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Anna Atkins, botanist and photographer, was born on the 16 March 1799, in Tonbridge, the daughter of John George Children (1777-1852) and Hester Anna Holwell. Her father’s family had been established in the Tunbridge area from at least the early seventeenth century, with property at Nether Street, Hildenborough and Ferox Hall, Tonbridge. Her mother’s family lived at Southborough, although Hester was raised by her aunt and uncle at Bishop Down’s Grove, Tunbridge Wells. 1 Anna’s birth was difficult and afterwards Hester was “conveyed in a bed carriage to Hastings, from whence she never returned alive”.2 At the age of 20 months old, Anna was motherless; her father in his grief went travelling, leaving her with her grandfather during the early years of her life.

When Anna was six, her father developed an interest in mineralogy and constructed a large voltaic battery to test how electricity can be used in chemical analysis at Ferox Hall. Along with the scientist, Humphry Davy, Children conducted many experiments at his home between 1808-12,3 eventually creating a large galvanic battery with plates measuring 32 square feet. Davy also describes “some experiments made on the action of tellurium and potassium in the laboratory of my friend John George Children, Esq., of Tunbridge” which he conducted in 1809.4 At around this time Anna was sent away to school.

After 1812, the failure of the Tonbridge Bank impacted heavily on Children’s work and he set up a gunpowder business with Davy to help pay the bills. Davy nearly met with an accident when the ‘new and very extraordinary detonating compound’ he had created exploded.5 A gunpowder mill was opened at Ramhurst, however, a disagreement between the two men led Davy to withdraw from the business and Children was declared bankrupt. It was about this time that Anna was withdrawn from school after an illness. In 1816, Anna’s family home, Ferox Hall, was sold. Children took the post of assistant librarian in the department of antiquities at the British Museum in London. Anna went to stay with relatives at Hickling in Nottinghamshire until a family home was established in Chelsea.

Anna began working with her father in her early 20s, producing 250 engravings for her father’s translation of Genera of Shells, by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck.6 On 22 August 1825, she married wealthy merchant, John Pelly Atkins, who owned land in Halstead, Knockholt and Pratts Bottom. The couple lived in London and Halstead Place. Like his wife, Atkins shared an interest in science, particularly pneumatic chemistry7 and supported a proposal to build an atmospheric railway through Kent to be known as the Landowners’ Line.8 Anna began to collect dried plant specimens and became a member of the Botanical Society of London in 1839 - one of its first female members.

Developing an interest in algae after reading Manual of British Algae (1841) by William Henry Harvey, Anna decided to illustrate the work for family and friends.9 Through her father’s link to the Royal Society, Anna was acquainted with photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot and mathematician, Sir John Herschel who visited her at Halstead Place and this ignited her interest in photography. It is quite possible that she was inspired by Fox Talbot who said that paper photography might allow ‘every man’ to be his own printer/publisher.10 Anna was given a camera by her father in 1841, although none of the photos taken with this camera have survived.11

In 1842, Hershel invented the cyanotype, a photographic process, which later became known as blueprints. Recognising the difficulty of accurately drawing algae and confervae12, Anna began to make cyanotope prints of seaweed and plants and later published these in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843). She continued this work over the next decade, making prints of ferns and foreign speices. She was one of the first women photographers and a pioneer of the use of photography in book production.13 Her friendship with the Herschel family continued throughout her life and Hershel’s daughter Margaret, who was an artist, visited Anna in 1861.14

Anna died on the 9 June 1871, at Halstead Place, near Sevenoaks and is buried in St. Margaret’s Churchyard. Sir John Herschel, her friend and inspiration, had died a month earlier at his home Collingwood, near Hawkhurst. Anna’s obituary describes her as an ‘amiable and benevolent lady’15, but her early experimentation in photography is not mentioned.

References

  1. Atkins, A. Memoir of J. G. Children, esq: including some unpublished poetry p.1 and p.19. 

  2. Atkins, A. Memoir of J. G. Children, esq: including some unpublished poetry p.29. 

  3. Forgan, Sophie. ‘Children, John George (1777–1852), chemist.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. Accessed: 20 July 2022. 

  4. Atkins, A. Memoir of J. G. Children, esq: including some unpublished poetry p.72. 

  5. Atkins, A. Memoir of J. G. Children, esq. …: including some unpublished poetry p.125-6 

  6. Schaaf, Larry J. ‘Atkins [née Children], Anna (1799–1871), botanist and photographic artist.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Accessed: 20 July 2022. 

  7. Atkins, A. Memoir of J. G. Children, esq: including some unpublished poetry by Atkins, Anna, 1799-1871, p.255. 

  8. Kent Archives Catalogue https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/collections/getrecord/GB51_U969 

  9. ‘Celebrating Women in Science’ Honiman Museum 

  10. ‘Photography’ Artweek 1986-12-27: Vol 17 Iss 44. 

  11. ‘Anna Atkins’ Natural History Museum 

  12. Snyder, Laura J. The Philosophical Breakfast Club New York: Random House, 2011, p.288. 

  13. Photography pioneer: Anna Atkins’ algae cyanotypes 

  14. “England and Wales Census, 1861,” database with images, FamilySearch: 3 March 2021, Ann Atkins in household of John P Atkins, Halstead, Kent, England, United Kingdom; from “1861 England, Scotland and Wales census,” database and images, [findmypast] (http://www.findmypast.com) : n.d.; citing PRO RG 9, The National Archives, Kew, Surrey. 

  15. ‘Obituary’ Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser - Monday 19 June 1871