Anna Atkins was fortunate to grow up under the attentive and intellectual nurturing of her father, John George Children (1777-1852). Anna’s upbringing was left to him following her mother’s death from complications of childbirth. He instilled in Anna, his only child, an interest in science and the natural world, enthusiastically supporting and often sharing in her pursuits. A highly-respected scientist and Fellow and Secretary of the Royal Society, Children held several positions at the British Museum: Assistant Librarian in the Department of Antiquities, then Keeper (curator) of the Department of Natural History and Modern Curiosities, and later the first Keeper of the Zoological Department. Through his broad community of friends and colleagues, he and his daughter Anna had rare and exciting opportunities. Prior to the discovery of photography, Atkins collaborated with her father by creating some 256 exquisite drawings to illustrate his 1823 translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells (1799) for The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and the Arts. Twenty-nine of these drawings were published as a composite engraving plate in the next issue of the journal.1
As a member of the Royal Society, Children had a front row seat to William Henry Fox Talbot’s announcement of his photographic invention. He actually chaired the meeting on February 21, 1839 in which Talbot presented more details about his invention. Children enthusiastically embraced the idea of photography, no doubt bringing all that he learned back to his daughter. In September 1841 he wrote a letter to Talbot to thank him for sending him some of his calotypes and to tell him, “… when we return to Kent, my daughter and I shall set to work in good earnest till we completely succeed in practicing your invaluable process.”2 In 1842 Children and Atkins were again some of the earliest to hear of another important discovery in photography—Sir John Herschel’s cyanotype process. Herschel sent a copy of his paper giving details about this new method to Children soon after it was published. Photo historian Larry Schaaf suggests that Atkins may have been instructed in the cyanotype process directly by Herschel himself since the two families lived quite close—twenty-five miles apart—and visited each other regularly.3
This particular image of filamentous green algae once belonged to Sir John Herschel and was once attributed to him. Though the artist for this piece is still not certain, it has now been attributed to Atkins, a member of the Herschel family, or Atkins’ friend Anne Dixon.
- Carolyn Peter, J. Paul Getty Museum, Department of Photographs
For more information about the artist and this work, see:
- Armstrong, Carol and Catherine de Zegher, Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Schaaf, Larry. Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. New York: The New York Public Library, 2018.
- Shteir, A. Cultivating Women, cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Atkins’ illustrations for John Children’s 1823 translation of Lamarck’s Genera of Shells (1799) can be found in Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), plates 4-14. ↩
- John George Children letter to William Henry Fox Talbot, September 14, 1841. Fox Talbot Collection, Manuscripts, British Library, London, (http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptDocnum.php?docnum=4332), accessed February 25, 2019. ↩
- Larry Schaaf, Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins (New York: The New York Public Library, 2018), 63. ↩