventing photography was fierce. Experiments had been going on for some time already. For example, in 1802 Thomas Wedgewood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) made photograms from silver changing color in the sun, but were not able to fix the images, so they could only be viewed by candlelight. As early as 1816, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) attempted the first in-camera images using paper negatives coated with silver chloride. When Niépce died in 1833, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) continued his work, developing the daguerreotype process. 1839 Daguerre presented photography to the world in Paris, and, following suit, in England, Henry Talbot presented the discovery of a similar process he called calotypes. Talbot used paper impregnated with silver chloride as support, and the daguerreotypes used metal plates. Working alongside Talbot, Herschel created an in-camera image and fixed it using hyposulphite. He also experimented with “re-reversal” of the image, making the negatives into positives, and also coined the words “negative” and “positive”.

In 1839/1840 Herschel and his family moved to Hawkhurst in Kent, to a property they named Collingwood. It was large enough for the growing family and to house a study, laboratory and conservatory for growing bulbs. Herschel experimented with using glass plates, thin paper, or thick paper that had been waxed as negatives.

On August 7, 1840 Herschel wrote in his diary: “Aug. 7. 1840. Hawkhurst. Spectrum thrown on Paper deeply tinged with juice of Petals of dark Purple Dahlia.” [3]
Using plant petals to try to introduce colors into the photograph gave birth to anthotypes. Herschel’s interest in botany reached into the photography area, and he tried a number of vegetable juices.

Herschel mentioned anthotypes in his 1840 paper to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society called On the Chemical Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Preparations of Silver and other Substances, both metallic and non-metallic, and on some Photographic Processes, vol. 131 (1840), pp. 1-59. He described trying to speed up the bleaching action of the vegetable juices by isolating specific rays of the spectrum. He isolated rays using a prism and found that the action differed with different colored rays. He wrote:

“We all know that colours of vegetable origin are usually considered to be destroyed and whitened by the continued action of light. The process, however, is too slow to be made the subject of any satisfactory series of experiments; and, in consequence, this subject, so interesting to the painter, the dyer, and the general artist, has been allowed to remain uninvestigated.”

“Anthotype #4” by Sir John Herschel, made from red doubler stock.
“The Royal Prisoner”, Engraved by S. Bull, from a Painting by J. Nash, then printed as an anthotype by Herschel sometime between 1839-1842. © Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

There is also a reference to an experiment on an earlier date, October 11, 1839, where he experimented with a water prism and a lens. This is perhaps the first mention of the anthotype process. He also communicated in this statement that he found “the action of light slow” and wrote in  a personal letter to Talbot on 19 of May 1841:

“The specimens of the effects of light on vegetable juices are very curious; it will be long ere Science will be able to account for all these anomalies.”


In his quest to invent color photography Herschel experimented further with the juices of flowers, leaves in alcohol and chemicals. He noted that red light bleaches blue tints, that alkalies increases photographic sensitivity and found the colors stable.

Trying to advance to color photography, Herschel made hundreds of experiments with plants and the bleaching effects of sunlight on plant juices.

His goal was to find extracts that could produce a specific tint under a certain wavelength of light. An alcohol based extract of petals from gillyflower (Matthiola annua) produced a “rich and florid rose-red” tint on his papers. It had a minimum response to red and yellow rays, and could “with patience yield extremely beautiful photographs”.

Being dependent on sunshine slowed down his research. But, after a good summer of sunshine in 1840, the anthotype got a proper introduction in the 1842 paper On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours, and on some new Photographic Processes also published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 133 (1842), pp. 181-215. This paper disclosed the anthotype process and the effects the sun has on paper coated with flower and plant juices. The experiments continued with the juice from flowers, leaves of plants and dyeing substances and their reaction to light, heat and chemical agents. Hershel found that heat, as well as light, had an effect on the pigments:

“The destruction by heat of the green or blue color superinduced on guaiacum by the more refrangible rays of light, was noticed by Wollaston, and it would seem, on a consideration of his experiments and of those described in the last article, that nothing further is requisite for operating the change from the green or blue to the yellow state, than the assumption of a certain temperature dependent on its state of dryness, and varying according to that state between the limits of 180 (degree) and 280 (degree).”

He also found that moisture accelerated the process:

“The discharge of color from blued guaiacum by mere heat, has been shown above (Art. 156.) to take place at a much lower temperature in the presence of moisture than when dry; and a similar destruction of color, under similar circumstances, takes place with many other vegetable preparations. Paper, for instance, coloured with the juice of the Viola tricolor (Art. 90.), is speedily whitened in the dark, while wet, by the heat of boiling water, though dry heat does not affect it.”

Working with the species he had access to, ordinary garden plants and those from the wild, he made hundreds of tests. A few interesting exceptions from the norm:

Chorchorus japonica, which he found to be very sensitive to light, continued changing color even in the dark, once the process had begun.

Paper coated with common ten-weeks stock, (Matthiola annua) in a tincture with alcohol was still usable after ten months. Paper coated with juice from Papaver orientale was placed in a window, where it did not get much sun in the rainy summer of 1841. Half the paper was covered, and when removed, the part exposed could barely be distinguished from the part covered. When acid was applied, the shaded part took on a vivid red color, and the exposed part remained unchanged.

The juice from Bulbine bisulcata, a plant from Hershel’s travels to the Cape of Good Hope, darkened from yellow to brown instead of bleaching when exposed to sunshine, and so did the Cheiranthus cheiri, wall-flower.

The long exposures of the anthotype process made the application impractical for in-camera work. Herschel exhibited a print called Photograph made with the juice of the petals of Mathiola annua, double ten-weeks stock at the Royal Society on June 16, 1842 – the print is now at the Humanities Research Centre, The University of Texas Austin, also proving that the anthotype process can indeed be labelled as a “permanent process.” Others can be found at the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

The anthotype process never really gained in popularity. Because of its extremely long exposure times, it was thought to have no commercial value.

Herschel was a very active scientist until the very end. Sir John Herschel was buried next to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey in 1871 – both considered among Britain’s most prominent scientists. Quoting the obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London v.20, 1872, p.xvii:

“British science has sustained a loss greater than any which it has suffered since the death of Newton, and one not likely to be soon replaced.”

Henry Hunt Snelling (1817-1897)

A bonus player. Snelling has nothing to do with the invention of anthotypes, but is still worth mentioning. Born in Plattsburg, Clinton County, New York, he devoted much time to photography and edited The Photographic and Fine Art Journal from New York. His writing is an insight to what was going on at that time. Finding the need to educate young Daguerrotypists in the “production of pictures though the agency of light”, he published his research in 1849, in History and Practice of the Art of Photography. He described the state-of-the-art photography – including anthotypes – at a time when photographs on a plate were slowly being taken over by photographs on paper.

[1] Nature’s Palette – The Science of Plant Colour, David Lee (2007) The University of Chicago Press.

[2] Note: The original title was De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs.

[3] Note: Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography, Larry J. Schaaf, Yale University Press; New Haven & London, 1992.

[4] Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography, Larry J. Schaaf, Yale University Press; New Haven & London, 1992.

Malin Fabbri is the editor of, author of several books on alternative photographic processes, and experiments with a variety of techniques such as anthotypes, cyanotypes, photopolymer gravure, chlorophyll prints, photosynthesis, pinholes and solargraphs.

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