A new portrait of Thomas Witlam Atkinson?

unknown artist; Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman

Could this unloved, rather forlorn oil painting be a portrait of Thomas Witlam Atkinson? There are a few circumstantial details that could connect it to the great traveller, but not enough to make a definite attribution.

If it turned out to be a portrait of Atkinson, it would be the only one that has emerged to date. There is, of course, a single photograph of him, taken when he was ill, towards the end of his life. There are also at least two of Atkinson’s own drawings of himself, which appear in his travel books, although these are illustrations, rather than portraits.

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The only known photograph of Thomas Witlam Atkinson

This is what we know about the oil painting. It was first brought to my attention by Helen Bonney, who noticed it online in the collection of paintings at Cannon Hall, near Cawthorne, outside Barnsley and who, based on the clothing, dated the picture to the 1820s. In the catalogue it is described as ‘Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman‘. It is not presently on display.

Cannon Hall is the ancestral seat of the Spencer-Stanhope family. Thomas Atkinson was brought up on the estate, where his father William was the head stonemason. We know from various sources that Charles Spencer-Stanhope in particular, supported and encouraged Thomas from an early age and guided him towards a career as an architect.

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Cannon Hall, ancestral home of the Spencer-Stanhope family

Helen Bonney drew the picture to my attention earlier this year and since then Sally Hayles has visited the museum several times, where she has had the opportunity to examine it out of the frame and under UV light. Thanks are due to museum staffer Louise Wright in particular for being so helpful.

However, there is a problem with the picture. Its history is incomplete. Barnsley Council, which bought Cannon Hall in the 1950s and now runs it as a museum, says its records do not show when or how the painting was acquired. It may have been in the Cannon Hall collection since it was painted in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, or it may have been bought much more recently, even after the collection became the property of Barnsley Council.

An expert who recently examined the unsigned painting out of its frame tells us that the frame is not original and that the nails holding it into the frame are only 20-30 years old. There is a blue chalked number on the back, but no-one can say what this means.

Second, the painting is in oils on wood, which probably rules out Atkinson himself as the artist. There is no record of Atkinson ever painting in oils. He preferred to use watercolours, even for his most substantial paintings – although his son John William Atkinson certainly did paint in oils. However, John would have been too young to have painted this picture in the 1820s.

That having been said, the painting bears more than a passing resemblance to the photograph of Atkinson, although the former would have been completed at least 30 years before the latter.

Third, the picture is not of great quality. The hands in particular are very basic and the folds in the clothing are poorly handled.

Is there another possible candidate for the artist? Well yes, possibly. Like Atkinson, Abel Hold (1815-1896) was a local man also supported by the Spencer-Stanhope family. His portraits of several Cannon Hall estate workers – including Elkanah Clegg, a woodman, and Jonas Beaumont, the estate carpenter – can be seen hanging at the Cawthorne Victoria Jubilee Museum, only a mile or so from Cannon Hall.

Two other portraits of Cannon Hall employees by Abel Hold

                    Hold, Abel, 1815-1896; Elkanah Clegg (1803-1872), Woodman for the Spencer Stanhope Family   

Could the ‘Unknown Gentleman‘ be an early picture by Hold? It is possible, but there is no way of knowing for sure. The other known portraits and paintings (mostly of game) by Hold are on canvas, which may rule him out. The dress of the sitter places it firmly in the 1820s, when Hold would have been a child. For now we will simply have to think of this as a mystery portrait that may possibly be the young Thomas Atkinson.

Kazakhstan Cultural Forum in London

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Some of those attending the forum

I was in West London yesterday for the Forum of Kazakhstan Culture and Literature. As well as Ambassador Erlan Idrissov and head of the National Library Umitkhan Munalbaeva, the forum included contributions from a number of prominent Kazakh artists and writers. These included philosopher Dr Yesim Garifolla, film maker Rustem Abdrashev, poet and scientist Bakytzhyan Tobayakov, Professor Zhanat Aimuhambet and Professors Charles Melville and Firuza Melville. Gillian Brown, whose husband Steve Brown is a direct descendant of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, also gave a speech.

I gave a paper on the literary connections between Britain and Kazakhstan, exploring the works of travellers and writers over the last 300 years who have visited the Kazakh homelands in Central Asia. These included such early figures as John Castle, the Atkinsons, William Bateson, Samuel Turner, John W Wardell and several others. In such a short presentation I could not go into great detail, but you can find an outline of my speech here: Kazconf speech

Thomas Atkinson in Hamburg

What was Thomas Atkinson doing in the north German city of Hamburg in the 1840s? To date little information has come to light. We know that he went there following the Great Fire of Hamburg which devastated much of the old town in early May 1842, including the grand old church of St Nickolaikirche and around 1700 other buildings.

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Peter Suhr’s painting of the Great Hamburg Fire of 1842

Atkinson, according to the Dictionary of National Biography and several other sources, moved to this important maritime city to take advantage of the need for skilled architects and builders in the aftermath of the fire. Once there, he entered the competition to design a new church and although he was unsuccessful, clearly found plenty of work to keep him busy.

We also know that Thomas’ son John William Atkinson died in Hamburg on 3rd April 1846 aged only 22 and that Thomas left the city for good shortly afterwards, giving up his work as an architect and making his way to Berlin and then to St Petersburg, never to return. Some sources say he was encouraged to travel to St Petersburg following a chance meeting with Tsar Nicholas I in the city, although there is little evidence.

Other than these few scant details nothing much was known. However, new evidence recently unearthed by Marianne Simpson paints a far more detailed picture of Atkinson’s activities in the town and opens up several lines for future investigation.

Recently accessed German records show that Atkinson was living in Hamburg by early 1844, in a house at No 6 Bergstrasse, in the centre of the town, close to the important quays and literally just around the corner from St Nikolaikirche. In 1845 and 1846 the records show he was living just along the street at No 16 Bergstrasse, close to the grand church of St Petri.

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Bergstrasse is in the centre of the map, close to the church of St Petri

At both addresses the other occupier is listed as the important music publishers, Schuberth & Co. At neither address is Atkinson’s son, John William, listed, which suggests either than he had only recently arrived to live with his father when he died or that he was a visitor.

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Bergstrasse. Atkinson’s house was on the left.
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The view down Bergstrasse today, with the church of St Petri at the end of the road

The earliest mention of Atkinson in the German press dates from August 1843, in an article in the Hamburger Nachrichten, which mentions an exhibition aimed at raising funds for rebuilding of St Nikolaikirche. The article mentions five of the exhibits, which include cork models of churches, some of the paintings saved from St Nikolaikirche, plans for the enlargement of the railway station, some plans for the new church – although not those designed by the great Victorian architect and exponent of the Neo-Gothic style, George Gilbert Scott, who eventually won the commission – and plans for the Alsterdamm in Hamburg by Atkinson.

The Alsterdamm, known since 1947 as the Ballindamm, is the main inner-city boulevard of Hamburg, built alongside the Elbe River, and similar to the Embankment in London. What precisely Atkinson proposed is not yet clear, nor if his plans were ever accepted. But undoubtedly something kept him in the city for more than two years.

Der Alsterdamm in Hamburg 1852
The Alsterdamm in Hamburg, pictured in 1852

As previously mentioned, the successful winner of the architectural competition to rebuild St Nikolaikirche was George Gilbert Scott, who built over 800 buildings, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Albert Memorial, the main building of Glasgow University, the Martyrs Memorial in St Giles, Oxford and many others.

I recently discovered that Scott wrote about his experiences in Hamburg in Personal and Professional Recollections, edited by his son Giles and published in 1879. Here he noted that late in 1844 he became aware of the competition to rebuild St Nikolaikirche. Having decided his entry should be in the form of a neo-Gothic building – a style that was already growing in popularity in England – he immediately set out on a two-month tour of Germany, France and Belgium to view as many Gothic buildings as possible. He submitted his entry three weeks after the closing date, but it was accepted and soon became the subject of huge interest. As he notes: “My design was to their apprehension far more German than those of any of the German architects.”

He goes on to expand his point: “Professor Semper, my most talented competitor, had grounded his design on that of the cathedral in Florence, and Heideloff, Lange and others had made more or less of failures, while an English architect of the name of Atkinson (the future Siberian explorer), then living at Hamburg, who had made a powerful effort, had failed of making his design German”.

It is likely that although Atkinson also submitted a Gothic design, it was not in the ‘Middle Pointed’ style promoted by Scott and praised by the judges in Hamburg. A total of 39 designs were submitted for the church, all anonymously. Initially Professor Gottfried Semper won the competition, but a pro-Gothic faction were able to overturn the decision and award the job to Scott.

We know that soon after Scott sent several of his best assistants from London to Hamburg to oversee the project. Did Atkinson work for them on the massive detail work needed for the new building? No doubt more information will soon emerge from the German archives. Either way, the failure to win the commission for St Nikolaikirche in early 1845 was undoubtedly a blow to Atkinson. The death of his son just over a year later, in April 1846, must have been a terrible blow and may have been the event that prompted him to give up his work as an architect and travel to Russia to work as an artist.

Wikipedia page for Alatau Atkinson

I am delighted to see that a Wikipedia page has now been opened for Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, to join those of his parents, Thomas and Lucy. The detail of the entries for Alatau is mostly accurate, although it still needs more information, particularly in relation to his achievements in education policy and his role in the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii by the United States.

The American editions of Thomas Atkinson’s books

I thought it might be useful to look into the various American editions of Thomas Witlam Atkinson’s books. His two main books, both originally published in London by Hurst & Blackett, are Oriental and Western Siberia (1858) and Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860). A second edition of the second book, Travels, was published by Hurst & Blackett in 1861.

Both of the English volumes (see below) were published in Royal Octavo in cloth bindings that were beautifully decorated with gilt illustrations based on woodcuts used in the books. They are such good examples of the technique that both are now included in the British Library’s specialist collection of gilt book covers.

OWS Cover2                           Cover of Amoor book

In America things were slightly different.  Both books were published in several editions soon after their initial publication in London, but the paper quality is generally poor and the illustrations are weaker, with maps only present in the Harper editions. The size is also smaller. The 13 colour lithographic plates in the Hurst edition of OWS have been turned into much lower quality B&W engravings in the American editions. The woodcuts are also inferior. The artist used in the American books by Harper & Bros was Dorothy Hope Smith.

So far, I have been able to discover the following American editions:

For Oriental and Western Siberia, there are two editions from Harper and Bros of New York, in 1858 and 1865. There are also two editions by publisher J W Bradley of Philadelphia in 1859 and 1860. And then there is another edition by John E Potter, which is undated, but probably dates to about 1870. Potters often bought titles from fellow Philadelphia publisher Bradleys.

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The John E Potter edition

For Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor I have been able to discover just two editions, both by Harper & Bros in New York, the first published in 1860 and the second in 1861.

The best example of the American editions is the Harper 1860 edition of the Amoor book (see below) which was available in a special edition of blue cloth with gilt illustration and a map, similar to the English edition. This is now rare.

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Neither of Atkinson’s books were published again until late in the twentieth century, when several academic publishers issued new editions. Later there were several varieties of print-on-demand books.

Pelicans and sweat scrapers in Central Asia

Thomas Atkinson’s diaries continue to intrigue me. As mentioned previously, I have been reading and transcribing the diary for 1849, which records the journey the Atkinsons made from Kapal in the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, a distance of more than a thousand miles.

The journey took them most of the summer as they explored the Djungar Alatau Mountains and all the river valleys of the Zhetysu before reaching Lake Ala Kool, located close to the border with Xinjiang in western China. In the 1840s this region was still known as Chinese Tartary, although the border was mostly unmarked.

The Atkinsons, including their new baby Alatau, departed their winter base at Kapal in May 1849 and by the middle of August, after many adventures, had finally left the Djungar Alatau Mountains behind them. They were to retain a fondness for this region for the rest of their lives. Their aim now was to travel between Lake Ala Kool and its smaller westerly companion lake, Sassyk Kool – which translates as ‘Smelly Lake’. From here their aim was to travel into the largely unknown Tarbagatai Mountains and then across the steppe northwards to the Altai Mountains.

By the 13th August 1849, the Atkinsons had reached Lake Sassyk Kool. The lake itself is actually quite hard to see as it is surrounded on all sides by dense reed beds, as I found out during a trip there in 2015.

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Dense reedbeds surround Lake Sassyk Kool in Eastern Kazakhan

This is how Thomas describes their arrival at the lake:

Our way lay along the end of the lake at a verst distant. Having gone some versts Lucy wished to ride up to the shore. We did so that she might have a good view. On reaching the reeds I saw two pelicans sitting on a sandbank. I instantly dismounted and walked in amongst the reeds until I got within shot. I fired and they both rose up and flew a short distance where one fell dead. The other fell a short way further but was able to swim. Neither of them could be got as the Kazakhs were afraid of the waves, although both were floated to some reeds about one hundred paces from the shore. I was obliged to leave them, but most reluctantly.”

The mention of pelicans caught my attention. One does not immediately think of Kazakhstan in relation to pelicans, but in fact these large birds exist in several areas in Central Asia, including the Caspian Sea. In fact, I had come across them once before, in Mongolia.

During a stay in a remote part of Western Mongolia in 2006 – probably a thousand miles east of the Zhetysu region – I had attended Naadam – the Mongolian summer festival that is celebrated every July with competitions of archery, wrestling and horse racing. Here, as you can see in my photographs, I noticed that some of the horsemen had a strange implement sticking out of their waistbands.

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Horseman with a sweat scraper in his belt

Known in Mongolian as a Khusuur, this implement is used after a horse race to remove the copious amounts of sweat produced during a long (often 25km or more) race. Its use means that the sweat does not freeze on the horse’s body. One horseman was very happy to show me this interesting piece of equipment and to explain its origin. I was told that riders normally wear the khusuur in their belts, while horsebreeders wear them tucked into their long boots.

The first one I saw was made from wood, carved with seven horses for good luck. But I also caught site of another version, whose origin was only too clear:

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Mongolian khusuur made from a pelican’s head and beak

As can be seen from the photo above, some of the older khusuurs are made from the heads of pelicans, as the Mongols believe the beak is the perfect shape to scrape sweat from a horse. The skull is wrapped in felt and ‘eyes’ are fixed into it. Pelicans in Mongolia are now protected, so this practice is now banned, although some of the older men still have these scrapers, passed down to them through their families.

Thomas Atkinson’s remarkable drawing gadget

I spent the day yesterday in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries, something which has absorbed a lot of my time in the last couple of years. The five diaries, which span the years 1847-53, are mostly written in pencil. Atkinson’s neat handwriting is not too difficult to read, although often he writes in tiny lettering that requires the use of a magnifying glass.

After much time and effort I am now nearing the end of this enormous task and hope before long to publish the diaries in book form. They are full of surprises and remarkable stories and unlike Atkinson’s books, clearly ordered in terms of places and dates.

Most recently I have been working on the diary for 1849, during the summer of which Thomas and Lucy and their baby, Alatau, made the return journey from Kapal in what was then Chinese Tartary (and is now Eastern Kazakhstan), to Barnaul in southern Siberia. I won’t go into too much detail about the narrative, but I want to draw your attention to something that I have never before seen mentioned in any writing about the Atkinsons.

I am referring to a paragraph from the diary entry for Tuesday 16th August 1849. At this point, the Atkinsons had left the Djungar Alatau Mountains and had passed by the western edge of Lake Ala Kool on their way north into the Tarbagatai Mountains. Somewhere here they met up with Sultan Iamantuck and his family, who showed considerable kindness to the Atkinsons.

Thomas decided that he would create a portrait of the Sultan and his family. He describes the scene in his diary thus: “We had a visit from the Sultan early, but this being a fast he would not take breakfast. He had brought Lucy a present of some Chinese silk for a kalat (silk robe-ed). I desired our Cossack to say I wished to sketch him and would go to his yourt shortly. On arriving there I found him surrounded by many Kazakhs. He received me with great politeness. All seemed greatly interested in what I was doing and looked at my camera with great surprise. Having sketched the Sultan, I then sketched his daughter, a very pretty girl of 17 years old. She was busy making the ornaments for a yourt. I also sketched the son, a fine youth of 22 years old.”

What struck me about this paragraph is, I think, obvious. It is Thomas’ mention of a ‘camera’. Bearing in mind that this was 1849, we are talking about the earliest days of photography. Could it be possible that Atkinson had taken a photographic camera with him on this journey? If so, why had he never mentioned it before and why has no-one ever seen any photographs – probably Daguerreotypes, which were invented in 1839 – of his travels?

The answer was provided to me by the excellent staff of the RGS library, who were able to point out that Atkinson was probably referring to a camera lucida, which is an optical device made up of a mirror and lenses that is used as a drawing aid by artists. Patented in 1806, it superimposes the subject being viewed onto the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both the scene in front of him and the drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure.

Camera_Lucida
A typical camera lucida

The fact that Atkinson used such a device raises some fascinating issues. First, we can now be sure that at least some of his portraits of Kazakh nomads were pretty accurate, as the camera lucida allows faithful picture to be drawn. Second, can we also assume that he used the device for some of his landscapes as well?

And here is a woodcut of Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck and his children, as published in his book, Oriental and Western Siberia:

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Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck

Sadly, the original drawings that Atkinson brought back with him from Siberia and Central Asia have long since disappeared. What a pity!