Anna Atkins née Children (1799-1871) c. 1860
©Nurstead Court Archives
“Atkins was one of the foremost of those imaginative and fearless souls who took on the young art of photography and shaped it to society’s needs.” Larry Schaaf, March 16th 2018
The cyanotype photographs by Anna Atkins mark a unique milestone in the history of photography. Her blueprint botanical images form the first photographically illustrated book, preceding the inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and his 1844 publication The Pencil of Nature.
Anna Atkins was born on 16th March 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, the first and only child of John George Children (1777-1852) and Hester Anne Holwell (1777-1800). Anna’s mother never recovered from the birth and died twenty months later. John George Children remarried in 1809 only to lose his second wife, Caroline Wise, to the same fate. In the first two decades of Anna’s life, only two years included the influence of her mother or stepmother.
John George Children FRS (1777-1852) 
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Tragedy, however, bonded father and daughter in a close relationship lasting a lifetime. Anna was encouraged to study science, benefiting from the influence of her father’s distinguished colleagues including Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829) , William Hyde Wollaston (1766–1828) and Sir John Herschel (1792–1871). But their fortunes changed as a consequence of the collapse of Tonbridge Bank in 1816. John George Children sold the family home, Ferox Hall, and moved to a borrowed house in London with Anna and her governess.
Anna frequented the Royal Institution Lectures during 1817, hosted by William Thomas Brande (1788–1866). An interest in science was complemented by an artistic aptitude during her teenage years, sketching an elm tree at the site of the Battle of Waterloo during a visit with her father. The picture, now in the Royal Collection, also exhibited an empathy with nature which was to be an enduring feature of her adult life.
In 1823 Anna’s skill in illustration provided 256 drawings of shells to compliment John George Children’s translation of Jean Baptiste Lamark’s Genera of Shells. This form of visual reference companion to a scientific manual became a precursor to her photographic work two decades later.
Anna Children married John Pelly Atkins (1790-1872) on 30th August 1825, a union lasting forty six years but the couple had no children. John Pelly Atkins was the son of Alderman John Atkins (1760-1838), former Lord Mayor of London and Member of Parliament for Arundel.
Establishment of the Botanical Society of London in 1836 was key to the development of Anna’s interest as an amateur botanist. The society encouraged membership of women and Anna joined in 1839. William Henry Fox Talbot announced his invention of Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society in January 1839, marking a turning point in Anna’s life. John George Children hosted the subsequent Royal Society meeting during which Talbot explained his photographic process, and two years later informed Talbot that he had purchased a camera for his daughter. Photography soon became a hybrid art combining Anna’s talent in illustration and her scientific skill.
In June 1842 Sir John Herschel published On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours, and on Some New Photographic Processes introducing a new photographic process to be called “Cyanotype”. Anna adopted this photographic method to convert a botanical herbarium specimen into a Prussian Blue and white “sun picture”.
Leading British algae authority William Henry Harvey (1811-1866) produced A Manual of The British Algae in 1841, a comprehensive and very detailed guide but completed without any illustration. Harvey referred his readers to Algae Danmonienses by Mary Wyatt, an algae collector presenting herbarium samples in an indexed book format.
Anna decided to present specimens of British algae as cyanotype photographic impressions, to be used as a companion publication to Harvey’s Manual of British Algae. Each illustration was a unique cyanotype photograph, bringing life to the appropriate Manual of British Algae text.
© Graham Harrison / Courtesy of the Royal Society
Plocamium Coccineum (in fruit)
The delicate process was carefully repeated several times to provide multiple copies of each specimen, demonstrating the potential advantages of photographic illustration. Anna looked beyond the purely technical representation and into the aesthetic potential of cyanotype cutting edge photographic technology to produce a radical new form of illustration in negative.
©Rose Teanby / Natural History Museum Courtesy of New York Public Library
Dictyota dichotoma illustrated by Mary Wyatt Algae Danmonienses p.10 and Anna Atkins Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions Volume 1, Part 1, No.46
Anna’s publication required over 400 specimens of British algae to produce three volumes of cyanotype images, aided by access to collections belonging to her botanical friends.
In October 1843 Anna sent the first part of Photographs of British Algae Cyanotype Impressions as a gift to the Royal Society, who very rarely accepted gifts from women. The book of gifts received in 1843 shows the donor as Mrs Atkins.Copies were also sent to Sir John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot among several other recipients, and issued in parts between 1843 and 1853.
© Graham Harrison / Courtesy of the Royal Society
Photographs of British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions was interrupted by the death of John George Children in January 1852. Grief stricken Anna compiled a Memoir of her father’s life with the help of her lifelong friend Anne Dixon.
In 1853 Anna produced British and Foreign Ferns, liberated from the constraints of a linked publication. In collaboration with Anne Dixon, Anna’s botanical cyanotype photographic impressions now illustrated ferns, flowers and feathers, reflecting a new creative freedom.
Polypodium calcareum, British
Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, 1853
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
The English census returns record the last 20 years of Anna’s life. In 1851 John George Children, John Pelly Atkins and Anna were staying with Anne Dixon. The 1861 census documents Anna and John at home at Halstead Place entertaining their friend Isabella Herschel, daughter of Sir John Herschel.
In 1871 they have been joined by John Pelly Atkins’s relative Adelaide Burnaby. Anna had two months to live and was already suffering from paralysis. Anna Atkins died on 9th June 1871 and is buried in St Margaret’s Churchyard, Halstead, Kent.
It took a century for Anna’s contribution to photography to be recognised by the ground breaking research of Larry J Schaaf.
Anna Atkins may not have intended to be a photographic pioneer, but her eye for beauty, her understanding and application of photography in its infancy, makes her the most significant of all early woman photographers.
My grateful thanks to Graham Harrison of Photo Histories for introducing me to Anna Atkins and inviting contribution to further research.
The innovative cyanotype photography of Anna Atkins is celebrated in two exhibitions at New York Public Library:
Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, October 19, 2018–February 17, 2019 | Wachenheim Gallery
Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works, September 28, 2018–January 6, 2019 | Rayner Special Collections Wing & Print Gallery
The pioneering photography of Anna Atkins can be viewed online at the following:
New York Public Library :
The J Paul Getty Museum :
Larry Schaaf, Sun Gardens: The Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, Prestel, 2018
Anna Atkins, Anna Atkins: Photographs of British Algæ: Cyanotype Impressions, Steidl, 2018
Larry Schaaf, Hans P. Kraus, Jr, Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins, Aperture, 1986
Mike Ware, Cyanotype: The History, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue, London: Science Museum, 1999
Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: the Art of the Cameraless Photograph, Prestel, 2016
Carol Armstrong & Catherine de Zegher (Editors), Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature, Princeton University Press, 2004
 Larry Schaaf, https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2018/03/16/of-loss-lauds-leaps-and-lazarus/ accessed 30/07/2018
 Memoir of John George Children, marriage documented as 24th June 1798, p.29
 John George Children by Benjamin Rawlinson Faulkner oil on canvas, 1826 30 in. x 25 in. (762 mm x 635 mm)
Given by John C. Children, 1977 Primary Collection NPG 5151
 https://www.rct.uk/collection/990723/the-waterloo-elm accessed 17/10/2018
 Marriage register, Parish of St George Bloomsbury, 30th August 1825
 Abstracts of the Papers Printed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol,IV, p.124
 http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/132/181.extract accessed 18/10/2018
 Larry Schaaf, The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Second Quarter, 1979), pp. 209-224 https://www.jstor.org/stable/24302456