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British Algae: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins

British Algae: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins

The cyanotype was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. Some of his actual experimental papers are in the Museum's collection (see for instance 28304, 76956, 81196). It was recognised and used immediately as a simple and surprisingly effective method for contact copying delicately-structured, semi-translucent things such as botanical specimens and lace (11893). One of the first to do so, Anna Atkins (1799-1871) learned the process from Herschel himself, and the first fascicule or part-issue of her project to make a visual record of British algae (seaweed), issued in October 1843, was the world's first photographically illustrated book. It predates Talbot's famous Pencil of Nature, begun in 1844. The first part, a mere pamphlet of 12 leaves, is a modest product - but it represents the beginning of a revolution in publication and illustration. It is also (as Schaaf has pointed out) 'the first serious application of photography to science'.

It consists of 12 cyanotypes bound in a blue paper wrapper (not cyanotype). Eight are plates consisting of contact photographs of specimens, each identified on a handwritten label placed and copied below it. These are preceded by four sheets, also cyanotypes, containing the title page and introductory texts, reproduced from her own handwriting. So in fact it is not merely a photographically illustrated book - the entire work is produced photographically. Each page is a unique, hand-made photograph, and all copies of the work are slightly different.

"Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions" grew over the ten years 1843-53 into a corpus of over 400 photographic illustrations. (The Museum has only the first part.) Its impact was limited by the relatively small numbers produced as well as the specialised subject-matter, and also perhaps by the rapid development, during that very decade and soon after, both of the techniques of photography itself and of photo-mechanical printing. Atkins's was a monumental achievement nonetheless, as well as a labour of great patience and skill. She was one of the few (in the early period) to put into practice the kind of recording project that pioneers such as Talbot envisaged for photography (for early botanical photographs see for instance 49660 by Talbot, 62706 by Hunt, 60339 by Herschel).

For most purposes Talbot's more sophisticated calotype superseded his photogenic drawing; but in fact the basic printing-out, contact-copying processes of photogenic drawing and cyanotype were unrivalled for this kind of direct copying. The image being negative matters little (or is even advantageous; see narrative to 30855); and the cyan blue colour, hardly suitable for some photographic uses (such as portraits), is also acceptible, and easy on the human eye. Talbot's photogenic drawing in the event was very little used. But 'Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of Cyanotype' (as Atkins called it) proved the point by its revival in the 1870s or 1880s for copying engineering and technical drawings, by which means it gave the word and concept of 'blueprint' to the language and survived in regular use well past the mid 20th century (see narrative to 11906).

Atkins used Whatman paper, the type that all the earliest photographers found best (see 31601, 11936, and narrative to 62335). The pages of the Museum's copy of the first part include the full watermarks 'J Whatman | Turkey Mill | 1842' and '... 1843'. The cyanotype is a hardy and durable photographic process, and although this copy was for many years filed among ordinary pamphlets, receiving no special care as a photographic rarity, it is nevertheless in excellent condition, the blue strong and unfaded and the images clear. It was deposited in the Museum by Oriel College in or soon after 1931, but its original owner or source is not recorded. Although the link is very distant, the fact that Anna Atkins's grandfather had been a student at Oriel in the 18th century suggests the pleasing possibility that she may have donated this first part of her great work herself.

Anna Atkins's father J. G. Children was a keeper of natural history in the British Museum, and Fellow of the Royal Society. She grew up within his circle of scientific acquaintances, and sharing his interests and activities. This gave her unique opportunities to establish herself as a skilled natural history illustrator and a serious amateur scientist. Herschel and Talbot were among their friends. Herschel gave them copies of his photographic articles when they were published; so they knew of the cyanotype in 1842, immediately it was announced if not before. Atkins's project to depict the large variety of algae (as then defined) took shape and was launched sufficiently soon after to suggest that it was the qualities of the invention itself - the cyanotype's particular characteristics and capabilities, and its straightforwardness of manipulation, and not least its beautiful colour - that inspired her to undertake such a bold and original venture.

See separate narrative for a transcription of the handwritten, photographed title page, dedication, introductory text, and contents list that form the first four leaves of the pamphlet.

Other narratives:

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