Photographs of British algae: cyanotype impressions

Collection Data

"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. 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.
Atkins, Anna, 1799-1871 (Photographer)
Herschel, John F. W. (John Frederick William), Sir, 1792-1871 (Former owner)
Herschel-Shorland, John (Former owner)
Cohen, Claudia, 1953- (Binder)
Harvey, William H. (William Henry), 1811-1866 (Associated name)
Dates / Origin
Date Issued: 1843 - 1853
Place: Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, England
Publisher: Anna Atkins
Library locations
Spencer Collection
Shelf locator: Spencer Coll. Eng. 1843 93-440
Algae -- Great Britain
Algae -- Catalogs and collections -- Great Britain
Plants in art
Blueprinting -- Specimens
Content: Accompanied by the green cloth portfolio with ms. label "Mrs. Atkins's British Algae, Vol. 1" and typescript label "Cataloged by M.F.H." in which item was housed in the Herschel library.
Content: Each part and vol. issued in Prussian blue wrappers.
Content: Spencer Coll. copy comprises pts. I-II, 2 issues of pt. IV (with varying contents leaf), pts. V-XII and v. 1; no. 2 in Schaaf's inventory (p. 41). Part I of this copy is reproduced in Schaaf, p. 10-22.
Content: Spencer Coll. copy has ms. "Notice" inserted in v. I.
Content: Author's presentation copy, inscribed to Sir John F.W. Herschel (inventor of the cyanotype process), Oct. 1843.
Content: Spencer Coll. copy of parts and vol. I, with 2 loose prints: Accompanied by the green cloth portfolio (from a cloth case binding for "Jamieson's Scottish dictionary") in which item was housed in the Herschel library, with manuscript label "Mrs. Atkins's British Algae, Vol. 1" and 3 typescript labels, one reading "Cataloged by M.F.H." Conserved in 2 custom natural linen-covered clamshell cases by Claudia Cohen.
Date: Dates for all parts and volumes, except for Part I and Volume III, inferred from Larry Schaaf, "The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book," The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 73, no. 2 (Second Quarter, 1979): 209-224.
Content: Atkins based her nomenclature on A manual of the British algae, by William H. Harvey (London, 1841; revised edition published under title A manual of the British marine algae, 1849). Cyanotyped throughout on J. Whatman Turkey Mill paper. Text reproduced from the author's handwriting. For detailed account of publishing history and illustration process and description of extant copies, cf. Sun gardens : Victorian photograms / by Anna Atkins ; text by Larry J. Schaaf. New York : Aperture, c1985. Issued as 12 parts numbered I-XII, 1843-1850, and 3 volumes, 1850-1853. Each part contains 1 leaf of text (table of contents, with part designation) and 12 plates, except pt. I, which contains 4 leaves of text (t.p., dedication, preface, contents) and 8 plates. These parts were intended to be incorporated with the subsequent plates issued in 3 v., with volume title pages and tables of contents cancelling the earlier ones applicable to the parts and some cancellations of individual plates, for a total of 14 leaves of text and 389 plates. Extant copies vary greatly in content and makeup; cf. Schaaf. "The first published book printed and illustrated by photography"--Schaaf, page 8.
Physical Description
Extent: 12 parts, 3 volumes : photographs (photograms, cyanotype, white on blue) ; 27 cm
Spencer Coll. copy contains a total of 333 leaves of cyanotypes, each approximately 27 x 21 cm. There are 310 leaves of images and 23 leaves of text.
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b11861683
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 28d304b0-c612-012f-cd39-58d385a7bc34
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