“Sargassum Vulgare” by Anna Atkins
In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential.
Like many, I’m partial to a 19th century vintage botanical print or Audubon illustration. Detailed and elegant, they lend a nostalgic flair to a room, and imply a respect for history and science. But while this week’s work, with its handwritten Latin annotations and carefully arranged subject (seaweed), was born out of that same tradition of academic enquiry, it feels utterly distinct. The shock of Prussian blue in deep contrast to the ethereal cream-colored form in the center gives the work a strangely modern feel. And so it is not surprising that the story behind this image, and the collection from which it comes, is also rather unique.
Anna Atkins was an amateur botanist and accidental artist. Or, perhaps more accurately: Anna Atkins was a botanist (at a time when accomplished women were rarely recognized as anything other than amateurs), and a pioneer of the photographic medium (although only recognized as such over a century after her death).
From a young age, Atkins was fascinated by the natural world, and her father, John George Children, a respected English scientist, cultivated this interest—an unusual gesture in a time of strictly gendered vocational expectation. As a young adult, Atkins set about cataloguing flora, fauna, and other natural structures through detailed and precise illustrations, even providing drawings for her father’s published works.
She was particularly taken with algae, and found herself frustrated by the lack of visual examples and illustrations in the scientific catalogues of the day. And so, when father and daughter learned of the new photographic processes being developed by now-famous Victorian polymaths, including William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel, they quickly understood the implications for science. Here was an opportunity to accurately record and share examples of natural specimens.
Indeed, Hershel became Atkins’ mentor, and she set about using his cyanotype method (the basis of the word ‘blueprint’) to catalogue hundreds of algae species. It was a painstaking process, in which two chemical compounds (ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide) were applied to a sheet of paper with a brush. The algae was then laid on top of the dried, treated paper, and left in sunlight for a precise amount of time. Once the paper was washed in water, the image of the object remained.
Atkins worked for over a decade on this project, creating thousands of cyanotypes, which she bound into bespoke volumes for colleagues. In doing so, she paved the way for the use of photography in scientific publishing (while also furthering the medium’s development). And, like Karl Blossfeldt nearly a century later, Atkins inadvertently produced a body of artwork that revealed the art of nature—magical, evocative, and mysterious worlds hidden in plain sight.
— Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation