Anna Atkins' Cyanotypes

September 21, 2017




Anna Atkins, born in Tonbridge, Kent in 1799, was an English botanist, and whilst she may not have been the first woman to take a photograph, that honor perhaps belonging to Constance Fox Talbot, she is the first women to be known as a photographer. She grew up with her father John George Children, a chemist, mineralogist, and not too successful zoologist, and received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time. Her mother, Hester Anne Children, sadly died in 1780 never recovering from the effects of childbirth.


She contributed to her father's work, and her engravings can be found in her father's translated edition of Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamarck's Genera of Shells, published in 1823. However, it is her work with cyanotypes that she is most notably known. 


In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins, a London West Indian merchant, and they moved to Halstead Place, the Atkins family home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  Through her father and husband, Anna came to know both William Fox Talbot, a pioneer of early photography who invented a process of creating photographs on paper treated with salt and a solution of silver nitrate known as the calotype, and Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype printing method. 

She became interested in the cyanotype process which produced images through so-called sun-printing. The object is placed on paper which has been treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, after which it is exposed to sunlight and then washed in water, leading to the uncovered areas of the paper turning a dark blue. The process, known as blueprinting, was later used to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings, but Anna chose to use it for what is considered to be the first work with photographic illustrations, namely her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).


Only 13 copies of the handwritten book are known to exist, some of which are in various stages of completion. Later, she would collaborate with another female botanist, Anne Dixon (1799–1864), in making two more books featuring cyanotypes: Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854). Anna became a member of the Botanical Society in London in 1839, one of the few scientific societies which was open to women.






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