British Algae is the first book to use photographic illustrations to further scientific investigation. It is also the first book - including text - to be produced exclusively by photographic means. Atkins issued it regularly in parts beginning in October of 1843. By 1850, Atkins had produced twelve parts: Part I with 8 captioned plates; and Parts II-XII, with 12 plates each. From this time until the completion of the publication in September of 1853, Atkins changed the format and issued the work in larger parts and volumes. She also issued additional plates intended to replace earlier plates.
It appears that Atkins intended the complete set to contain a total of 403 cyanotype pages, including 389 captioned plates. This is based upon the three-volume set held at the Royal Society, London, described by Schaaf in his 1985 census. However, each of the existing copies of British Algae contains notable variations in the number of plates, parts or volumes. Additionally, as explained in Schaaf's census, some variation in the parts lists exists among the different copies. The format transition, the variation in the number of plates, as well as in the plates themselves, compounded by each recipient's being responsible for collating and binding his/her own copy, may account for the inconsistencies found from one copy to another.
Hunt's copy, while bound in two volumes, contains 379 of the 389 intended captioned plates. It is the only copy listed in Schaaf's 1985 census that was not accounted for in public institutions. This copy remains the most complete, and certainly the most historically important copy known to be in private hands.
The following is a breakdown of the other 12 copies or part copies, recorded in Schaaf's census of 1985: 1
1. Royal Society, London - Three volume set, described by Schaaf to represent the publication as Atkins intended it.
2. Sir John Herschel's copy - Original 12-part set, missing Part III, including two varying copies of Part IV, and "Part XIII" with Volume I title, index, and 70 plates, and Volume II. Now Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library.
3. William Henry Fox Talbot's copy - Original 12-part set, missing Part VII; with complete Volume II. Lacock Abbey [Part 1, Science Museum, London].
4. Sir Thomas Phillipp's copy - Parts I-VI, bound together in modern cloth. Now, Detroit Institute of Arts.
5. British Library/British Museum - Three volumes, including some surplus plates (411 plates total).
6. Linnean Society of London - Three volumes, including original part plates, Part VII apparently missing prior to binding of parts.
7. British Museum (Natural History) - Three volumes, lacking many plates.
8. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - Parts I-IV bound in one volume.
9. Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh - Volumes I-II, bound together (195 plates). Another volume (179 plates) and a loose Part XII (12 plates).
10. Art Gallery & Museum, Kelvingrove, Glasgow - 439 plates, representing the largest cohesive set. All parts disbound but retaining all original wrappers.
11. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford - Part I.
12. Arnold H. Crane Collection - Part VII, in original blue paper binding. Now, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Anna Atkins, one of the earliest women photographers, is credited with a number of historical firsts. She preceded Talbot as the first to use photography for published illustration and was the first scientist to employ photography as a tool for extensive study and publication. Her father, John George Children, a widely respected scientist, encouraged Atkins to take an interest in natural studies as well as art. Throughout her life, Atkins displayed a passion for sketching and drawing and the pursuit of natural sciences. Her first opportunity at combining both her scientific and artistic interests came in 1823 when she illustrated her father's translation of Lamarck's Genera of Shells with accurate drawings of over 250 specimens. Children became Vice President of the Botanical Society of London in 1838, and Anna followed, becoming a member the next year and remained one until at least 1853.
In the same year that she joined the Botanical Society, Atkins learned of the invention of photography, announced first by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in France in January of 1839, and then by Talbot weeks later in England. Talbot's photogenic drawings were shown to the Royal Society in London shortly after his announcement and would have certainly been known to Atkins. By this time, Atkins was primed to integrate the new technology with her current pursuits. While she would have been familiar with Talbot's photogenic-drawing and calotype processes of 1839 and 1841 respectively, as well as Hunt's Chromatype, it was her close family friend Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the Cyanotype, who introduced Atkins to the process that she later employed in the production of British Algae. The Herschel and Children families were close, and Herschel himself sent to Children a copy of the paper announcing his new invention when it was published in 1842. The following year Atkins began using Herschel's process for scientific observation and to produce plates for British Algae, one year before Talbot began work on The Pencil of Nature.
To create each plate for her publication, Atkins painstakingly sought out, identified, and prepared each specimen, placing it on sensitised paper and then exposing it to sunlight. The creativity and time Atkins devoted to the conception and completion of her extraordinary vision is commendable. British Algae, realised over a century and a half ago, remains one of the great achievements in science, publishing and art. It is refreshingly modern and informative even to this day.
1 Since this census, at least four additional copies or part copies have come to light. The most complete of these is with the Tel Aviv Museum; a part copy is with the Gilman Paper Company; a part copy consisting of Volume I and Volume III is with a private dealer; and a fourth part copy is known but unrecorded.
Christie's Photographs Department extend our sincere thanks to Larry Schaaf for his advice and expertise.