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The first book of photographs: Anna Atkins’ 1842 collection of British Algae

a photograph with whispy words spelling photographs of British Algae Vol. I

Photographs of British Algae by Anna Atkins. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Cyanotypes of algae from the first book to contain photographs are to feature in the Horniman Museum’s new arts space as part of an installation developed by Serena Korda

English botanical artist, collector and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was the first person to illustrate a book with photographic images, and these mid-19th-century Photographs of British Algae, are from the book, which she produced.

Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions were filled with images captured using the new cyanotype method and then distributed to her friends between 1843 and 1853.

The beautiful images, with their dreamy abstract shapes floating in an ocean of cyan blue, were then lovingly bound into books by their recipients. Today less than 20 copies of the hand made book are known to exist.

Atkins is widely recognised as the first woman ever to create a photograph (although some make a case for Constance Fox Talbot) and her collection of cyanotypes of algae specimens is regarded as not only as the first book with photos but also one of the most important milestones in the development and history of photography.

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Photographs of British Algae by Anna Atkins. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 1, part. 1, Plate 43. Desmarestia aculeata. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Photographs of British Algae by Anna Atkins. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Some of the surviving books of algae made by the pioneering photographer botanist are in various stages of completion. The Horniman’s own volume has a total of 457 plates bound in four books, which were originally owned by the founder of the museum, the tea trader and philanthropist Frederick Horniman.

Prior to Atkins, botanical images were either engravings or woodcuts and the young female botanist was herself an accomplished botanical illustrator – at a time when botanic illustration was considered to be a suitably genteel hobby for women.

Her father, John George Children, who she was very close to after the early death of her mother, was the first president of the Royal Entomological Society of London and Atkins honed her illustrating skills by providing a series of delicate watercolours and sketches for his English translation of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s catalogue, Genera of Shells (1822-24).

Following her marriage to John Pelly Atkins, she built up her own collection of botanical specimens. The couple also made the acquaintance of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel who in 1842 had invented the cyanotype method of photographic printing, which was essentially a light sensitive solution-coated paper, (treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide) upon which specimens could be placed under a light or in the sun. After washing it left a negative impression against a brilliant background sea of cyan – perfect for illustrating a collection of seaweed.

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 1, part. 1, Plate 55. Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state and in fruit. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 1, part. 2, Plate 136. Rhodomenia ciliata. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

a photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 2, Plate 283. Callithamnion pedicellatum. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Due to its relative simplicity and low cost the process was also picked up by engineers to produce copies of architectural drawings – hence the name, blueprint.

Today the 176-year-old photographic process is making a comeback with contemporary artists reviving the technique, often with a nod to its progenitor, Anna Atkins.

The Horniman will be putting images from their copy of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions on display as part of the inaugural exhibition, The Lore of the Land, in their new dedicated contemporary arts space ‘The Studio’ which opens to the public on Saturday October 20.

photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 2, Plate 321. Conferva arenosaa. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 1, part. 2, Plate 112. Iridea edulis. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

photo of a white algae against a blue background

Vol. 1, part. 1, Plate 68. Chorda filum. Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The Lore of the Land is centered around artist Serena Korda’s five large-scale ceramic works entitled ‘Sensitive Chaos’ and aims to challenge an anthropocentric viewpoint and instead encourage greater respect for the natural world. Each ceramic piece incorporates bulbous organic forms and is accompanied by a unique scent, inspired by essential oils distilled from plants in the Horniman’s 16-acre Gardens, and a site-specific soundscape based on recordings of the chemical processes occurring in plants and trees.

The exhibition is completed with a display of 100 objects, including Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae, from the Horniman’s world-important anthropology collection, curated by ‘The Collective’ – a group of eight members drawn from the local community who have worked closely with Korda from the project’s inception.

The Lore of the Land opens in the Horniman Museum’s new arts space, The Studio, on October 20 2018. 

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Horniman Museum and Gardens

London, Greater London

The Horniman has a unique range of exhibitions, events and activities which illustrate the cultural and natural world. Our collections of anthropology, natural history and musical instruments provide the inspiration for our programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions and events and activities. A full range of events and activities take…

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