Obelisk Art History
The Artists

Anna Atkins
Electric blue: the first photographic book

Anna Atkins, The Artists
Portrait of Anna Atkins

An invention is only as interesting as its applications. In other words, nice invention, what can you do with it? The 1840’s and 50’s witnessed an international race to invent a reliable process for capturing photographic images, with all the drama you'd expect from a patent war over revolutionary tech. Henry Talbot, Daguerre, all vying for accolade and ownership. But a young botanist named Anna Atkins got right to the heart of the matter—what can be done with a photographic process?

Anna Atkins was the daughter John George Children, a chemist, mineralogist and zoologist employed working as a librarian at the British Museum. Anna’s mother died shortly after she Anna’s birth, leaving Anna in the care of her father. As a bright young child, Anna had unparalleled access to the scientific community, and received a rigorous education from John.

We don't know when Anna began collecting botanical specimens, but we do know that her collection was already expansive when she married in 1825, and that it continued to grow after that. Eventually her botanical archive become so thorough and well-known that in 1839 Anna was granted a membership in the Botanical Society of London, one of the few scientific societies that allowed women to join.

And this is where invention meets application. One of John’s close friends and neighbors was the inventor Henry Hershel, who in 1840 was feverishly developing a new process for the transfer of photographic information. Full biography coming soon.

Reed Enger, "Anna Atkins, Electric blue: the first photographic book," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 11, 2018; last modified March 20, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/anna-atkins/.

Anna Atkins was an English Scientific Illustrator born on March 16, 1799. Atkins contributed to the Early Photography and Enlightenment movements and died on June 9, 1871.

Dictyota dichotoma (Forkweed), Anna Atkins

Dictyota dichotoma (Forkweed)

Aspidium Lobatium, Anna Atkins

Aspidium Lobatium

Chordaria flagelliformis, Anna Atkins

Chordaria flagelliformis

Polypodium Phegopteris (Northern beech fern), Anna Atkins

Polypodium Phegopteris (Northern beech fern)

Papaver Orientale (Oriental poppy), Anna Atkins

Papaver Orientale (Oriental poppy)


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