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Anna Atkins

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Anna Atkins
Atkins in 1861
Born(1799-03-16)16 March 1799
Tonbridge, Kent, England
Died9 June 1871(1871-06-09) (aged 72)
Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, Kent, England
Known forVery early botanical photographs, 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1st book illustrated with photographic images)
John Pelly Atkins
(m. 1825)
Scientific career

Anna Atkins (née Children; 16 March 1799 – 9 June 1871[1]) was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images.[2][3][4] Some sources say that she was the first woman to create a photograph.[3][4][5][6]

Early life[edit]

Atkins was born in Tonbridge, Kent, England in 1799.[1] Her mother, Hester Anne Children, "didn't recover from the effects of childbirth" and died in 1800.[5] Anna was close to her father John George Children, a renowned chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist.[7] Anna "received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time."[8] Her detailed engravings of shells were used to illustrate her father's translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells.[8][9]

In 1825, she married John Pelly Atkins, a London West India merchant, later sheriff, and proponent of railways; during this same year, she moved to Halstead Place, the Atkins family home in Halstead, near Sevenoaks, Kent.[8][10] They had no children.[11] Atkins pursued her interests in botany by collecting dried plants, which were probably used as photograms later.[8] She was elected a member of the London Botanical Society in 1839.[12]


John George Children and John Pelly Atkins were friends of William Henry Fox Talbot.[8] Anna Atkins learned directly from Talbot about two of his inventions related to photography: the "photogenic drawing" technique (in which an object is placed on light-sensitized paper and exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotypes.[13][14]

Atkins was known to have had access to a camera by 1841.[8] Some sources say that Atkins was the first female photographer,[3][4][5][6][15] while others attribute this title to Constance Fox Talbot.[16][17][18] As no camera-based photographs by Anna Atkins,[8] nor photographs by Constance Talbot,[17] survive, the issue may never be resolved.

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions[edit]

A cyanotype photogram made by Atkins which was part of her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Sir John Herschel, a friend of Atkins and Children, invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842.[1] Within a year, Atkins applied the process to algae (specifically, seaweed) by making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed[1] "by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper".[5]

Detail of title page of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Atkins self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843.[2] She planned to provide illustrations to William Henry Harvey's A Manual of British Algae which had been published in 1841.[19] Although privately published, with a limited number of copies, and with handwritten text, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is considered the first book illustrated with photographic images.[2][3][4][20]

Eight months later, in June 1844, the first fascicle of William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature was released; that book was the "first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published"[21] or "the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs".[22]

Atkins produced a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853.[23] Only 17 copies of the book are known to exist, in various states of completeness.[24] Copies are now held by the following institutions, among others:[5][7]

One copy of the book with 411 plates in three volumes sold for £133,500 at auction in 1996.[7][23] Another copy with 382 prints in two volumes which was owned by scientist Robert Hunt (1807–1887) sold for £229,250 at auction in 2004.[24]

In 2018, the New York Public Library opened an exhibition on Atkins' life and work, featuring various versions of Photographs of British Algae.[34][35]

Later life and work[edit]

Cyanotype photogram of Wood Horsetail from the 1853 book Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns by Atkins and Dixon

In addition to Photographs of British Algae, Atkins published five novels between 1852 and 1863.[36][37] These included The Perils of Fashion, Murder will Out: a story of real life, and A Page from the Peerage.

In the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with Anne Dixon (1799–1864), who was "like a sister" to her, to produce at least three presentation albums of cyanotype photograms:[5]

  • Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853), now in the J. Paul Getty Museum;
  • Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), disassembled pages of which are held by various museums and collectors;
  • An album inscribed to "Captain Henry Dixon," Anne Dixon's nephew (1861).

Atkins retained the algae, ferns and other plants that she used in her work and in 1865 donated the collection to the British Museum.[38]

She died at Halstead Place in 1871 of "paralysis, rheumatism, and exhaustion" at the age of 72.[5]

In popular culture[edit]

On 16 March 2015, Internet search engine Google commemorated Atkins's 216th birthday by placing a Google Doodle image of bluish leaf shapes on a darker background on its search page to represent her cyanoprint work.[39][40]

Atkins' work was a major feature in the New Realities Photography in the Nineteenth Century exhibition held in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, June – September 2017.[41]


  • Atkins, Anna (2020) [1843]. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (Sir John Herschel's Copy). Gerhard Steidl Druckerei und Verlag. ISBN 978-3-95829-510-0.
  • Atkins, Anna (2013) [1853]. The Perils of Fashion. London: Colburn and Co. ISBN 978-1-230-43184-0. OCLC 220806058.
  • Atkins, Anna (1853). The Colonel: a story of fashionable life. By the author of "The Perils of Fashion". London: Hurst & Blackett. OCLC 264999460.
  • Atkins, Anna (1853). Memoir of J. C. Children, including some unpublished poetry by his father and himself. London: John Bowye Nichols and Sons. OCLC 54191950, 556415937.
  • Atkins, Anna (1859). Murder will Out: a story of real life. By the author of "The Colonel", etc. London: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge. OCLC 855529436, 23919904.
  • Atkins, Anna (1863). A Page from the Peerage. By the author of "The Colonel". London: T. Cautley Newby. OCLC 23919986, 557432962, 156090327.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Art encyclopedia. The Concise Grove Dictionary of Art. Anna Atkins". Oxford University Press. 2002. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T004852. ISBN 978-1-884446-05-4. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Parr, Martin; Badger, Gerry (2004). The Photobook: a history. Vol. 1. London: Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-4285-0.
  3. ^ a b c d James, Christopher (2009). The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes (2nd ed.). Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-1-4180-7372-5. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d "Seeing is believing. 700 years of scientific and medical illustration. Photography. Cyanotype photograph. Anna Atkins (1799–1871)". New York Public Library. 23 October 1999. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Atkins, Anna; Schaaf, Larry J.; Kraus, Hans P. Jr. (1985). Sun Gardens: Victorian photograms. New York: Aperture. ISBN 0-89381-203-X.
  6. ^ a b Clarke, Graham (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-284248-X.
  7. ^ a b c Ware, Mike (1999). Cyanotype: the future, science and art of photographic printing in Prussian blue. National Museum of Photography, Film & Television.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Halstead Parish Council. "Parish history: Anna Atkins". Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  9. ^ "Historic figures. Anna Atkins (1799–1871)". BBC. Archived from the original on 22 December 2005. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  10. ^ Schaaf, Larry (1979). "The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book". The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. 73 (2): 212. doi:10.1086/pbsa.73.2.24302456. ISSN 0006-128X. JSTOR 24302456. S2CID 183441263.
  11. ^ "John Pelly Atkins". Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. University College London. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  12. ^ Hannavy, John (16 December 2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-87327-1.
  13. ^ "Ocean flowers: Anna Atkins's cyanotypes of British algae". New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  14. ^ Roger Taylor (2007). Impressed by the Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860. NY, Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 287.
  15. ^ Cumming, Laura (10 March 2002). "Things aren't what they seem. The V&A's exhibition of its vast photo archive shows how the camera can transform even the humblest object". The Observer. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  16. ^ Glauber, Carole (April–June 2001). "Book review. Seizing the light: a history of photography". F2 eZine. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  17. ^ a b Smith, Vivienne. "Talbot, Constance: Woman at forefront of photography". Derby Evening Telegraph. Archived from the original on 4 December 2008. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  18. ^ Gover, C Jane (1988). The positive image: women photographers in turn of the century America. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-88706-533-3. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  19. ^ a b "Anna Atkins & Algae: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions". Horniman Museum and Gardens. Archived from the original on 26 February 2020. Retrieved 26 February 2020.
  20. ^ Peres, Michael R. (2007). The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science (4th ed.). Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier/Focal Press. ISBN 978-0-240-80740-9.
  21. ^ Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department (February 2007). "Book of the month. William Henry Fox Talbot. The Pencil of Nature". Archived from the original on 11 June 2011. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  22. ^ "William Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature (1994.197.1-.6)". Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2006. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  23. ^ a b "Rare book by woman pioneer goes to auction". The Guardian (London). 19 June 1996.
  24. ^ a b c "Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Photographs of British Algæ. Cyanotype Impressions., Robert Hunt's copy". Christie's Inc. 19 May 2004. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  25. ^ "Catalogue of photographically illustrated books. Atkins, Anna. Photographs of British algae. Cyanotype impressions.". British Library. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  26. ^ Genocchio, Benjamin (4 July 2004). "Art review; Where art and botany coupled, photography evolved". New York Times. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  27. ^ "Works of art. Photographs. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  28. ^ "Catalog entry for Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions". New York Public Library. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  29. ^ "NYPL digital gallery. Browse source titles. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions". New York Public Library. Archived from the original on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  30. ^ "Still life". Royal Society. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  31. ^ "Catalog entry for Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions". The Linnean Society of London. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  32. ^ "Rijksmuseum acquires PHOTO Book by First Female Photographer". Rijksmuseum. Archived from the original on 26 July 2020. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  33. ^ "Photographs of British algae: cyanotype impressions". Université de Montréal Library. Université de Montréal. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  34. ^ "Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins". New York Public Library. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  35. ^ Farago, Jason (15 November 2018). "She Needed No Camera to Make the First Book of Photographs". New York Times. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  36. ^ Boase, Frederic (1908). "Atkins, Anna". Modern English biography. Volume IV. Truro, England: Netherton and Worth. Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  37. ^ "New general catalog of old books and authors. Author names starting with At". Retrieved 11 August 2009.
  38. ^ Moorhead, Joanna (23 June 2017). "Blooming marvellous: the world's first female photographer – and her botanical beauties". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  39. ^ "Anna Atkins: Google Doodle celebrates 216th birthday of botanist who produced first photographic book". The Independent. London: Independent Digital News and Media Ltd. 16 March 2015. Archived from the original on 7 May 2022. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  40. ^ "Anna Atkins' 216th Birthday". Google Doodle Archive. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  41. ^ "New Realities. Photography in the Nineteenth Century". Retrieved 24 June 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]