The world’s first illustrated photo book was made by a woman: botanist Anna Atkins. This is scientific work. British algae: blueprint prints. Although it circulated in the form of pamphlets containing only a few images of algae, the University of Montreal has an exceptional copy made up of 455 plates.
The restoration of this volume was carried out in recognition of the donation made to the UdeM by the Courtois Foundation.
The use of a new technique.
Forgotten today, Anna Atkins was a pioneer of photography in Victorian England. A brilliant botanist, she was a member of the Botanical Society of London, one of the few scientific societies to which women were admitted at the time. She had learned to faithfully illustrate different plants in watercolor. To represent them even more accurately, she had the idea to use a completely new photographic printing technique as soon as it appeared: cyanotype. Invented by John Herschel in 1842, it is based on the sensitivity of iron salts to light.
To make these prints, Anna Atkins successively deposited algae on sheets of paper previously coated with a solution of potassium ferricyanide and iron ammonium citrate. She then placed these leaves under glass and exposed them to light. The salts reacted to the sun’s rays and a yellow image appeared. After the leaves were washed with water and then dried, the iron compounds reacted and the yellow changed to a deep Prussian blue.
When technique meets art
The book “British Algae: Blueprint Prints”
Credit: University of Montreal
Looking at the boards, one is struck by the delicate beauty of these algae resting on these piercing blue backgrounds. This is in stark contrast to traditional herbariums or botany books, which present plants on a white background. Here you have the impression of seeing seaweed floating in an aerial or marine environment. As if in a dream, the earthy brown of the algae gives way to pure white. They do not appear as distant ghosts: each of their details is faithfully highlighted. We see the smallest filament move gently, frozen in eternally suspended time. Each board in the colors of the UdeM looks like a modern work of art.
“The way in which the algae are arranged contrasts with the usual scientific composition of herbariums and clearly denotes a desire to “look beautiful”. More than the scientific aspect, it is the aesthetics of these images on a Prussian blue background that even today catches the eye at first glance,” says Normand Trudel, heritage librarian at the Rare Book and Special Collections Library at the University of Montréal.
Unique printed boards for more than 10 years
If the photograph allows obtaining a negative and making several copies, the cyanotype, on the other hand, allows a single impression. Each sheet is manually covered with iron salts and it is each one of them that will receive a specific impression. Anna Atkins made several thousand prints of algae which she distributed in fascicles between 1843 and 1853. She collected them in a first volume in 1843, to which two more were added later.
Some organizations have fascicles or one or more volumes. It is extremely rare that all three volumes are in the same place. The New York Public Library and the University of Montreal are said to be among the few places in the world to have nearly all of the plaques.
The exceptional example of the UdeM
According to Professor Larry J. Schaaf, a leading specialist in the work of Anna Atkins, and Joshua Chang, curator of the New York Public Library, the copy preserved in the UdeM Rare Book and Special Collections Library is one of the most complete and interesting in the world. The pair came to examine it in 2017 and it was later featured at an international Anna Atkins exhibition and symposium at the New York facility in 2018.
A handwritten letter added to the book mentions that it was Anna Atkins who bequeathed all these cyanotypes on separate plates at her death to Margaret Brodie, the widow of John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype. Around 1880, Margaret Brodie’s son bound the work.
Did Marie-Victorin purchase this book?
The University copy comes from the collection of the UdeM Botanical Institute, founded by brother Marie-Victorin in 1920. Marie-Victorin was responsible for this collection. Did he buy the book himself? Did the Institute receive it as a gift? We know that between 1938 and 1944 Marie-Victorin made seven trips to Cuba to study the island’s biodiversity and that part of his research was encouraged by a certain Atkins Foundation. But that’s a red herring, because it’s another Atkins family! However, it is possible that it was through this foundation that Marie-Victorin became the owner of this copy. It would be necessary to investigate Marie-Victorin’s correspondence to clarify this mystery and perhaps understand how the work passed from the hands of the Herschel family to the Botanical Institute.
The book was recently digitized and will soon be available for online consultation on the Calypso platform of the Université de Montréal Libraries Department.
restoration of the work
To be coated with ferric salt and allow the production of blueprints, each sheet of paper must be thick enough. It is not possible to use Bible paper! At over 400 pages, the weight of the book is substantial. The union has also suffered. A restorer came to pick it up.
In restoring this exceptional document from the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, the Université de Montréal wanted to highlight the Courtois Foundation’s remarkable gift to the establishment.