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Laurencia pinnatifida, Aspidium denticulatum, and Dictyota dichotoma, photographic support, cyanotype.

Cyanotypes of (from left) Laurencia pinnatifida, Aspidium denticulatum and Dictyota dichotoma.Credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty

Anna Atkins: Cyanotypes Peter Walther TASCHEN (2023)

Before the twentieth century, botany was one of the few spaces in which women were free to express their curiosity about the natural world. Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was one of its pioneers. As well as producing studies of algae and ferns, she adopted a new photographic approach to document her finds. In 1843, using the cyanotype technique, which was invented by the astronomer John Herschel the previous year, she published the first book containing photographic illustrations: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

This and her Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) are among the rarest of rare books, held in just a few museums and private collections around the world. Literary historian, author and curator Peter Walther has combined both into a single volume, which includes more than 500 of Atkins’s prints. To leaf through them is to rediscover an era of painstaking observation and preparation, far removed from a casual snap with a smartphone. The ghostly images, white on a blue background, show, in fine detail, each plant’s structure, exhibiting the shadowy beauty in all that remains of specimens long gone.

In his introduction, Walther describes how Atkins was the daughter of John Children, a moderately wealthy amateur scientist and fellow of the Royal Society in London. After his father’s bank went bust in 1816, Children became a librarian at the British Museum Library, and then assistant keeper of the British Museum’s natural history collections. Chemist Humphry Davy was a family friend, and Children’s home in Tonbridge, UK, had a chemical laboratory. Anna, an only child whose mother and first stepmother each died within a year or two of marriage, learnt chemistry at her father’s bench.

She showed an early talent for art and science. The engravings in her father’s English translation of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s book The Genera of Shells (1822–1824) were based on her illustrations of molluscs. Natural history illustrations up to this point were typically hand-drawn, printed as woodcuts or engravings and often hand-coloured. Well-known exponents of this method included German entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian, British American physician Elizabeth Blackwell and English illustrator Sarah Drake.

Whereas society regarded drawing and painting as suitable ‘accomplishments’ for ladies, commercial publishing took daring. The Dutch botanist and illustrator Berthe Hoola van Nooten included an apology in the introduction to her book The Fruits and Flowers of Java (1863), excusing her presumption in selling the book on the grounds that she needed an income to guard against “penury and a refuge in sorrow”.

Anna Atkins English scientist and early female photographer.

Anna Atkins, botanist and photographer.Credit: Universal Art Archive/Alamy

In 1825, Anna married John Atkins, a prosperous merchant whose father’s commercial interests in the Caribbean suggest that the family’s wealth, similar to those of so many in Anna’s social milieu, was built on slavery. The couple, who lived at Halstead Place, UK, had no children. Anna was free to develop her interest in the classification of British algae, particularly seaweeds. She created a herbarium, a collection of pressed and dried specimens mounted for further study. In 1839, she became a member of the Botanical Society of London, one of the few learned societies to admit women at the time.

Earlier that year, English photography pioneer William Fox Talbot had shown the society images of leaves produced by his calotype process. It used light-sensitive paper and a camera to control the long exposures. Children, who was living in his daughter’s home after the death of his third wife, corresponded eagerly with Talbot about the new technique, reportedly buying Anna a camera, although none of her efforts at calotypy have survived.

Meanwhile, Herschel developed a simpler, camera-less approach to fixing an image on paper — the cyanotype. It involved coating a sheet of paper in two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate (or oxalate) and potassium ferricyanide. These are sensitive only to light at blue and ultraviolet wavelengths and react slowly to form a Prussian-blue pigment. Covered areas of the paper remain white. A simple wash with water is all that is needed to fix the image. The technique has been used ever since, for example to make blueprints of engineering designs.

Herschel was a regular visitor at Halstead Place, and Anna was among the first to hear about his technique. She set to work creating cyanotypes from her dried collection of British algae, whose complex outlines were difficult to draw. She arranged the specimens on the coated paper, along with a paper label made transparent by dipping it in oil, so that only the lettering was opaque. She then sandwiched the paper, specimen and label between glass sheets and exposed them to the sun for up to 15 minutes. After rinsing, she framed the delicate impressions or bound them into an album.

In October 1843, Atkins produced 15 copies of an edition of her first album for her botanical friends. This publication pre-dated, by several months, Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), a collection of calotype prints that he had advertised as the first work ever published with photographic plates.

Atkins gave copies of her book to the Royal Society, the Linnaean Society, Herschel, Talbot, the British Museum and others who recognized and appreciated her scientific contributions. Further volumes followed, sometimes erratically — recipients often receiving further plates to incorporate or suggestions for rearrangements. All told, Walther estimates that Atkins produced 450 cyanotypes of algae alone, making his task to find and collate them considerable. The challenge was even greater with Cyanotypes of British and Foreign and Ferns, which Atkins co-produced with her friend Anne Dixon in 1853. They printed only one copy, which was later disassembled and sold off as single sheets.

Atkins died in 1871. Her work, although admired by her own scientific circle, was never shown widely in her lifetime and was almost forgotten afterwards. None of her books was signed, and the dedication “To my dearest father” did not include his name. Only in the early 1970s did a photographic historian, Larry Schaaf, come across a couple of single cyanotype images, which set him on a quest to discover the photographer, ending with his publication Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins (1985). Since then, she has been recognized by photographers and several books and exhibitions have celebrated her work.

Walther’s is the first to provide a complete set of Atkins’s images following her own scientific classifications. It stands as a remarkable testament to the skill, persistence and botanical passion of someone who had rare scientific opportunities for a woman of her time, and who made the most of them.

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