Victorian Contemporaneity: Anna Atkins, the Cyanotype and Me

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She stumbled about in the darkroom, restricted not only by the darkness, but also by the clothes she wore. Laced into a whalebone corset which framed her body under yards of petticoats and sweeping skirt fabrics, her every movement must have been encumbered…

Now I stand here in the darkroom, comfortable in the darkness, moving about freely, working and thinking about what it was like to be one of the first woman photographers over 150 years ago.

It was an inspiring revelation to discover that Anna Atkins was not only a pioneer in the history of photography, but also the first person, using the newly invented cyanotype process, to print and publish a photographically illustrated book. It is always encouraging to learn that women too had a history in the arts even though their efforts have not always been recorded in traditional art history books. Anna's work is under-represented as is common with women photographers in the past two centuries.

There is very little known about the life of Anna Atkins. She was born in 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, the only child of Hester Anne Holwell and John George Children. However, we do know more about her work which was linked to the work of her father. He was a respected scientist as well as a Fellow and Secretary of the Royal Society and Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum. Her mother died soon after Anna was born, and, as a result, Anna and her father developed a close relationship.

Anna was in an unusual but fortunate position for a Victorian woman, an era when women were perceived as the dim and decorative sex. She was fortunate to study science and became interested in botany. Again fortunately, the Victorians saw botany as a suitable pastime for women. The study of plants through one's own observation and collection was acceptable. She was elected as a member of the Botanical Society of London, although women were not permitted to speak at meetings, nor could they hold office.
She knew her father’s friends, the eminent scientists of the day; for example, Anna had the acquaintance of Sir William Hooker, the pre-eminent botanist and Director of Kew Gardens. She knew William Henry Fox-Talbot, who in 1839 invented the photographic system that we still use today, and Sir John Herschel, the great inventor who not only gave photography its name, but also discovered among other photographic inventions the cyanotype process in 1842.

The cyanotype process is distinctive because of its Prussian blue colour. Iron salts are applied to paper and dried in the dark. Placing an object on the now sensitised paper and exposing it to sunlight creates a photogram, a photograph made without a camera or a negative. The final image, made after rinsing the exposed paper in water, is a detailed silhouette against a blue or cyan background.

Always a keen image-maker, Anna realised immediately the advantages of the cyanotype process for book illustration when she was introduced to Herschel's new discovery. It was ideal for making repeatable images; it was much cheaper and less laborious than other contemporary processes. She seized the opportunity when she understood that it was the most practical technology available to her at the time.

As a young woman Anna mastered drawing, engraving and lithography; she made hundreds of engravings of shells to illustrate one of her father’s books. These processes most likely gave her the discipline to undertake the cyanotype process. However, I think that the combination of her love of botany and the new cyanotype process, a process which freed her from the need to make the detailed and accurate representations required in her previous work, liberated her creativity and sparked an inner vision. These must have been very exciting times. Anna belonged to the first generation of artists and scientists who could enjoy and exploit the new photographic possibilities available to the contemporary worker.
Anna was open-minded and willing to pursue a new way of thinking about image making. Despite her purpose of recording specimens for scientific identification, her artful arrangements became symbols of beauty and self-expression. She is quoted as saying that she wanted to suggest an 'impression of the plants themselves.' Even though the blue colour of the cyanotype did not suit everyone's taste, it certainly suited Anna's algae. The blue colour was a perfect background for her studies of sea plants. Perhaps the blue drew her to the cyanotype in the first place as it embodies the colour of marine life.

She began the arduous job of printing and binding her botanical studies, making 264 photographs of algae that she collected herself at the coast. She was also able to use her Botanical Society connections to obtain non-local specimens. She worked from 1843–1853 producing several volumes for family and friends, and this work was to become the first photographically illustrated book in the history of publishing, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions which predates Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature by several months.

She stopped photographing British algae when her father died. Later, with the help of her friend Anne Dixon, a photographic enthusiast, she produced an album of 100 photographs called Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns. Anna also experimented with other photogram images, using such objects as lace and feathers, to transform simple, natural forms of everyday into a fresh visual experience, thanks to the pioneering photographic invention.

I became interested in the cyanotype and its history after seeing the photographer Ray Spence demonstrate the process in the Yorkshire Region several years ago. I was intrigued by the process - its simplicity of using only two chemical compounds, its permanency as a result of a water wash, and most of all its connection to the beginning of photography itself. Its blue colour also appealed to me because of my love of the seaside, thoughts of which shimmer as many shades of blue in the memories of my mind's eye.

I have always lived near the sea and, like Anna, delight in the beauty of everyday objects. For me, the challenge is to take ordinary subjects and make them more extraordinary, something more evocative of how I felt when taking the photographs initially. In turn I hope to convey this to the viewer, perhaps suggesting a new experience in seeing, seeing something unusual or different in the commonplace.

Using the cyanotype process enables me to capture intimate views at the seaside, views of everyday seaside life that I perceive as blue in my inner vision. Again like Anna, I have used the most practicable contemporary technology available to me for image making. Digital technology. With the advent of the computer, the digital negative is a reality. Using digital negatives to make cyanotype prints enables me to link old and new processes happily together. And of course, the old technology connects me to the beginning of photography and what it must have been like to be one of the first woman photographers, if not the first, over 150 years ago.

As for Anna, she married John Pelly Atkins as a young woman and moved to Halstead, near Tonbridge, Kent. Records show that he was a county sheriff and railway promoter, and had nothing to do with her artistic and scientific career although he seems to have been supportive of her work. They had no children. Anna died in 1871 when she was 72 years old. Her grave is in the churchyard at Halstead. The tombstone has an inscription to her husband, but says nothing about Anna’s remarkable achievements. The only information that it does give us is that she was the wife of John Pelly Atkins and the daughter of John and Hester Children.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Anna's significant contribution has not been recognised, nor celebrated, is because, even though British Algae is a landmark in photographic history and book publishing, she did not always use prime specimens, nor did she always identify the location where they were collected. Therefore, although her images of plants were exquisite in detail, her efforts were not considered significant in advancing scientific illustration. In addition, she never sought publicity for her work and preferred instead to remain supportive of her famous scientific father. Photographic inventions soon passed her by as the Victorians quickly discovered and refined processes more suitable to recording their world. Herschel's cyanotype process was never popular in its day; Anna's books were its most extensive use. Ironically, however, the cyanotype process is the only one from the nineteenth century to succeed as a viable process into the next century with its use for reproducing architectural blueprints.

More recognition has been given to Anna now that alternative processes are enjoying a popular revival. Several years ago a photographic heritage plaque was placed on Halstead Place School, the site of her former home. Anna has begun to take her rightful place as a pioneer in photographic history with her remarkable achievements finally being re-addressed.

Some of her work can still be seen today at the V&A and British Museum and the National Museum for Photography, Film and Television, as well as other museums and art collections throughout the world, which is a tribute to her visual awareness, her insight and the competence of her work, and also to the archival nature of the cyanotype process.

Patricia Ann Ruddle ARPS

This article is from the Royal Photographic Society Contemporary Group Journal, No. 24, Autumn/Winter 2001. ISSN: 0959-6704