” Collection History
Photographs of British Algae is a landmark in the histories both of photography and of publishing: the first photographic work by a woman, and the first book produced entirely by photographic means. Instantly recognizable today as the blueprint process, the cyanotypes lend themselves beautifully to illustrate objects found in the sea. The Library’s copy of British Algae originally belonged to Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), inventor of the blueprint process, among his many other photographic as well as scientific advances. One of thirteen known copies of the title, Photographs of British Algae was acquired in 1985 at auction directly from Herschel’s descendants.
“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,” explained Anna Atkins in October 1843. Mrs. Atkins (1799-1871) was an amateur botanist especially interested in scientific illustration and taxonomy. Her goal in producing Photographs of British Algae was to provide a visual companion to William Harvey’s pioneering but unillustrated 1841 publication Manual of British Algae; to that end, Atkins’s specimen titles follow Harvey’s nomenclature.
Through her father, scientist John George Children (1777-1852) whose Royal Society circle included Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Atkins was aware of the group’s experiments with photography. Talbot’s “photogenic drawing” technique involved placing a flat object against a light-sensitized sheet of paper (sometimes pressed beneath a sheet of glass to prevent movement and ensure a sharp image) and exposing it to sunlight until the area around the object began to darken. Herschel devised a chemical method to halt the darkening and “fix” Talbot’s silver-salt image – the basis for all photography until the digital era.
Hershel experimented with other light-sensitive metal compounds in addition to silver, and in 1842 discovered that colorless, water-soluble iron salts, when exposed to sunlight, form the compound known as Prussian Blue; unexposed areas remain unaffected and the salt rinses away in plain water, leaving a blue ‘negative’ image. Inexpensive and easy to use, the blueprinting process, or cyanotype, is familiar today as an artists’ medium as well as a popular children’s pastime.
Atkins used Talbot’s “photogenic drawing” method, arranging her specimens on sheets of glass for easier handling for repeat exposures, and adopted Herschel’s blueprinting process, to generate the multiple copies of specimen plates comprising Photographs of British Algae. She also used this same method to produce title pages and contents lists instead of having them conventionally typeset. Atkins issued the work in parts, distributing them privately between 1843 and 1853; she occasionally supplied new plates as updates and substitutions when better specimens were available (for example, see the variations in The Library’s two copies of Part IV), which recipients all handled differently. Today British Algae survives in at least thirteen different copies in widely varying states of completeness. The Library’s copy is among the most complete; it is also one of the most rare for retaining its original parts’ wrappers and stitching.
Following the conclusion of British Algae, Atkins explored the cyanotype medium for more personal expression, creating assemblages of flowers and plants in elegant and sometimes whimsical designs. In some of her scientific plates one catches a glimpse of her ability to compose an arrangement in defiance of anything found in nature.”