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With Photographs of British Algae, Anna Atkins produced the first ever photographically illustrated book and is considered by some to be the first ever female photographer.
The Horniman acquired a copy in 1901 as part of Frederick’s original bequest, but their significance did not become apparent until 2011, when we carried out a project to review Horniman’s books in the library.
Born in 1799, Atkins was the daughter of John George Children, a scientist and fellow of the Royal Society, he was very supportive of her scientific interests at a time when women were not welcomed into that sphere.
Sir John Herschel, who invented the cyanotype in 1842, was a family friend and a regular visitor to the Atkins family home at Halstead Place in Kent.
Atkins was a keen artist, in drawing, watercolour and lithography, as well as an enthusiastic botanist. She recognised that Herschel’s new invention, which required only a few chemicals, water and sunlight, offered an opportunity to approach botanical illustration in different way.
In 1843, Atkins started work producing the cyanotypes that would make up Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.
The study of algae was fairly new in Britain at that time and her intention was that her work would provide illustrations for William Harvey’s Manual of British Algae which had been published in 1841.
Atkins produced the work over a period of 10 years between 1843 and 1853. She distributed it in parts to a number of recipients who then bound the work themselves.
The Horniman’s copy is bound into 4 books (Vol. 1 parts 1 and 2, Vol. 2, Vol.3 (inc. appendix)). Only seventeen other copies exist (in varying states of completeness), held at various institutions including: the British Library, the Royal Society and Kew Gardens.
Because the binding was down to the individual (and not overseen by the author), all the copies differ.
Atkins apparently intended that the final publication consist of 14 pages of text (although these also take the form of cyanotypes) and 389 plates of different species of algae.
Despite Atkins’ intentions, our copy contains 14 pages of text and 443 plates.
Atkins produced replacement plates when she found better examples of certain species, which explains why our copy contains duplicate plates.
The copy we hold in the Horniman Library originally belonged to Frederick Horniman.
Born in 1835, he was too young to have been one of Atkins’ original correspondents and, sadly, we don’t know how he acquired it, an exciting mystery for us to uncover.