Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins was born in 1799, in Tonbridge, Kent, and she was an English botanist and photographer. Atkins’ father was a respected scientist, and through him, Atkins was introduced to William Henry Fox Talbot and the astronomer and chemist Sir John Herschel, where Atkins learned of the photographic process which was only then being invented. Atkins was particularly interested in ‘sun printing’ (cyanotypes), which allows an object to be recorded, where it is laid on paper impregnated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and exposed to the sun. Atkins began to record the different algae found around the British Isles, and her recordings developed to quite a substantial collection. Below are a selection of some of her works, which include feathers, and other plant life.

Anna Atkins’s pioneering images, clockwise from top left: “Peacock” (1861), “Laminaria phyllitis” (1844-45), “Papaver rhoeas” (1861), and “Alaria esculenta” (1849-50).

Looking at Atkins work I decided to undertake some botanical cyanotype prints myself and gathered a selection of different plants with interesting textures and shapes, from my back garden, including some lavender, flowers, leaves and weeds.

I ordered a simple cyanotype kit online, which came with pre-treated sheets to print on and a piece of acrylic to place over the top of the object or image. I’m aware though that you can purchase the chemicals and then choose the surface you wish to work on. I’ve seen lots of examples on social media where other artists have used thicker paper more like watercolour or paper with a natural texture. For this experiment the paper I was provided with in the kit was very thin, and more like cheap printer paper, but it was a great introduction to the entire process.

I was quite pleased with how the cyanotypes turned out, I think the top left print is probably the most clear, and I think this is because the weeds had wilted somewhat in the sun and so were very flat when it came to printing. Whereas for example the top right, which is of a leaf and a dried out flower stem is more blurry, which is probably because of the bend of the flower stem manipulating the light as it fell on the surface, there are some glimpses of a crisp edge though on the leaf. A similar analysis can be made for the lavender and assorted flowers. My favourite of the prints is the bottom left, I’m not sure what the plant is, but I cut it from a tree where the leaves droop and fall similar to a willow type tree. The shapes of the leaves and branch are quite wispy and it reminds me of smoke fumes, or something malevolent, like sharp tallons or claws. It’s transformed the leaves into something quite different.

As well as experimenting with using found natural objects in the garden, I also read about how negatives can be used to produce cyanotypes also, and thought back to the monotype print I made of the flowers in my garden in response to the works of Thomas Hall. I quite like the image left on the perspex that I used to print and didn’t clean this one off so decided to use it to produce a cyanotype.

I used this as my first cyanotype and as you can see on the left the image is slightly blurry, I think this is because I hesitated for too long to place the image on the blue paper and I had also knocked the image during the process so there aren’t any crisp edges. Although I quite like this accidental outcome, much like what I experienced when creating Monotype Portraits previously. The accidental and human error element of printing makes it a little bit more interesting. The image on the right is a second attempt using the monotype print, you can see there is significantly less blur, although the image is not necessarily as crisp as some of the botanical objects that I had used.

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