Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was born Anna Children in Tunbridge, Kent (to the south-east of London.) Her father, John George Children, (1777-1852), was a scientist who became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1807 and was a secretary to the Royal Society in the 1820s and 1830s. He was a librarian in the British Museum from 1816 to 1840; his scientific interests included mechanics, mineralogy and astronomy as well as biology. The 'Children's Python', a native Australian python, was named after him because he first described it, rather than for its dietary habits. The mineral childrenite, a complex hydrated iron(II) aluminium phosphate is also named after him.
Children left his Cambridge College in 1798 to get married to Miss Holwell and Anna was born the following year, her mother dying in childbirth. Anna was brought up by her father (he remarried twice in later life) and thus received an unusually scientific education for a woman of the time. He had a large and very well-equipped scientific laboratory in his home at Tunbridge - there is an account of a meeting there in 1813 to investigate the properties of his large battery when 38 of the leading English chemists of the day - including Wollaston and Davy - dined and were all able to be accommodated overnight in the house.
Much of her early work in science was in helping her father, particularly in producing over 250 detailed engravings to illustrate his translation of Lamarck's classic treatise, Genera of Shells.
In 1825 Anna Children married John Pelly Atkins. After her marriage Anna Atkins devoted more of her time to her own interests in biology and started a collection of dried plant specimens, providing some for the museums at Kew Gardens. Probably her samples were among those I was taken to browse as a child on wet bank holidays when we ran between showers from the glasshouses to the collections. In 1839 was made a member of the Botanical Society of London, one of the few scientific bodies that at this time admitted women. Her plant collection was finally presented to the British Museum in 1865.
Atkins knew both Talbot and Herschel (both were friends of her father and her husband also knew Talbot well). Talbot wrote to her father about his invention and she was one of the first women to take an interest in photography. However she was not the first woman photographer. Talbot's wife Constance played an active part in some of his experiments and was almost certainly the first woman to use the new process. Both Atkins and her father took a great interest in photography, buying a camera in 1841, but no photographs by either have survived.
Atkins saw photography as a timesaving method to produce the kind of scientific illustrations she had laboured over for her father. In 1841, William Harvey had published his 'A Manual of the British marine Algae', a key work in the area, which established methods for identifying the different species but was un-illustrated. Atkins set out in her 'British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions' to provide a set of identified specimens as cyanotype photograms to aid in the identification of the species he had described.
As was usual at the time, this work was brought out in a series of parts over the twelve years 1841-53, providing a total of around 400 prints for each copy. Around a dozen copies are still in existence and these were probably all that were produced.
Atkins produced many other cyanotype illustrations, including other books - particularly her 'Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns' started in 1853, and also some more experimental images. Much of her work was made in collaboration with her life-long friend Anne Dixon (1799-1864). Dixon was born Anne Austen, a second cousin of writer Jane Austen, and she collaborated with Atkins in writing a biography of John George Children after his death.
The cyanotype process has many advantages for this work, not least that it is relatively stable - many if not most of her prints are still in excellent condition. The paper is also easy to make and to process - the blue image appears on exposure and the paper then simply has to be washed and dried.
Her father's laboratory and its giant battery were probably the source of the ferric (iron(III)) ammonium citrate needed for the process, as well as the potassium ferricyanide.
The paper she used also came from Kent, where the modern paper industry had been revolutionised by the Whatmans and their business partners. Turkey Mill, near Maidstone had been converted to paper making in 1693, and in 1740 James Whatman married his boss's widow and took over running the works, making it the largest paper mill in England. His major invention was 'wove' paper, largely replacing the previous 'laid' method. Artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and William blake used Whatman paper, and it was also used for many state documents by George Washington, Napoleon's will, Queen Victoria's letters, Soviet five year plans and the peace treaty with Japan at the end of the Second World War.
Turkey Mill paper was a fine material for cyanotypes, but gave Talbot more problems when used for calotype negatives and salt prints, although it was still the best material available. The cyanotype process, being printed using iron-based chemistry on the surface of the paper was not affected by variations in its thickness or traces of iron embedded in the fibres.
Cyanotypes are also inherently more stable than calotypes, their image being a stable 'Prussian Blue' complex rather than the reactive silver metal of normal black and white processes. Their development by washing also will have helped to stabilise them, and her father's Kent laboratory was blessed with a good, pure water supply.
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