Algologies: Botanical Printing Experiments in the footsteps of Anna Atkins

These works on silk I have created using seaweed from the Undercliff are also inspired by Anna Atkins, who was an English botanical artist, collector and photographer, and was the first person ever to illustrate a book with photographic images. Sir John Herschel, a friend of Atkins, invented the cyanotype photographic process in 1842 and within a year, she applied the process to algae – specifically, seaweed – making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed “by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper” (Atkins, 1843). Her book is in the Natural History Museum in London but I haven’t seen it in real life yet because of reduced museum access during the pandemic but there are images from the book available in their digital collection here.

I am very happy that the silk works also reference the classic Regency style of Brighton. Maria Fitzherbert (the Catholic widow wife of the Prince Regent (unrecognised by the English State) was also an amateur botanist (as alluded to in my Infective Textiles (2011) piece) but I have no idea if she had an interest in seaweed.

Detail of the botanically printed silk printed with seaweed from the Undercliff by Anna Dumitriu

A more recent technique is to print directly on to paper or cloth using a technique called either eco-printing or botanical printing. Eco-printing (pioneered by India Flint) tends to avoid the use of chemical mordants to make the prints ‘bite’ into the cloth but for a deeper print and long lasting effect. I prefer to use alum (aluminium potassium sulphate) 10% in relation to weight of the dry fabric. I used silk. Plus as it’s an animal fibre I use 5% cream of tartar. I dissolved the alum and cream of tartar in boiling water, added the fabric and simmered for 1 hour, leaving overnight. Then I rolled and bound the silk with the seaweed on a piece of tubing. Some bits of the seaweed had I pre-soaked in plant dyes such as matter, safflower, turmeric, oak gall, or ferrous sulphate to bring out the forms. The bundled silk was then steamed for an hour and a half. Dipped briefly in ferrous sulphate 1% in relation to the dry fabric weight to bring out the design, and then left for 20 minutes in water with bicarbonate of soda (1 teaspoon per 500ml of water). Then ironed when damp to fix the design more.

I’ve been working with a lot with botanically printing medicinal plants to silks to tell the story of the history of disease and am currently making a ‘Cholera Dress” as part of my “Collateral Effects” project using this method. It builds on lots of past work but here, with the seaweed, this link to the female scientists and botanical artists of the past seems even more explicit.

Images showing the various steps can be viewed below.

Seaweed soaked for 2 days in turmeric
Seaweed soaked for 2 days in ferrous sulphate
Seaweed laid onto mordanted silk
Rolling up the bundle of seaweed and silk
The bundled silk and seaweed steamed for 1.5 hours, unwrap and iron
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
A finished silk piece botanically printed with seaweed from the Undercliff (90×90 cm)
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
A finished silk piece botanically printed with seaweed from the Undercliff (90×90 cm)
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
Detail of the botanically printed silk
A finished silk piece botanically printed with seaweed from the Undercliff (90×90 cm)

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