Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was born Anna Children of Tonbridge. 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 1820’2 and 1830’s. He was a librarian in the British Museum from 1816 to 1840; his scientific interests included mechanics, mineralogy and astronomy as well as biology.
Children left his Cambridge college in 1798 to marry Miss Holwell and Anna was born in 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 her time. he had a large and very well-equipped scientific laboratory in his home at Tonbridge - there is an account of meeting there in 1813 to investigate the properties of his large battery when 38 of the leading English chemists of the day (including Davy and Wollaston) dined and were all able to be accommodated overnight at the house.
Much of her early work in science was in helping her father, particularly in producing 250 detailed engravings to illustrate his translation of Lamarck’s classic treatise, “Genera of Shells”.
In 1825 Anna Children married John Pelly Atkins and came to live at Halstead Place. After her marriage she devoted more of her time to her own interests in biology and started a collection of dried plant specimens, providing some for the museum at Kew gardens. In 1839 she was made a member of the Botanical Society of London, one of the few scientific bodies which at this time admitted women. Her plant collection was finally presented to the British Museum in 1865.
Atkins knew both William Fox Talbot and William Herschel; both were friends of her father and her husband also knew Talbot well. Talbot wrote to her father about his invention and she became one of the first women to take an interest in photography. However, she was not the first woman photographer. 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 unillustrated. 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 specimens he had described.
As was usual at the time, this work was brought out in a series of parts over the twelve years 1841-1853, providing a total of about 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 lifelong friend, Anne Dixon (1799-1864) Dixon was born Anne Austen, a second cousin of the 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 ammonium cytrate needed for the process, as well as the potassium ferricyanide.