Andrea here, musing today on the joys of experiencing that wonderful sense of discovery when you go to see library and museum exhibits. Okay, that's a given with me, as I’m a total history nerd. But more specifically, I’m going to wax poetic on the fun of learning fun little surprises about a subject that’s already a little familiar.
Allow me to explain! The other day I decided to pop into the New York Public Library to catch a small exhibit on Anna Atkins, a pioneer in photography, who's credited with creating the first illustrated book using solely photography. I had discovered her a while back in doing some other research, and love the images she created.
She worked in a process called cyanotype (forerunner to our modern technique of making blueprints.) It doesn’t require a camera—you place a semi-transparent object on chemically treated paper that has been sensitized to light. (You can also use cloth or any material that will absorb the chemical solution.) Then you expose the paper to sunlight (or artificial light).
Two chemicals are used to sensitize the paper—ferric ammonium and potassium ferricynide. After exposure, you rinse the paper in water and the chemical reaction turns the exposed area a rich Prussian blue while leaving the image area subtle shades of white. (It basically creates a negative, with nuances depending on how much light can come through the object being “photographed.)
I’ll get to Atkins's backstory in a moment, but today she’s recognized as an amazing pioneer in photography and science. Inspired by her love of botany, she decided to create a compendium of British algae using cyanotypes. Her artistic sensibilities and scientific knowledge combined to create a masterpiece of incredible beauty and scientific value. One of the many unsung women in history, she’s only recently been recognized for her vision, and for being the first person to apply photography to science. (Aren’t her images beautiful!)
Now, I knew a little about Anna beforehand—the fact that her father was a famous scientist of the day and encouraged her interest in the subject, that she did amazing technical scientific drawings as a young woman to document her father’s work on shells and minerals—but I learned some really fun things in the exhibit that made me appreciate her and her world even more.
I hadn’t realized what an interesting fellow her father was, and how connected he was with the scientific luminaries of the day. He worked with Humphry Davy on chemical experiments, and with voltaic piles (early batteries)—which feature in my upcoming Wrexford & Sloane mystery! He served as a librarian at the British Museum and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also good friends with Sir William Herschel, the famous astronomer to King George III.
Now here’s where it gets fun. Herschel’s son John, who also became a very scientist in his own right, used to ride over from his family estate to visit with Anna, who was his neighbor. It was Herschel who as a young mn invented the cyanotype process, and he showed Anna how to do it. I’ve read a lot on John Herschel, but the exhibit suddenly made him come to life such a personal way—I imagined these two young friends sitting around talking about science and inspiring each other. It made me realize that the scientific community around London was a close-knit one and they all interacted with each other.
Another fascinating discovery was that Atkins’s best friend was Anna Dixon, the orphaned daughter of a friend of her father, who lived for a time at the Children’s estate. Atkins and Dixon later collaborated on a photographic book exploring plants and feathers, which also won accolades. At the exhibit I learned that Dixon was Jane Austen’s second cousin! Again, what a small world!
And lastly, another connection that delighted me was a drawing Anna made during a trip to Europe with her father. They visited the battlefield of Waterloo several years after the epic event, and she sketched the “Wellington Elm”—which was said to be where Wellington and his generals gathered to watch the battle unfold. (It’s now in the Queen of England’s collection.) My latest Lady Arianna mystery revolves around the battle, and seeing the drawing, which I had never heard about, was very exciting, and reminded me yet again of all the fascinating ways history interweaves and connects things on so many different levels.
So that’s my admittedly rambling musings for the day. Do you enjoy seeing library and museum exhibits as much as I do? Do you ever find yourself surprised or delighted by little discoveries? And lastly what do you think of Atkins’s photos?