Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was one of the first female photographers and is known for having produced the first photographically illustrated book in Britain. Entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the three-volume publication appeared in instalments over a ten-year period from 1843 onwards. The completed work contained over 400 photographs of British algae. Sir John Herschel had invented the cyanotype process in 1842, and Atkins used it to make her images.
Cyanotypes, also known as blueprints and commonly used by the engineering industry, were made using chemically photosensitive paper. Relatively cheap and easy to produce, cyanotypes became very popular in 19th century amateur photographic circles.
Atkins made her images by laying specimens directly onto sensitised paper and exposing them to sunlight. Once exposed, the prints needed only washing and drying, as no further chemicals were required in the production of the images.
Atkins went on to produce several more cyanotype albums featuring many striking images, mainly of ferns and other plants. This particular image dates from 1851 and bears the inscription ‘From the great conservatory, Chatsworth’. It is now kept in the National Science and Media Museum collection, along with the rest of the album.