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Anna Atkins | cyanotype pioneer

Cyanotype photogram of fern by Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins (nee Children) was born in Tunbridge in Kent in 1799.  Her mother died a few months later. An only child Anna was brought up by her father. Following his example she took an interest in science and botany. She was a talented illustrator and provided the engravings for an english language translation of Jean-Baptiste de Monet Lamaercks ” Genera of Shells” which was translated by her father and published in 1823 when she was just 24. The following year she married John Pelly Atkins.

Following her marriage she continued her interest in Botany and at the age of 40 she became a member of the Botanical Society in London, one of the few scientific societies which was open to women.

Anna’s father and her husband were friends of the early photographic pioneers William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel. Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype process in 1842 and Anna immediately saw its potential to provide illustrations of her extensive collection of dried seaweed specimens . She self published the first part of her book “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” just a year later in October 1843. Handwritten and produced in very limited quantities ( just 12)  it remains an influential use of cyanotype prints and the first ever book to be illustrated with photographic images, beating William Fox Talbots first photographic book by several months.  By 1850 Anna had produced 12 additional parts to the book.

Cyanotype of Seaweed by Anna Atkins
Cyanotype of Seaweed by Anna Atkins

In 1854 working with her friend Anne Dixon she produced a further publication entitled Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. Anna Atkins died in 1871.

Anna’s use of cyanotypes was both pioneering and inventive. Copies of her books remain in the worlds most prestigious libraries and due to there scarcity and significance have fetched over £200,000 in auction (2004).

Her work was featured in a recent exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam  entitled “New Realities Photography in the Nineteenth Century”  ( June – September 2017)

Read about the Cyanotype process


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