By chance, on a recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum shop, I spotted on a high shelf a postcard of what looked to be a Prussian blue X-ray of a poppy. The image was fresh and alive, and when I turned the postcard over I was shocked to find not only that it had been made in the 1850s but that its creator had been a woman. Anna Atkins’s album Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), I later discovered, was the first photographic book ever published, spawning a 10-year cyanotype-print craze in England and the U.S. that was practiced by women and children in particular.
The cyanotype is a kind of early photograph invented by the English astronomer John Herschel in 1842, and was initially used to make blueprints. Herschel showed his friend Anna Atkins the process, and she began to make cyanotypes with overwhelming fervor, probably creating more than 8,000 in her lifetime.
Trial and error led Herschel to the readily available and cheap chemical compounds of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Atkins would measure these into minute scales, mixing tiny amounts with ionized water in the dark, away from metal and light. Then, probably by candlelight, Atkins painted the chemical liquid onto paper with a broad brush. She left it to dry in the dark, perhaps under a tented cloth or lightproof box, staying there until there was enough sun outside for it to be used.
Next she would whip the protected paper out, quickly placing the object to photograph on top of the paper and under a sheet of glass to compress the object and keep the paper from flying away in the wind. After the dried paper started to develop a bronze sheen, she would fix the image by washing the paper with cold water until it ran clear.
Where Herschel’s invention tended to be used for plans and structural drawings, Atkins used it to create prints of plants, flowers, seaweed, and ferns. Her last prints, made with her friend Anne Dixon, were a joyful combination of parrot feathers, lace, and botanical specimens that defy scientific categorization and read as an album of joy made by two close pals.
Despite the skill that went into Atkins’s cyanotype albums—and how prolific Atkins was in her lifetime—her work has so far slipped away from serious scrutiny. At the time they were created, Atkins’s prints were viewed as a curiosity and she herself was described as a skilled acolyte to a series of scientific patriarchs. In 1852, Atkins donated her albums to the Royal Society, the Linnean Society of London, the British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they were received as a tribute to her eminent scientist father, J. G. Children.
Where John Herschel’s invention tended to be used for plans and structural drawings, Anna Atkins used it to create prints of plants, flowers, seaweed, and ferns.
At first, one of the few available sources of information about Atkins was the introduction, carved in her own tiny, curled handwriting, to Photographs of British Algae. In the text, Atkins acknowledges the beauty of the cyanotype and bows to Herschel, the man who taught her its method. She claims to be merely a servant to science and that her desire is to represent nature as truly as possible.
These assertions are not unusual for the time. The early perception of photography was that its images were drawn by the sun, and that the job of the photographer was just to capture this drawing. For instance, the scientist and early photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot titled one of his books The Pencil of Nature, and in an American court case of 1870, the defense lawyer argued that a photograph could not be used as evidence as it was “nothing but hearsay of the sun.”
It was at this point in my research that I discovered Atkins also wrote novels. Ostensibly they were concerned with the mores of society, yet subtly they described intelligent women forced to blend in with their domestic backgrounds so as not to highlight the incompetence of their husbands. This seemed in stark contrast to Atkins’s introduction to Photographs of British Algae.
In an effort to understand Atkins further, I started to make my own versions of her prints, starting with her poppy cyanotype: “Papaver Orientale” (1852–54). I felt frustrated; my gangly stem and frail, folded petals looked nothing like her powerful image that had so drawn me with its declaration of vitality. I contacted a historical-plant specialist, who examined my postcard of Atkins’s poppy and suggested it could be a fake. In time I discovered that Atkins may have “created” her specimens by using a knife to dissect and re-assemble them. Indeed, close examination of the cyanotype reveals a visible slice in the stem above the lowest leaf; the scar shadow gives her away.
Atkins’s albums seem to me to hold the kernels of a multitude of personal stories that tell of her devotion not only to her father and place in society but also to her love of science, nature, and art. It’s about time her work took center stage.
Annabel Dover is a London-based journalist. Her novel about Anna Atkins, Florilegia, is out now