Leaf cyanotype

Anna Atkins – a true blue original

We’ve covered the fascinating colour and physicality of cyanotypes here before, when here at The Chromologist we looked into the concept of ‘blue’. But now an exhibition opening at New York Public Library has drawn us to look in more detail at the works of one artist indelibly associated with the colour: Anna Atkins, the creator of a distinctive body of work using this photographic printing process.

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Alaria esculenta, from Part XII of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

In 1843 Anna Atkins began her groundbreaking Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. She used the cyanotype method – which had only been invented the previous year – to record these specimens with both incredible clarity but also an artful sensibility. In the process she made history – the book was the first in the world to be illustrated by photographs, and the first significant use of the artform in the service of science.

Peacock feathers

Anna Atkins (1799–1871) and Anne Dixon (1799–1864), Peacock, from a presentation album to Henry Dixon, 1861, cyanotype. Private collection, courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York.

The images are still so striking today – a set of images at once precise and mysterious, their ethereal presence enhanced by the vivid blue of the backgrounds. The modernity of the images shines through.

Anna Atkins portrait

Unknown photographer, Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862, albumen print. From the Nurstead Court Archives.

Added to this, Atkins succeeded in an entirely male world. Born in 1799 in Kent, she was influenced by her scientist father, steeped in interest in botany, and she quickly began documenting her own collections, at first through illustration, but also through new photographic technology.

Leaf cyanotype

Anna Atkins (1799–1871) and Anne Dixon (1799–1864), Papaver rhoeas, from a presentation album to Henry Dixon, 1861, cyanotype. Private collection, courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York.

In addition to the seaweed images of the first book, in the 1850s, Atkins collaborated with friend Anne Dixon to produce a further three volumes, covering ferns and flowering plants.

seaweed

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Furcellaria fastigiata, from Part IV, version 2 of Photographs of British Algae_ Cyanotype Impressions, 1846 or later, cyanotype. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

The beauty and modernity of these images rings through the exhibition, and the New York Public Library is showing them alongside an exhibition of 19 contemporary artists who have reinterpreted her work. You can also see her influence in the enduring appeal of botanical, seaweed and fern imagery among generation after generation of designers.

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae_ Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilde.tif

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins is on at the New York Public Library until 17 February 2019



Ros Anderson

About

Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.


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