The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson

The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
Papaver Orientale by Anna Atkins, located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

With The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs, Fiona Robinson has created a masterpiece of both storytelling and illustration. Before I read the first page of this book, the only thing that really interested me in it was the idea that it was about a first, and one by a woman. As I read through the book, engrossed and enchanted by the illustrations, I found myself more and more fascinated by the woman, the period of scientific history and the invention and art of cyanotype photography. 
Using Atkins's cyanotype of a poppy as the centering theme of her book, Robinson tells the story of a girl born in England in 1799 and raised by her father, John George Children, a chemist, mineralogist and zoologist who was determined to give his daughter (also his partner in research from a young age) the, "best education in the world at a time when few girls receive any schooling at all." The book begins in 1807 when, while exploring a meadow with her father, Anna finds a red poppy and presses it between the pages of a book, to be examined later.
Robinson goes on to detail Atkins's explorations in the natural world as well as her growing talent for observation and illustration. Anna, a botanist, wants to share her herbarium (a collection of dried plants) and with others, but the task of illustrating the more than 1,500 samples is daunting. The gift of a camera from her father in 1841 (Atkins is now acknowledged to be one of the first women in the world to take a photograph) and an introduction the following year to Sir John Herschel, the inventor of the cyanotype print (which he used to make copies of his astronomy notes) inspires Anna profoundly.
Anna determines to combine the, "science of botany with the realism of photography." Her book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, is published in 1843 and dedicated to her dearest father. In the Author's Note, I learned that, curiously, Atkins used only the initials A.A. for her name as author, leaving many to assume the monogram meant "Anonymous Author," resulting in her not being credited for her work for decades. Robinson ends her book where she started it, with Atkins, now a grown woman, in a field, picking a red poppy and remembering that day with her father, long ago. Wanting the poppy to last forever, Atkins makes a cyanotype of it, as seen above.

Back matter includes a full page reproduction of this print, along with instructions on how to make your own cyanotype. There is also a bibliography, list of institutions holding Atkins's cyanotypes, illustration credits and a note on the medium, which is as fascinating as the author's note. To create her richly layered illustrations, which are almost exclusively (with the exception of a handful of well placed reds and one glorious splash of yellow-gold) in variants of blue, Robinson employed many methods. This included, "montages of pencil drawings, watercolor paintings, vintage fabrics and wall papers, wood veneers, and photographs." It is a joy to reread The Bluest of Blues and pore over the illustrations, taking in all the details is missed before. 

While I love every book by Robinson I have reviewed (especially the HILARIOUS What Animals Really Like), I think that The Bluest of Blues is my new favorite, for the wonderful botanist, photographer and innovator Robinson introduced me to and for the magnificent way she brought her to life on the page with her extraordinary illustrations and words.

More books by Fiona Robinson!
The Abominables
Written by the marvelous Eva Ibbotson, with cover and interior art by Robinson

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