The Cyanotypes of Pioneering Photographer Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins, Polypodium crenatum, Norway, 1854, from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. Cyanotype, 32.9 x 23.6 cm. Purchased 1983. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Fern cultivation, collection and classification were popular pastimes in Britain during the middle part of the 19th century. In his Glacus or the Wonders of the Shore (1855), Charles Kingsley coined the term pteridomania in reference to the fern-loving phenomenon. At the same time, ferns became a fashionable motif for the decoration of many household items, including pottery, furniture, glassware and fabrics.

This fascination with ferns and other plant life coincided with the early development of photography. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography on paper, was also an avid botanist who used ferns as subjects for his experiments. In 1865, when writing about photoglyphic engravings, Talbot asserted that his invention could greatly facilitate the scientific study of plants, arguing that “it would have greatly aided modern botanists in determining the plants intended by these authors, whose descriptions are frequently so incorrect that they are like so many enigmas, and have proved a hindrance, and not an advantage to science.” Other amateur photographers in Britain were quick to learn photogenic drawing, and botanists were one of the first scientific groups to embrace photography, for the early promise was of exacting reproduction of detailed forms, accomplished quickly and inexpensively.

Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was an amateur botanist, as well as an accomplished watercolourist and lithographer, who was justly celebrated for her pioneering photographically illustrated book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in 1853. Ancient Celts endowed ferns with special properties, marvelling that they reproduced magically without seeds. Conjuring up the magic of photography, Atkins harnessed the hidden reproductive powers of nature. A skilled draughtswoman, her dynamically composed fern commands our attention from a distance, while still rewarding minute inspection.

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta (1849) and Ulva latissima (1853), from Photographs of British Algae, 1843–53. Cyanotypes. Spencer Collection, New York Public Library.

Issued in parts between 1843 and 1853, each copy of British Algae included more than 400 plates, each plate an original photograph executed on a sheet of hand-coated paper. Atkins knew fellow botanist William Henry Fox Talbot, and experimented with his silver-based photographic process. But for her book, she turned to the 1842 invention of another friend, John Herschel, whose cyanotype – or blueprint process –employed the light sensitivity of iron salts.

Atkins positioned her dried seaweed on the coated paper and placed this under glass in the sunlight. Within minutes, solar energy had worked its sleight of hand and a trace image became visible. Plunged into plain water, the affected iron compounds formed the familiar pigment Prussian blue. Acting the role of photographic “negative,” the specimen was used to make additional copies of that plate, each a faithful translation of the original plant.

The attractive blue colour of the cyanotype was its natural state. Although nothing could have been more appropriate for “the flowers of the sea,” the process resulted in portraits suggestive of melancholy and landscapes of moonlight, limiting its use. For botanists, the colour was not a drawback, but nature’s plant modulated the light passing through it to the paper, leaving behind an unfamiliar shadow of itself – a silhouette, or photogram. Ironically, the veracity of photography also proved to be a drawback, for the image was tied to a specific specimen, not necessarily typical in all its parts. Expensive hand-drawn engravings continued to be the mainstay of botanical illustration.

During the decade of publishing British Algae, Atkins had come to appreciate the cyanotype’s expressive powers. Completing her monumental work, she turned to feathers and various botanical subjects, seemingly for their sheer visual pleasure. A close childhood friend and sometime-collaborator was Anne Dixon (a distant relation of Jane Austen). In 1854, Atkins presented her with a unique album, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, its photographs larger than those of the algae, perhaps to accommodate the typically larger sizes of the ferns. Polypodium crenatum is one of its 160 plates.


This article is an updated extract of Larry J. Schaaf's entry on Anna Atkins (with an addition from an entry by Lori Pauli) published in 19th-century British Photographs, published by the National Gallery of Canada and available at NGC BoutiqueShare this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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