Sir John Herschel and cyanotypes

How is it that the Polymath and inventor of the cyanotype process, Sir John Herschel, appears to have left no cyanotype images? This startling image  by Julia Margaret Cameron records the man, and in a way pays testament to the contribution he made to Photography.

Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron

After much searching, I found this image referenced in an interview with artist Sarah Harper – an early print/paper negative – not a cyanotype.  A haunting view of his father’s telescope – almost like a hangman’s scaffold.


Herschel discovered the cyanotype process in 1842 – in two years of wide experimentation with plants from his gardens and other vegetation, he was constantly looking for a way to use light sensitive materials to capture colour images.  Dr Alfred Smee directed Herschel to potassium ferricyanide which he combined with ferric ammonium citrate.  The resulting solution when exposed to sunlight, specifically UV light, forms ferric ferricyanide or the insoluble Prussian Blue.

My assumption is that Herschel then used it to record his notes, but a reading of Christopher James (James, C. 2007) suggests that it was not until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 that the process was fully industrialised and the practice of creating ‘blueprint’ drawings by engineers became the standard for the next century.  Anne Atkins might have learnt the process from Herschel, and her immediate use of the cyanotype process in 1843 was, like Herschel’s, rooted in the scientific method, recording images of seaweeds and algae with classification notes in her own precise writing.

This link of the astronomical, the scientific method, and recording in word as well as image is a link to explore.

James, D (2007) ‘The Book of Alternative Photography Processes’, New York: Delmar.

Below Herschel’s notes in his own hand, diagrams and a drawing of a cloud nebula from Science photo library – all on paper rather than through the medium of cyanotypes…..are any John Herschel original cyanotypes still in existence?


One thought on “Sir John Herschel and cyanotypes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s