As a research project for my Masters in History of Art at the University of Sussex, I’ve been working at the Royal Society Library, cataloguing and digitising some stunning illustrations by the Victorian photographer Anna Atkins.
Atkins (1799-1871) developed an interest in botany at a time when women were generally excluded from the scientific world. Her father was John George Children, a famous chemist and zoologist, and also a Vice-President of the Royal Society during the late 1830s, when papers on the first photographic techniques were read out at Society meetings. Through her father, Atkins was therefore able to make connections with the pioneering photographers Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel.
In 1842, Herschel was working on further researches in photographic chemistry. While experimenting with some old pieces of chemical paper, he discovered the cyanotype process, which involves coating a sheet of paper with a compound of iron salts, placing an object on the sheet and exposing it to light. The sheet will turn an amazing blue while the covered parts remain white; the image can then be fixed with a coat of water. This was a relatively inexpensive process which Atkins learnt from Herschel and improved during many hours of research at her home in Tonbridge.
Her book ‘Photographs of British algae: cyanotype impressions’, depicting marine species, was published in 1843. These beautiful images form the first ever book with photographic illustrations, and are a testament to Atkins’s eye for composition and colour. The whole book was made with the use of the cyanotype process, even down to her handwriting, which was styled to label the specimens. She would go on to produce similar botanical blueprints in her book ‘Cyanotypes of British and foreign ferns’ in 1853.
Anna Atkins’s pioneering work serves as a reminder of the forgotten female scientists of her day. And as we look forward to Father’s Day on 18 June, we can also celebrate her close bond with her father (her mother having died when Anna was still a baby), a connection which surely inspired her to follow a scientific path and led to the production of these remarkable early cyanotypes.
Full catalogue records and images from ‘Photographs of British algae’ will soon be available online via the Royal Society website. If you want to know more about women in science, please visit our forthcoming exhibition beginning in July.