26 January 2016

Early photography: Anna Atkins and algae

Anna Atkins wrote and published the first fully photographically illustrated book, jumping ahead of the pioneers of early photography.

Paperver Rhoeas- an example of early photography

I am one of the new Library graduate trainees at Kew and part of my role involves assisting the illustrations team. It was while working with Kew's amazing collection of botanical art that I came across a 19th century book of striking prints by a lady called Anna Atkins and decided to find out more about her. I was intrigued to discover how involved she was in the early practice of photography. As well as using cameraless photographic prints for her book, she had a camera by 1841 and was later considered to be one of the first women to take a photograph.

Anna Atkins (1799–1871)

A keen botanist, Atkins had already completed 250 engravings for her father John Children’s translation of Lamarck’s Genera of Shells when they both attended a lecture by John Herschel in 1839.

John Herschel and cyanotypes

Herschel invented the name "photography" ("light drawing" as opposed to nature printing or engraving), the use of "positive" and "negative" in photographic practice, and even the term "snapshot". 

Herschel had been experimenting with sun prints (or "photograms") ie. cameraless and lenseless photographs. These were one of the earliest forms of photography and involved laying an object on chemically-treated paper before exposing it to a light source. The lecture was on his new invention of the cyanotype which used paper coated with a solution of iron salts that was simply washed with water after being exposed to the sun. This produced a white image on a deep blue background.

This method was easier, cheaper, and more durable than the previous silver-based method. Cyanotypes are best stored in dark and slightly damp conditions, but will regenerate if placed in these conditions after dry storage has caused them to fade.


Atkins immediately began to experiment with the method and soon began a big project to create an illustrated guide to algae using sun prints. The subject matter was perfect for the deep blue prints as it evoked the algae’s natural water-based habitat.

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions: The book was issued in instalments, with the first published in 1842 making it the first photographically illustrated book by anyone on any topic. The cyanotype technique was used for all the illustrations and also the text.

This was a challenging project made possible by a clever choice of method by Atkins, a ready supply of the chemicals needed from her father’s workshop, and the availability of friends and household staff to assist her.

Aside from the fragility of the specimens and the unpredictable nature of the sunlight (British weather meaning that clouds would regularly distort the image), no negative meant that each print had to be taken individually, so over 300 individual prints would have had to have been taken for the roughly ten sets that are known to have been produced.


One of the friends who had helped Atkins, Anne Dixon, went on to fully collaborate with her on several projects including Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. Atkins continued to study ferns after this, and her herbarium was donated to the British Museum.

Legacy of cyanotypes

Although originally perceived to be closer to art rather than science, cyanotypes ultimately had a practical use as they were ideal for copying mechanical drawings and architectural plans ie. the blueprint. Despite having now been replaced by more modern methods, the term "blueprint" is still used today.

It was really interesting to find botany influencing the use of early photography, and to explore its early use in illustrating books. I look forward to more unexpected discoveries in the collections during my time at Kew.

- Melissa -

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