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Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins

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Anna Children was born in Tonbridge in 1799. Her father, John Children, was a scientist and secretary of the Royal Society. Anna was commissioned by her father and produced the drawings for the book Genera of Shells (1823).

In 1825 Anna married John Atkins, railway promoter and the owner of a Jamaican coffee plantation. However, she continued to work closely with her father, who was one of the first people in Britain to learn about the mechanics and potential of photography. In 1840 Anna produced a book of cyanotypes, British Algae. This was followed by Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854). Anna Atkins died at Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, in 1871.

The Woman Who Made the World's First Photobook

Anna Atkins’s book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843–53) has long been, to photographers, a highlight of the New York Public Library collection, and perhaps even a subtle highlight of the city itself. As part of the library’s exhibition Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, this exquisite book of nineteenth-century photograms, rarely on display, can be seen in person in all its delicate glory. Photographs of British Algae is now widely seen as the first photographically illustrated book, thanks to the scholarship of Larry Schaaf an expanded reprint of his original Aperture catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Like other better-known British women photographers of the nineteenth century—Julia Margaret Cameron, for example—Atkins came from means, and started photography later in her life, in her early 40s. To create the approximately fourteen copies of British Algae, Atkins printed some six thousand cyanotype photogram exposures on hand-treated paper. The book was produced without the backing of a major enterprise or society, though a few works, some containing peacock feathers and ferns, are collaborations with Anne Dixon, a childhood friend, and Atkins apparently had the help of household staff.

Spread from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1848–49
Courtesy The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library’s copy of British Algae originally belonged to John Hershel, the scientist-inventor of the cyanotype. Never bound, it consists of delicately hand-stitched folios each a dozen or so pages, like little zines meant to be assembled and bound by the owner. This vulnerable form—not hidden by the officious leather cover and spine—gives the viewer a more intimate glimpse of Atkins’ process: streaks of Prussian blue, hand-sewn bindings, and the watermarks by J. Whatman Turkey Mill, the venerable nineteenth-century art-paper maker, all add to its allure, and all might have been hidden by binding. A title page has little pieces of seaweed spelling out the words on the cover: “British Algae Vol. 1”—the strands slightly fuzzy, like electricity hit them.

Cyanotype blue, or Prussian blue, is durable and unfading as a medium, and appears very close now to how it must have looked to the wealthy friends and amateur scientist readers (including Talbot) who received gifts of the volumes. The algae photograms appear not just in silhouette but also with some gradations of blue showing the thickness of the strands of seaweed, giving a diaphanous floating quality to the prints. You can almost smell the seawater. The page layouts are beautiful—the relatively modest size of the paper sometimes seems too vast for a tiny centered sprig, while other tentacled strands have to be wrapped artfully to fit on the page. Latin text (always present) is sometimes tucked to one side, a reminder that these photograms are products of scientific inquiry, and even an unconscious colonial impulse, an endeavor to categorize and name seaweed and capture its unfathomable detail with photographic precision.

Anna Atkins, Grateloupia filicina, 1848–49, from the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

The lapidary exhibition in the NYPL’s tiny rare book gallery is dense with both illuminating objects and carefully chosen contextual details: for example that Atkins’s father, John George Children, was “Keeper of the Department of Natural History and Modern Curiosities” at the British Museum, and that Atkins had an herbarium with 1,500 examples of plants. The exhibition includes works such as Atkins’s early drawings of shells the botanical illustrations of Elizabeth Blackwell (women, generally barred from academic art training, could instead illustrate plants) a mediocre watercolor by Atkins of Halstead Place (her home) and Mary Wyatt’s 1832 books on algae with actual specimens of marine plants somewhat comically flattened inside.

The larger question the show raises is this: We know that William Henry Fox Talbot aspired to create the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)—but because of the laborious progress of that book’s production, the diligent Atkins beat him to it with her modest edition about seaweed. But why do we constantly cite Talbot as the first individual to create a photographically illustrated book (now adding the words “commercially available” for accuracy), and why has Atkins received so little credit on that front? What does it mean to succeed as the “first” in any medium or form?

Anna Atkins, Ulva latissima, 1848–49, from the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Courtesy The New York Public Library

A number of distinguished women have told me that it hardly matters who is “first”—as if “first” were merely a male ambition—and as if women have better things to do than worry about their place in these histories. Yet major histories of photography almost completely omitted Atkins until the 1990s. At various points her “A. A.” initials on the book were even said to stand for “Anonymous Amateur.”

Woman, only child, mother, and scientist, Anna Atkins has progressed in the public imagination from an “Anonymous Amateur” to a proper pioneer of photography. A photographer recently told me she took her children to see the show, telling them, “This is part of why Mom is a photographer.” The exhibition is spectacular, and you can’t help but wonder what else we don’t know and who else we aren’t crediting in our histories of the medium.

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins is on view at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through February 17, 2019.

The Challenges of Botanical Illustration

Hand-drawn illustrations posed a number of limitations. Drawings were expensive and time-consuming to produce, requiring the artist to complete hundreds or thousands of examples for each publication. Further, the hand of the artist and the eye of the scientist were not always in agreement, resulting in visually pleasing images with debatable scientific merit. For those focused on flora, this challenge was only compounded by the common practice of artists generating illustrations based on other artists’ interpretations rather than actual plant specimens, leading to repeated and sometimes emphasized inaccuracies.

Some sought to resolve this issue by using actual dried plant specimens as illustrations. The inclusion of an actual plant certainly had advantages: readers could observe texture, thickness, structural characteristics, and other physical aspects lost through two-dimensional illustration, and the specimens could even be observed under a microscope. However, collecting enough quality examples for each individual copy of a book was incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming, replicating many of the issues present in other illustration methods. Dried specimens also became fragile and would break down or suffer damage over time, and could present preservation challenges.

Printing processes were more efficiently and reliably reproduced than manual drawings, but the method replicated many of the same complications. Printing ensured consistency among individual copies, but problems with accuracy remained as the plates and blocks were created from hand-drawn images. Producing hundreds or thousands of images was surely more efficient than drawing them all by hand, but the process still required an exorbitant amount of time and money, and many works went unpublished due to a lack of funding. Many publications attempted to reconcile this challenge by severely restricting the number of illustrations, with authors and publishers often selecting a mere handful out of hundreds or thousands of plants discussed in the text.

Nature printing, a technique in which an actual specimen is used to either create a plate for repeated printing, or to apply ink directly from the plant to the page, existed in Europe in some form at least as far back as the 15th century, and possibly earlier. Coating a plant with ink and pressing it to the page yielded images with detailed representations of veins, stems, and other textural details. Unfortunately, this process also had flaws: images lacked realistic, nuanced color and were flattened, disproportionately emphasizing and distorting certain features. And, like other methods, printing each image individually would have been a laborious process, and printing directly from plants would have required collecting (and destroying) many specimens.

Wild Fennel by William Henry Fox Talbot, salt print ca. 1841. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cyanotype history – John Herschel’s invention

A brief history of the cyanotype process – John Herschel’s invention.

The cyanotype process, also known as the blueprint process, was first introduced by John Herschel (1792 – 1871) in 1842. Sir John was an astronomer, trying to find a way of copying his notes.

Herschel managed to fix pictures using hyposulphite of soda as early as 1839. In the early days the paper was coated with iron salts and then used in contact printing. The paper was then washed in water and resulted in a white image on a deep blue background. (Apart from the cyanotype process, Herschel also gave us the words photography, negative, positive and snapshot.)

One of the first people to put the cyanotype process to use was Anna Atkins (1799-1871), who in October 1843 became the first person to produce and photographically illustrated a book using cyanotypes. The cyanotype to the right is from a book of ferns published in 1843 by Atkins. She was a pioneering figure in photographic history, having produced the first book to use photographic illustrations. She was a botanist and her father a friend of Fox Talbot. Atkins book uses 424 cyanotypes (or as they were known then: “shadowgraphs”). The book was called “British Algae: Cyanotype impressions”. It was printed privately and issued in several parts over ten years.
Her book therefore precedes Fox Talbot’s own “Pencil of Nature” in 1844.

Another, relatively unknown early cyanotype artist was Henry Bosse. His image Mouth of the St. Croix River from the series Upper Mississippi River was printed in 1885. It is held in the National Museum of American Art a Smithsonian Institution.

The process became popular with pictorialists, for whom a commercial paper called ferro-prussiate was marketed. The process was also used extensively for copying architectural plans until it was recently made obsolete by photocopying and computer printers.

The cyanotype process has remained virtually unchanged since its invention but a few variations have been developed, one of which is the New Cyanotype II by Mike Ware .

Spike MacGee is a freelancy copywriter and journalist with a strong interest in the alternative processes.

Blueprint to cyanotypes – Exploring a historical alternative photographic process
by Malin Fabbri and Gary Fabbri
A well illustrated step-by-step guide to cyanotypes.

A lot more information on the process, chemicals, coating, exposure, printing, making negatives, washing and troubleshooting is available in this book.

She Needed No Camera to Make the First Book of Photographs

The British botanist Anna Atkins published her evocative cyanotypes of algae and seaweed 175 years ago. Now, the New York Public Library is celebrating her innovation.

The plants are white as ghosts, and they float in fields as sharply blue as the waters off Dover. Each one is a little miracle, their neuron-like roots winding across the page, their leaves revealing every branching vein. These are photographs, produced only with the light of the sun and an amateur’s chemistry set. There was no precedent for them in the early 1840s — when a woman invented the photobook.

She was the British photographer Anna Atkins, who may not be as well known as Louis Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot and other men from the medium’s first decade. But her intensely beautiful blueprints of marine plants, which she began making in 1843, are as significant for the development of photography as for the history of science.

Her magnum opus, “Photographs of British Algae,” whose first sections she published 175 years ago this fall, was the first volume ever to be illustrated with photographs, albeit ones made without a camera. Dozens of pages from that book are on view in “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins,” on the interplay of science and art at the main branch of the New York Public Library.


Atkins was born in 1799, in the southeast of England her father, John George Children, was an amateur chemist who went on to work for the British Museum. He also translated several important scientific treatises into English, like an 1823 taxonomy of shells that young Anna painstakingly illustrated for him. He encouraged his daughter’s interest in the natural world the New York Public Library’s show includes an early herbarium in which she pressed dried thistles and mint sprigs, and an album of tender watercolor landscapes, begun in 1835 and continued for decades after, that Anna painted as a gift to her husband, the Kent landowner John Pelly Atkins.

In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot announced that he had discovered a new means of “photogenic drawing,” which could trace the details of plants, fabrics or the like on light-sensitized paper. (Photography has the rare distinction of being invented twice: Daguerre and Talbot hit on two different techniques, independently of each other, in the same year.) Talbot presented his technique at the Royal Society, of which John George Children was the secretary, and Anna Atkins would soon correspond with Talbot through her father. Like Talbot, she saw that the new technology of photography would allow for a greater scientific accuracy in botanical illustration — which until then had relied either on letterpress printing, which was only as good as its illustrators, or else on dried specimens that turned brittle before long.

She began to collect seaweed from the southeast coast of England and the ponds around Kent, and she implored friends to lend their own specimens. Then, starting in 1843, she started producing “photographical impressions” of these algae, “many of which,” as she wrote in a letter displayed in the show, “are so minute that accurate drawings of them are very difficult to make.”

Her chosen technique was the cyanotype — or blueprint, as it would later be known when architects embraced it. You first slather a sheet of paper with a solution of iron salts, then leave it to dry. Next, you place an object on the paper and compress it under a pane of glass. Leave it in the sun for about 15 minutes, then wash the exposed sheet in water, and the uncovered portion of the paper takes on a rich Prussian blue.

The rest of the sheet, obscured by the compressed algae or leaves, features a white negative impression, like an X-ray or a snow angel. The species Dictyota dichotoma becomes a bundle of thick, tangled rhizomes, while Furcellaria fastigiata comprises spindlier, daintier strands that look like nerve endings. One seaweed specimen has the density of a chanterelle mushroom another appears more like a tangle of fallen feathers.

Yet these are clearly more than an amateur scientist’s recordings. Atkins laid down the plants on the page with a careful eye to composition, often with an attempt at symmetry. Pairs of specimens are arrayed like nearly identical siblings thicker seaweed results in more indistinct, abstract skeins. The algae bristle and undulate in Atkins’s cyanotypes, whose rich blues, of course, recall the ocean. Even the captions exhibit a playful inventiveness. For the title page of one chapter of her book, she fashioned the letters in “British Algae” out of wispy strands of seaweed, forming its name out of its subject.

As cyanotypes are not made from a negative, each Atkins photogram was one-of-a-kind — making “British Algae” an arduous enterprise that took a decade of labor. (Servants would likely have helped her, though we know next to nothing about her working process.) The resultant books were different, too. Atkins mailed the pages to subscribers as she completed them readers then sewed the fascicles together as they pleased.

Her efforts to circulate her work, both to eminent botanists and to photography pioneers like Talbot (who was then completing his own first book, “The Pencil of Nature”), make Atkins quite a different figure from other undersung women now enjoying the attention of New York museums — like Orra White Hitchcock, whose scientific illustrations for her husband’s university lessons were shown at the American Folk Art Museum this summer, or Hilma af Klint, the Swedish theosophist whose groundbreaking abstract paintings, now on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, were not exhibited during her lifetime. Atkins, while reserved, was no outsider, and her blueprints are as significant for who saw them as for what they depicted. The New York Public Library’s collection of Atkins’s photograms, for one, belonged to John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype process.

The library has supplemented its showcase of Atkins with a pendant show upstairs, “Anna Atkins Refracted,” featuring 19 contemporary photographers. Most of them make use of cameraless photography techniques a good number also engage with themes of botany or the place of women in science. The German photographer Ulf Saupe has created a rich cyanotype that resembles one of Atkins’s undulating algae, but is in fact an impression of a plastic bag afloat in the ocean. Strange, wonderful photograms by Letha Wilson begin from impressions of found flowers and industrial objects she then folds the exposed sheets, photographs them (with a camera), and reprints the uncanny, Bauhaus-ish result.

It’s worth returning to the Atkins exhibition once you’ve seen this contemporary showcase, to look again at her blueprints with an eye on their aesthetic daring. “British Algae” has its place in the history of photography and book publishing, but these resonant cyanotypes are also artifacts from a time when science and art were better acquainted. The plants look like river deltas, like plumes of smoke, like controlled detonations, like lightning bolts scything through darkness. The question of whether photography was art would roil audiences for more than a century to come — but Atkins already had the answer.

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins (through Feb. 17)

Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works (through Jan. 6)

History of Scientific Women

Anna Atkins was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Some sources claim that she was the first woman to create a photograph.

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

In 1825 she married John Pelly Atkins, a London West India merchant, and moved to Halstead Place, the Atkins family home in Halstead, near Sevenoaks, Kent. They had no children. Atkins pursued her interests in botany by collecting dried plants, which were probably used as photograms later. She was elected a member of the London Botanical Society in 1839.

John George Children and John Pelly Atkins were friends of William Henry Fox Talbot. 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 which is exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotypes.

Atkins was known to have had access to a camera by 1841. Some sources claim that Atkins was the first female photographer. Other sources name Constance Fox Talbot as the first female photographer. As no camera-based photographs by Anna Atkins nor any photographs by Constance Talbot survive, the issue may never be resolved.

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

Atkins self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843. She planned to provide illustrations to William Harvey’s Manual of British Algae which had been published in 1841. 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.

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" or "the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs".

Atkins produced a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions between 1843 and 1853. Only 17 copies of the book are known to exist, in various states of completeness.

Because of the book's rarity and historical importance, it is quite expensive. One copy of the book with 411 plates in three volumes sold for £133,500 at auction in 1996. 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. In 2018, the New York Public Library opened an exhibition on Atkins' life and work, featuring various versions of Photographs of British Algae.

In addition to Photographs of British Algae, Atkins published five fictional novels between 1852 and 1863. 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:

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.

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

Atkins History, Family Crest & Coats of Arms

Among the the peoples of ancient Scotland, the first to use the name Atkins were the Strathclyde- Britons. Atkins was a name for someone who lived in Lanarkshire.

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Early Origins of the Atkins family

The surname Atkins was first found in Lanarkshire (Gaelic: Siorrachd Lannraig) a former county in the central Strathclyde region of Scotland, now divided into the Council Areas of North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, and the City of Glasgow, where they originated in the old barony of Akyne. Some of the first records of the name were Atkyn de Barr in 1340 [1] and later in 1405, "John of Akyne, a Scottish merchant petitioned for the return of his ship and goods illegally seized in England." [2] The name and all it's variants are double diminutives of Adam, formed from 'Ad,' the diminutive of Adam + 'kin' [2]

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Early History of the Atkins family

This web page shows only a small excerpt of our Atkins research. Another 183 words (13 lines of text) covering the years 1405, 1482, 1497, 1520, 1744, 1773, 1613, 1687, 1676, 1680, 1687, 1613, 1654, 1613, 1642 and 1676 are included under the topic Early Atkins History in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

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Atkins Spelling Variations

Medieval Scottish names are rife with spelling variations. This is due to the fact that scribes in that era spelled according to the sound of words, rather than any set of rules. Atkins has been spelled Aitken, Aiken, Atkin, Atkins and others.

Early Notables of the Atkins family (pre 1700)

Another 40 words (3 lines of text) are included under the topic Early Atkins Notables in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Migration of the Atkins family to Ireland

Some of the Atkins family moved to Ireland, but this topic is not covered in this excerpt.
Another 173 words (12 lines of text) about their life in Ireland is included in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Atkins migration +

Some of the first settlers of this family name were:

Atkins Settlers in United States in the 17th Century
  • Mr. Atkins, who landed in Virginia in 1622 [3]
  • Ritchard Atkins, who arrived in Virginia in 1622 [3]
  • William Atkins, who arrived in Virginia in 1634 [3]
  • William Atkins, who arrived in Virginia in 1635 [3]
  • Silvester Atkins, who arrived in Virginia in 1637 [3]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Atkins Settlers in United States in the 18th Century
  • Jonathan Atkins, who landed in Virginia in 1701 [3]
  • Eliza Atkins, who landed in Virginia in 1714 [3]
  • Edmund Atkins, who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1734 [3]
  • Joseph Atkins, who arrived in Connecticut in 1739 [3]
  • Robert Atkins, who arrived in Jamaica in 1753 [3]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Atkins Settlers in United States in the 19th Century
  • Hugh Atkins, aged 31, who arrived in New York in 1812 [3]
  • Samuel Atkins, aged 26, who landed in Washington, DC in 1828 [3]
  • W T Atkins, who landed in San Francisco, California in 1850 [3]
  • John R Atkins, who landed in San Francisco, California in 1850 [3]
  • G Atkins, who arrived in San Francisco, California in 1850 [3]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Atkins migration to Canada +

Some of the first settlers of this family name were:

Atkins Settlers in Canada in the 18th Century
  • Humphrey Atkins, who landed in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • James Atkins, who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • John Atkins, who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • Mary Atkins, who landed in Nova Scotia in 1750
  • Andrew Atkins, who landed in Nova Scotia in 1750
Atkins Settlers in Canada in the 19th Century
Atkins Settlers in Canada in the 20th Century

Atkins migration to Australia +

Emigration to Australia followed the First Fleets of convicts, tradespeople and early settlers. Early immigrants include:

Atkins Settlers in Australia in the 19th Century
  • Miss Louisa Atkins, (Louise, Ann), (b. 1800), aged 14, English servant who was convicted in Surrey, England for 7 years for larceny, transported aboard the "Broxbournebury" in January 1814, arriving in New South Wales, Australia[4]
  • Mr. Richard Atkins, English convict who was convicted in Northampton, England for 7 years, transported aboard the "Canada" on 23rd April 1819, arriving in New South Wales, Australia[5]
  • William Atkins, a stone-mason, who arrived in New South Wales, Australia sometime between 1825 and 1832
  • Thomas Atkins, English convict from Warwick, who was transported aboard the "Andromeda" on October 16, 1826, settling in Van Diemen's Land, Australia[6]
  • Joseph Atkins, English convict from Hereford, who was transported aboard the "Argyle" on March 5th, 1831, settling in Van Diemen's Land, Australia[7]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Atkins migration to New Zealand +

Emigration to New Zealand followed in the footsteps of the European explorers, such as Captain Cook (1769-70): first came sealers, whalers, missionaries, and traders. By 1838, the British New Zealand Company had begun buying land from the Maori tribes, and selling it to settlers, and, after the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, many British families set out on the arduous six month journey from Britain to Aotearoa to start a new life. Early immigrants include:

Atkins Settlers in New Zealand in the 19th Century
  • Thomas Atkins, aged 32, a farm labourer, who arrived in Nelson, New Zealand aboard the ship "Sir Charles Forbes" in 1842
  • Jane Atkins, aged 28, who arrived in Nelson, New Zealand aboard the ship "Sir Charles Forbes" in 1842
  • Mr. Atkins, British settler travelling from London aboard the ship "Mandarin" arriving in Auckland, New Zealand on 14th November 1843 [8]
  • Mrs Atkins, British settler travelling from London aboard the ship "Mandarin" arriving in Auckland, New Zealand on 14th November 1843 [8]
  • Miss Atkins, British settler travelling from London aboard the ship "Mandarin" arriving in Auckland, New Zealand on 14th November 1843 [8]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Contemporary Notables of the name Atkins (post 1700) +

  • Humphrey Edward Atkins (1922-1996), British politician, member of the UK Parliament, Lord Privy Seal (1981-1982), made BaronColnbrook in 1987
  • Ronald Henry Atkins (1916-2020), British Labour politician, Member of Parliament for Preston North (1974-1979)
  • Robert Lee "Bob" Atkins Jr. (1946-2020), American football defensive back in the National Football League Madeleine Julia Atkins D.B.E., C.B.E. (b. 1952), British Professor and Chief Executive of the the Higher Education Funding Council for England, former vice-chancellor of Coventry University, was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire on the 29th December 2018 for services to Higher Education by her Majesty The Queen [9]
  • Pervis R. Atkins Jr. (1935-2017), American football player, inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame
  • Denis Atkins (1938-2016), professional English footballer
  • Coral Rosemary Atkins (1936-2016), English actress, known for A Family at War (1970), Emmerdale (1972) and Flesh and Blood (1980)
  • James Atkins (1967-2016), American rock bassist for the rock band Hammerbox
  • Douglas Leon "Doug" Atkins (1930-2015), American football defensive end inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • Sir Hedley John Barnard Atkins KBE (1905-1983), British physician and educator, University of London, England
  • . (Another 62 notables are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Historic Events for the Atkins family +

HMS Hood
  • Mr. William E Atkins (b. 1916), English Chief Petty Officer Steward serving for the Royal Navy from Kensington, London, England, who sailed into battle and died in the sinking [10]
HMS Prince of Wales
USS Arizona
  • Mr. Gerald Arthur Atkins, American Hospital Apprentice First Class from Nebraska, USA working aboard the ship "USS Arizona" when she sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941, he died in the sinking [12]

Related Stories +

The Atkins Motto +

The motto was originally a war cry or slogan. Mottoes first began to be shown with arms in the 14th and 15th centuries, but were not in general use until the 17th century. Thus the oldest coats of arms generally do not include a motto. Mottoes seldom form part of the grant of arms: Under most heraldic authorities, a motto is an optional component of the coat of arms, and can be added to or changed at will many families have chosen not to display a motto.

Motto: Robore et vigilantia
Motto Translation: Strength and vigilance.

Blooming marvellous: the world's first female photographer – and her botanical beauties

Featherly outlines … Atkins’s cyanotype of the eagle fern.

Featherly outlines … Atkins’s cyanotype of the eagle fern.

Born in 1799, Anna Atkins captured plants, shells and algae in ghostly wisps and ravishing blues. Why isn’t she famous?

Last modified on Thu 26 Mar 2020 14.34 GMT

‘Photography pioneer” conjures up an image of a Victorian gentleman under a drape with an outsize wooden box on a tripod. Yet one of the biggest landmark moments of early photography was down to a woman who didn’t even use a camera, and was born decades before Victoria became queen.

Anna Atkins is considered to have been the first female photographer. She was born in Kent in 1799, and she made her most significant contribution across 10 years in the mid-19th century in which she created at least 10,000 images by hand. But it was what she did with those pictures that gave her a place in art history. Atkins realised what millions of social media users know today: that images are for sharing. She created the first book to contain photographs, and she paved the way for photography’s power to connect people.

Atkins’s book is the highlight of a major retrospective of 19th-century photography at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam this summer. It shines a light on an artist whose legacy was, like that of so many women who played their part in the creation of art, woefully overlooked for many years. Dr Hans Rooseboom, curator of photography at the museum, says it was not until the 1970s – more than a century after her death – that art historians uncovered her role. “Until then, the history of photography, and particularly the contribution of Atkins, had received very little attention.”

Atkins’s most important early influence was her father, John George Children. The two were particularly close, thrown together when Anna’s mother, Hester, died a few months after her only child’s birth. A highly respected scientist who was secretary of the Royal Society in 1826 and again between 1830-37, Children was unusual in his time for his belief that a daughter could do whatever a son could do, and he fostered her interest in botany.

But it was his contacts that helped his daughter the most. In February 1839 he was present at a Royal Society meeting at which a Wiltshire landowner, William Henry Fox Talbot, outlined his exciting new invention – the creation of “photograms”, that used chemicals and sunlight to create images on paper, and led to the development of camera-made images. Anna’s fascination with nature had seen her drawing shells and plants laboriously by hand to record them accurately the implications of this new way of producing images were not lost on Children, who hurried home to share what he had heard. A few months later, Children wrote to Talbot that “my daughter and I shall set to work in good earnest ’till we completely succeed in practising your invaluable process”.

Anna – who had married a railway promoter called John Pelly Atkins in 1825 – was later influenced by another photography pioneer: Sir John Herschel. In 1842 Herschel sent Children a copy of his paper describing his refinement of Talbot’s process, an invention he called the cyanotype, involving two chemical compounds, ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which were applied to a sheet of paper with a brush. The paper was dried, and a flat object was then laid on top of it, and left in sunlight. Once it had been exposed to enough light, the paper was washed in water, but the image of the object remained.

An eye for algae … a cyanotype Cystoseira granulata seaweed.

It was Atkins’s interest in the study of algae that prompted her book. She was so disappointed by the lack of illustrations in a guide to British algae published in 1841 that she decided to do something about it. In the autumn of 1843 she began work on creating images of hundreds of different types, using Herschel’s cyanotype method. It was a meticulous task whose skill rested in working quickly to assemble the dried algae arrangement, before leaving the paper exposed to sunlight for precisely the right amount of time.

Looking at Atkins’s book today, what is most striking is not the outlines of the algae, however beautifully and delicately they crawl across the pages it is the glorious depth of the Prussian blue backdrop to the images. The Herschel method dyed the paper, resulting in every page of the book being a deep blue with the algae outlines in cream. (A byproduct of the process was the addition of the word “blueprint” to the English language.)

The images are surprisingly modern-looking: here a seahorse-like shape dominating the page, there a spiky snowflake. Elsewhere, feathery outlines and ghostly wisps of plant life. Some of the pages have just one or two tiny blobs of algae, others what appear to be arrangements of material, displayed with an aesthetic as well as a scientific eye. “We can tell that Atkins was very conscientious, and also proficient,” says Rooseboom. “She used very good quality paper, which is why the images are in such excellent condition to this day, and she became adept at judging the time the paper needed in sunlight, so the images are as clear as possible. Given that we are 170 years on, they are remarkably fresh, and artists today still use this process to create their work.”

Understood photography is for sharing … Anna Atkins in 1861. Photograph: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Every one of the 307 images in the Rijksmuseum’s copy of the book was produced by hand by Atkins, since each of the 12 or so copies of her book was a bespoke production. Her work predated by several decades the technology that would later allow photography to be mass reproduced but, true to the instinct that photography was for sharing, she worked for 10 years to create enough images to be bound into volumes by her colleagues and contacts. She sent her images to them, each annotated with the Latin name of the plant in her small, precise handwriting.

Shortly before her algae project was finished, Atkins’s father died and she embarked on writing his biography before switching her botanic interest to ferns. She donated her herbarium to the British Museum in 1865 and died six years later, in 1871.

Although she will be remembered for her hand-produced photographs, Atkins did own a camera: in a letter to Talbot after his presentation at the Royal Society, Children noted: “I have ordered a camera for Mrs Atkins from Ross.” Given everything she knew about photography, there is every reason to assume that she made good use of it, but sadly for art history, none of her camera photographs have survived.

Anna Atkins

In October 1843, the botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799–1871) wrote a letter to a friend. “I have lately taken in hand a rather lengthy performance,” revealed Atkins. “It is the taking photographical impressions of all, that I can procure, of the British algae and confervae, many of which are so minute that accurate drawings of them are very difficult to make.” 1 Atkins proceeded to inquire whether a mutual acquaintance, also interested in aquatic plants, would care to receive a copy of her recently completed book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

With this book—the first to be illustrated entirely with photographs—Atkins combined her passions for scientific inquiry, technological experimentation, and artistic expression. Initially, Atkins conceived it as a companion volume to Manual of British Algae (1841), a lengthy, un-illustrated guide to aquatic plant life. Motivated by her belief that the visual appearance of plants possessed both botanical importance and aesthetic interest, Atkins resolved to collect, classify, and picture the specimens in the guide. Yet the last stage of her project—picturing—soon began to absorb her. While previous scientists had supplemented their research with drawings or prints, Atkins sought, as she later explained, “to obtain impressions of plants themselves.” 2 In pursuit of an accurate yet evocative mode of representation, she adopted a technology that had emerged just several years prior: photography.

Atkins learned of photography through its British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot. Only months after Talbot patented his most successful photographic process, in 1841, Atkins and her father, a respected scientist, decided to replicate the “talbotype” at their home. “My daughter and I,” Atkins’s father wrote to Talbot, “shall set to work in good earnest ’till we completely succeed in practicing your invaluable process.” 3 Ultimately, it was a different photographic process—the cyanotype—that captivated Atkins. Developed by her friend and neighbor Sir John Herschel, the cyanotype process produced blue-and-white prints that Atkins prized for their sharp contours and striking colors. Atkins added hundreds of new plates to Photographs of British Algae throughout the 1840s and early 1850s, all the while refining cyanotype chemical solutions and exposure times.

After completing Photographs of British Algae in 1853, Atkins turned from aquatic to terrestrial plants. The same year, she began to produce cyanotypes of ferns, including Polypodium Phegopteris (1853), Aspidium Lobatium (1853), and Pteris Rotundifolia (Jamaica) (1853). As in the algae cyanotypes, each fern is arrayed on a simple ground, its stems and leaves—and, in some cases, roots—captured with clarity and precision. Perhaps inspired by her first book, Atkins gathered many of these prints in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Plants and Ferns (1853), widely considered her most accomplished publication.

During this time, Atkins also began to photograph entirely different subjects. Likely collaborating with her childhood friend Anne Dixon, Atkins incorporated flowers, feathers, and lace into prints that feature newly intricate compositions, subtle layering, and varied textures. Freed from the imperatives of scientific accuracy, she focused increasingly on visual properties such as line and form, color and space, and transparency and opacity. Even so, Atkins and her groundbreaking photographs were nearly forgotten by the late 19th century. In 1889, a collector writing on the origins of Photographs of British Algae proposed that the initials “A. A.”—Anna Atkins’s modest signature—stood for “Anonymous Amateur.” 0 But in recent years, scholars and artists have reexamined Atkins’s contributions to science, technology, publishing, and art, proof that what the botanist and photographer described as her “lengthy performance” is having an even lengthier afterlife.

Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2020

Anna Atkins to Sophia Bliss, October 8, 1843, in “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins [Exhibition Audio],” accessed December 2019,

Atkins, “Introduction,” Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), n.p.

John George Children to William Henry Fox Talbot, September 1841, in Larry Schaaf, Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins (New York: Prestel, 2018), 26.

The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.


Meet the Artist

Rayner Special Collections Wing & Print Gallery

On the occasion of Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works, the Library has invited the following artists to engage with the public and speak about their work in the exhibition. Each hour-long event will take place at lunch time in front of the artist's work in the Rayner Special Collections Wing and Print Gallery.

Letha Wilson: Tuesday, October 15 | 12:30 PM
Meghann Riepenhoff: Friday, October 19 | 1:30 PM
Katherine Hubbard: Tuesday, November 6th | 12:30 PM
Erica Baum: Thursday, December 6th | 12:30 PM
Alison Rossiter: Wednesday, December 19th | 12:30 PM

Kind of Blue: Meghann Riepenhoff

Wednesday, October 17 | 6:30 PM
Schwarzman Building, Berger Forum

The contemporary photographer traces the impacts on her work made by pioneering nineteenth-century photographer Anna Atkins.

How We See: Photobooks by Women

Thursday, October 25 | 6:30 PM
Schwarzman Building, Celeste Auditorium

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of pioneering photographer Anna Atkins's first photobook, creatives Olga Yatskevich, Lesley Martin, and Daria Tuminas explore the world of avant-garde photobooks created by women.

The Library After Hours: Picture This

Friday, November 30 | 7 PM
Schwarzman Building, Astor Hall

Picture this: it’s 19th-century England, and you want to share your vast collection of algaes with the world—but how? If you were a daring and creative botanist/photographer named Anna Atkins, you turned to a new photographic process called cyanotype and created a landmark book called Photographs of British Algae. Two new exhibitions at the Library survey Atkins’s work and the 175 years of inventive and technical innovation she paved the way for. The Library After Hours gets in on the act with an array of crafts, talks, and activities that look back to photography’s past and gaze forward into the medium’s future.

Watch the video: ANNA techno set at CRSSD Fest. Spring 2018 (July 2022).


  1. Dile

    the complete tastelessness

  2. Kenric

    I find that you are not right. We will discuss it.

  3. Brazragore

    Authoritative answer, funny ...

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