Good turnout for Hong Kong meeting


A great turnout for the meeting organised by the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Geographical Society on Tuesday. About 80 people attended the talk, which was partly on the many unknown and obscure travellers that will feature in my forthcoming book about the exploration of the steppe.

For the second part of the talk I was on more familiar territory; it concentrated on the recent expeditions I have organised in the footsteps of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Buryatia and Eastern Kazakhstan. Thanks are due to RGS-HK director Rupert McCowan for organising this meeting (and another, the following night, about my work as a reporter in Fleet Street) and to his staff for making the whole thing go so smoothly.


A talk at the RGS in Hong Kong

For those of you in Hong Kong – or nearby – I will be speaking at an event on Tuesday evening (9th April, starts at 19.30) organised by the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society. My speech is entitled ‘The Steppes of Central Asia: Rediscovering the History of Central Asian Exploration‘ and will be held at Hill Dickinson, Suite 3205 Tower Two, Lippo Centre, 89 Queensway, Admiralty. Further details can be found here.

The eagle hunters of Central Asia

Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveller, was probably one of the first Westerners to describe hunting with eagles, as practised to this day by the Kazakhs and other Central Asian people. In Book 2, ch.18 of his Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian he describes seeing eagles at the court of Kublai Khan in Karakorum in present-day Mongolia:
There are also a great number of eagles, all broken to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats and they do catch them in great numbers. But those specially that are trained in wolf-catching are very large and powerful birds and no wolf is able to get away from them.”

Sir Henry Yule’s edition of the book, published by John Murray in 1874, also includes an illustration of eagle hunting. On coming across this for the first time recently I was surprised to see that it was in fact a woodcut taken from Thomas Atkinson’s book, Oriental and Western Siberia. Atkinson wrote extensively about eagle hunting, providing one of the earliest modern-day accounts of this remarkable phenomenon.

26-bearcoote and deer
Atkinson’s woodcut of a hunting eagle attacking a deer

In a footnote commenting on Marco Polo’s observation, Sir Henry writes: “In Eastern Turkestan and among the Kirghiz (Kazakhs-ed) to this day, eagles termed Barkut (now well known to be the Golden Eagle) are tamed and trained to fly at wolves, foxes, deer, wild goats, etc. A Kirghiz will give a good horse for an eagle in which he recognises capacity for training. Mr Atkinson gives vivid descriptions and illustrations of this eagle (which he calls ‘Bear coote’), attacking both deer and wolves. He represents the bird as striking one claw into the neck and the other into the back of its large prey, and then tearing out the liver with its beak.

A modern-day Kazakh with his Golden Eagle

At least Sir Henry acknowledged Atkinson’s drawing. Other writers at that time shamelessly plundered his artwork and used it without acknowledgement.

Sun Yatsen and the Atkinsons – new connections

Last April I published an article by Marianne Simpson about the US author James Michener’s 1959 novel Hawaii. One character in the novel, Uliassutai Karakorum Blake, is clearly based on Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the son of Thomas and Lucy, who in 1869 emigrated to Hawaii. Michener wrote that Blake was the only character in the 900-page novel who was based on a real person.

In the novel Michener suggests that when he was headmaster at Iolani School in Oahu, Alatau taught the great Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yatsen. Sun attended the school between 1879 and 1882, during his formative years and it is not unreasonable to suggest that his principled radicalism was the result of Alatau’s teachings.

Sun Yatsen

Now scholar Patrick Anderson has published a fascinating article in the Hawaiian Journal of History that highlights much more extensive contacts between Sun Yatsen and the Atkinson family. His article, ‘A Re-investigation of the Mystery of Sun Yatsen’s Hawaiian Birth Certificate’, looks into why, in March 1904, ALC ‘Jack’ Atkinson, Alatau’s eldest son, issued such a document. Mr Anderson points out that Sun was not born in Hawaii and that the date given on the certificate for the birth is wrong by four years. At the time Jack Atkinson was Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii.

Alatau Leonard Charles Atkinson
Jack Atkinson, Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii

Was it a fraud or were there other reasons that the certificate was issued? Mr Anderson provides a remarkable answer to this question, hinted at in his introduction, where he states: “…I believe the Secretary was not misled by any false evidence submitted by the relevant witnesses, or even by Sun himself. Moreover, I believe that Sun Yatsen’s Hawai‘i birth certificate, and the Hawai‘i/USA territorial passport that went with it, are documents whose origins have hitherto been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. I will try to show here that understood correctly they were not frauds committed by Sun Yatsen against Hawai‘i. Rather, they constitute Hawai‘i’s bounty, bestowed willingly upon Sun Yatsen. Indeed, I believe they were bureaucratic gifts granted freely and knowingly to Sun in gratitude by a tight circle of born-and-bred Honolulu men who worked right at the top of Hawai‘i’s government and political establishment.”

The granting of these important documents – don’t forget that Sun was being hunted across the world by the imperial Chinese – was, in effect, in recognition of the important political work that Sun was doing and which was highly regarded by those men of Hawaii who had themselves stood up for democracy and a constitution and fought against the corrupt Hawaiian monarchy.

Mr Anderson confines himself in this paper to uncovering the specific reasons for the granting of Sun’s identity documents. He does not seek to examine the overall relationship between Sun and the Atkinson family. Hopefully, his forthcoming book, Dynamite on the Tropic of Cancer: Sun Yatsen and a case study in revolutionary failure: Honolulu and Guangzhou 1895, will add further information to this fascinating subject.

Mr Robinson – the Serjeant-at-Law and cousin to Lucy Atkinson

I am delighted to be able to publish below Marianne Simpson’s fascinating essay on Benjamin Coulson Robinson. Robinson was a distant cousin of Lucy Atkinson. In later life she lived in his house in Mecklenburg Square, close to King’s Cross in London. He was a prominent lawyer and had plenty to say about the antiquated divorce laws of Victorian Britain – a subject close to Lucy’s heart.

Marianne Simpson writes:

We know from the UK Census conducted every 10 years that in 1881 Lucy Atkinson was living in the home of Benjamin Coulson Robinson, located at 43 Mecklenburgh Square, London. Also resident at the same address were Maria Coulson, aged 80, an unmarried aunt of Benjamin Robinson, and two servants. The relationship between Benjamin and Lucy was described as that of cousins.

This essay discusses the family ties that bound Benjamin and Lucy and also gives some insights into Benjamin Coulson Robinson, the man.

Benjamin Coulson Robinson
A photo of Robinson from his book Bench and Bar

Through her mother, Lucy Atkinson was the granddaughter of William York and Elizabeth Sherrard who were married in St George’s Hanover Square in London in May 1792. While we cannot be absolutely certain who Elizabeth Sherrard’s parents were, there are strong clues in the records, which reveal that on 1 November 1773 in Rotherhithe, Southwark, one York Sherrard, Bachelor, married Elizabeth Robinson, Spinster.

To find the name “York” so interwoven with that of “Sherrard” both as a surname and as a Christian name and then to see the connection of these two names with Robinson – not to mention the recurrence of the name “Elizabeth” across two generations – strongly suggests that Elizabeth Robinson was Lucy’s great grandmother.

Putting that aside, if we look at Benjamin Coulson Robinson’s history, we find that he was the son of Martha Morgan Coulson and Thomas Robinson, Master Mariner[i], who were married at St George in the East on 20 April 1806. If Thomas Robinson were a descendant of, say, a sibling of Lucy’s Robinson great grandmother, that would mean Lucy and Benjamin both had the same great, great grandparents, making their relationship that of third cousins. It is not a close relationship, but it is clear that they had much in common.

Benjamin was born in Stepney on 21 March 1812 and was thus five years older than Lucy. As well as the above details of his parentage, we also know that he had a sister, Sarah Wilson Robinson (1811-1890)[ii] who, while in her 45th year, married Thomas Weatherall Sampson in 1856 in St Pancras Parish Church, the fathers of both bride and groom being described as ship brokers.

This was several years after Benjamin’s own marriage to Hannah A White (1816-1896)[iii], which took place on 19 July 1844 at St Dunstan’s in Stepney. Benjamin and Hannah can be found residing together, first, at Frederick Street, St Pancras (1851 census) and, then, at 43 Mecklenburgh Square (1861 and 1871 censuses).

However, Hannah is not living there at the time of the 1881 census but, rather at an address in Hackney,[iv] indicating that she and Benjamin had seemingly separated. There is no evidence of any children from the marriage.

Benjamin died on 4 January 1890 and a year later, in the 1891 census, Lucy is found living in the household of Benjamin’s brother-in-law Thomas Sampson[v]. In the mid-1880s friends of Lucy’s son Alatau in Hawaii visited Lucy at 43 Mecklenburgh Square which suggests that she lived there uninterruptedly for some years, certainly after 1881 (and possibly for a period even before then) and probably right up to the time of Benjamin’s death. It is therefore worth spending a little time considering the man who gave Lucy a home, where she apparently lived contentedly for so long.

So, to the man himself. In 1889 Benjamin published the book “Bench and Bar: Reminiscences of one of the last of an ancient race” which contains a wonderful photograph of the man (see above) and gives insights into his character. The phrase “one of the last of an ancient race” refers to Benjamin’s occupation as Serjeant-at-Law, to which position he was elevated from that of Barrister in 1865. Benjamin gives an explanation of the position as follows:

The position of Serjeant-at-law is undoubtedly the oldest, and was, until comparatively recent times, the very highest dignity a barrister could achieve below that of a judge. It dates from the middle of the thirteenth century. Until the year 1875, the judges were invariably selected from that rank, and so strictly was the rule adhered to that even a Queen’s Counsel, who had spent half his life under that title, was obliged, on his appointment as judge, to become a Serjeant perhaps the day before he was sworn in as a member of the Bench.”[vi]

We can see from this that Benjamin was a person of considerable standing in the legal profession. It is, however, not through his legal expertise, but through his writing that we gain knowledge of him. His book begins:

There seems to be a curious epidemic spreading through the literature of the present day, which though comparatively harmless, and productive perhaps of considerable interest to the pathologist, is at the same time startling and unprecedented. Its symptoms manifest themselves in a fervid desire on the part of the patient to make the world acquainted with his family history and his individual earthly career, as far as it has yet gone. He is afraid of waiting for it to go further, lest he fare worse; his memoirs might become posthumous, and society and his friends might for an indefinite time lose the benefit to be derived from the contemplation of his virtues, his errors, and his example generally.”

As you can see, a writer who can entertain, and entertain delightfully, without seeming effort. He continues:

Now it might be supposed that these revelations of purely personal and domestic history of individuals, guiltless of any exciting adventures by flood or field, might turn out to be rather monotonous…but they are published and sold, and, what is more, read with avidity…

I suppose it was by virtue of the atmosphere by which I have lately been surrounded, that I found myself gradually becoming inoculated with the same disease. But the diagnosis of my complaint must be taken with a considerable difference; for, while it occurred to me that I might create some little entertainment by detailing my reminiscences of the sayings and doings of others, I never thought for a moment of obtruding my own personality upon the public. In answer to any such suggestion on the part of myself or others, I should have said, with the needy knife-grinder, “Story! God bless you, I have none to tell, sir.” Society knows very little about me, and I cannot conceive any earthly reason why it should desire to know more. Whilst there is nothing about my history which I care to conceal, there is nothing relating to it which I think interesting enough to relate. My life has been a very uneventful one, and, in my seventy-eighth year, I may add, it has been more happy and prosperous than I had any right or reason to expect; this may have arisen from its very privacy, though more perhaps from its devotion to books.”

And this is most surely true. Do we not see the influence of a previous generation of essayists? Leading into the subject of the book, he continues:

But I have been for more than half a century intimately connected with what I hope I may call an interesting profession. In a very circumscribed space we see a great deal of the world; we have perforce to dive into the recesses of men’s minds and mark their workings in their varied and ever-varying forms…I was tolerably assiduous in my attendance at the courts, and on circuit. I possessed a fairly retentive memory, and what is more to my present purpose, I have, throughout my life, kept a journal – written mostly in shorthand – wherein I have noted down such incidents, whether of action or of speech, as I was interested in at the time. But this was never done with the slightest view to publication, nor would the idea probably ever have occurred to my mind except for an example that had recently been set before me…

He finishes his “introductory” with modesty and grace:

Now it is to the Bar and its associations that the following pages mainly relate, and if my own individuality should occasionally intrude itself upon the stage, it will be found that I am only playing the part of gentleman usher to those who are much more worthy of notice.”

For those of us who have come to know Lucy so well, do we not see in Benjamin many of the attributes that we admire in her? In both of them, we find people who, endowed with superior intellects, used their acute powers of observation and recall to both mark and reflect on life, as they experienced it, with appreciation, charity and enjoyment.

Their expectations were not so high as to engender dissatisfaction, with the result that they accepted life as they found it – and they found it good. I think we can see why, even though she was never to see Alatau again after he and his new wife and baby left for Hawaii in 1869, Lucy was nevertheless comfortable living under Benjamin’s roof.

Benjamin does provide a little more information about his career. He states that he entered the Middle Temple as a student in April 1833[vii]. Also, that in order to become a student at one of the Inns of Court, he had to furnish himself with a certificate of respectability signed by two barristers.

Fountain Court, at the heart of the Middle Temple (By David Jones, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He then had to go through the “formality of what was technically called an examination, the crucial part of which occupied about a minute and a half. One or two questions in Latin or in general literature were put to him in the perfunctory style in which one asks a passing acquaintance after his health, being quite indifferent as to what answer he might give: “I believe the examination now is just a trifle nearer the real thing, but I never yet heard of any man being plucked in this preliminary “little go”. If I had, I would expect the next intelligence I got of him would date from an asylum for idiots”.[viii]

He was also required to pay £100 into the treasury of his selected Inn, thus entering into a stringent bond, with two sureties, in addition to which he was bound to obey the rules of the establishment, attend church every Sunday and pay up whatever dues were required.

All this indicates that the Robinson family was better placed financially than the Finley family. Benjamin was one of only three (known) children whereas Lucy was one of nine. We also know that Lucy’s father Matthew Finley, the schoolmaster, was at one time bankrupt whereas, progressing from master mariner to “ship broker”, Thomas Robinson would seem to have pursued a prosperous profession.

What do we know about Benjamin in his maturity? In 1856 he was honoured to be admitted to the Freedom of the City of London “without the intervention of a company”; in 1860 his status was changed and he was recorded as a Freeman in the Company of Saddlers.

We also know that he was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society[ix]. While it would be nice to imagine him and Lucy attending meetings of the Society together in the 1880s at the Society’s Savile Row address, this would not have occurred because women were barred from membership until 1913[x]. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that he would have had an interested and engaged listener when he returned home.

From 1846, he was a mason, being a member of the Lodge of Good Report, and, as such, subscribed to the three core principles of masonry: brotherhood, truth (i.e. high moral standards) and charity. Offering his home and protection at different times to three female relatives[xi] would appear to show that he took his pledge seriously.

While “Bench and Bar” contains some delightful anecdotes – for example the Common Serjeant who “could sentence a man to seven years’ transportation at the end of as many minutes from the commencement of the trial”[xii] – there is one passage worth quoting, and that concerns the matter of divorce.

Although Benjamin, true to his word, obtrudes scarcely at all into the account, it is nevertheless interesting to read, partly for the pithy undertone but also because Benjamin himself was separated from his wife and had moreover provided a home to someone who had suffered from being the innocent victim of a bigamous marriage. This is what he recounts:

One of Justice Maule’s most noted escapades is to be found in his address to a prisoner who had been convicted before him of bigamy. The speech – I can scarcely call it a judicial sentence – created a great sensation, for it was a clever and satirical attack upon the law of divorce as it then existed…

He said: ‘Prisoner at the bar, you have been convicted before me of what the law regards as a very grave and serious offence, that of going through the marriage ceremony a second time while your wife was still alive. You plead in mitigation of your conduct that she was given to dissipation and drunkenness, that she proved herself a curse to your household while she remained mistress of it, and that she had lately deserted you; but I am not permitted to recognise any such plea. You had entered into a solemn engagement to take her for better, or worse, and if you got infinitely more of the latter, as you appear to have done, it was your duty patiently to submit. You say you took another person to be your wife because you were left with several young children, who required the care and protection of someone who might act as a substitute for the parent who had deserted them; but the law makes no allowances for bigamists with large families. Had you taken the other female to live with you as your concubine, you would never have been interfered with by the law. But your crime consists in having – to use your own language – preferred to make an honest woman of her. Another of your irrational excuses is that your wife had committed adultery, and so you thought you were relieved from treating her with any further consideration; but you were mistaken. The law, in its wisdom, points out a means by which you might rid yourself from further association with a woman who had dishonoured you; but you did not think proper to adopt it. I will tell you what that process is. You ought first to have brought an action against your wife’s seducer, if you could discover him; that might have cost you money, and you say you are a poor working man, but that is not the fault of the law. You would then be obliged to prove by evidence your wife’s criminality in a court of justice, and thus obtain a verdict with damages against the defendant, who was not unlikely to turn out to be a pauper. But so jealous is the law (which you ought to be aware is the perfection of reason) of the sanctity of the marriage tie, that in accomplishing all this you would only have fulfilled the lighter portion of your duty. You must then have gone, with your verdict in your hand, and petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce. It would cost perhaps, five or six hundred pounds, and you do not seem to be worth as many pence. But it is the boast of the law that it is impartial, and makes no difference between the rich and the poor. The wealthiest man in the kingdom would have had to pay no less than that sum for the same luxury; so that you would have no reason to complain. You would, of course, have to prove your case over again, and at the end of a year, or possibly two, you might obtain a decree which would enable you legally to do what you have thought proper to do without it. You have thus wilfully rejected the boon the legislature offered you, and it is my duty to pass upon you such sentence as I think your offence deserves, and that sentence is, that you be imprisoned for one day; and, inasmuch as the present assize is three days old, the result is that you will be immediately discharged.’

Benjamin concludes,

It was generally believed that this forcible bit of satire was mainly instrumental in procuring a change in the law, and the establishment of the Divorce Court on its present basis.”[xiii] There can be little doubt where Benjamin’s sympathies lay.

On his death in January 1890 Benjamin left an estate of £3089.12s 3d. This is interesting because, with the exception of £200 bequeathed to another nephew in Australia, his aunt Maria Coulson, on her death nine years earlier, had left her estate of £3645.14s 3d to Benjamin. Benjamin could accordingly have been expected to have left a larger estate but, with his wife still alive, he may have been maintaining her at her separate residence. Benjamin lies buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, not far from the grave of Lucy Atkinson.


[i] A possible further connection between Lucy’s immediate family and the Robinson family is that Lucy’s father, Matthew Finley, is believed, before his marriage to Mary Ann York in 1810, to have also been a mariner (or master mariner). So – and this must be conjecture but it is worth saying – Lucy’s parents may have met through the shared Robinson connection.

[ii] There was also another sister, Martha, born in 1816.

[iii] Hannah was the daughter of a surgeon at Mile End.

[iv] Address: 165 Amhurst Street, Hackney. Name Hannah Robinson, Head of Household, Married, 65 years of age, Annuitant. The only other residents at the address were two servants.

[v] Sarah Sampson had died the previous November and Thomas himself was to die in January 1893.

[vi] Bench and Bar (Third Edition) by Mr. Serjeant Robinson (Hurst and Blackett, 1891) pp248 and 249.

[vii] Ibid., p10

[viii] Ibid., p11

[ix] in his book, “Thomas, Lucy and Alatau” (2018), John Massey Stewart states that he was proposed as a member by Thomas Witlam Atkinson in 1860 (p271).


[xi] The 1851 census shows that, as well as himself and his wife, an elderly aunt, Rebecca Haward, aged 73, was also living at the address.

[xii] Bench and Bar, op. cit., p43

[xiii] Ibid, pp116-119

Walter Spencer Stanhope and the Society of Dilettanti

I have written previously about Cannon Hall, the childhood home in Cawthorne, Yorkshire, of Thomas Atkinson. Owned by the wealthy Spencer Stanhope family, Thomas’ father was head mason on the estate. We know that Thomas himself was supported by the Spencer Stanhopes during his career, particularly by Charles, a younger son of the family.

Walter Spencer Stanhope2
Early portrait of Walter Spencer Stanhope

Thomas showed his appreciation for the family during the 1820s, when following the death of family patriarch Walter Spencer Stanhope (1749-1822), he was commissioned to create a tomb for the local church in Cawthorne. Thomas completed the commission with much flair in 1829, creating a mediaeval design that reflected his growing interest in the neo-Gothic style.

Sir Walter Spencer Stanhope tomb
Atkinson’s design for Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb

But until now little has been written about Walter himself. New evidence suggests he was at the centre of intellectual life in the eighteenth century and possibly raises some interesting questions over Thomas’ paternity.

Walter studied at University College, Oxford and soon after, aged 26, became MP for Carlisle. He was to remain an MP for various constituences until 1812, forming close relationships with both Pitt the Younger and with the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, both of whom regularly stayed at Cannon Hall.

But what has been missed or ignored until now – and many thanks to Helen Bonney for pointing this out – is Walter’s membership of that most scandalous grouping, the Society of Dilettanti.  The Society was founded in about 1735 by a group of men who had visited Italy on the Grand Tour and wanted to continue to share and build on their experiences in a light-hearted manner. In 1743 Horace Walpole criticised the Society, saying that it was “a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy”.

The name Dilettanti comes from the Latin ‘dilettare‘, to take delight in, and the Society adopted a policy of ‘seria ludo‘ – looking at serious subjects in a light-hearted manner.

The Society’s members, mostly “young men of rank and fashion”, had to be personally known to an existing member and were elected by secret ballot. They met regularly at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, where their discussions regularly included the arts of classical antiquity – and sometimes more erotic subjects. The Society raised money to encourage the study of Greek and Roman art and backed some of the earliest archaeological expeditions to the Mediterranean.

Members included such people as Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, later 2nd Duke of Dorset; the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, later Lord le Despencer and proprietor of the Hellfire Club; Simon Harcourt, Viscount and later Earl Harcourt; Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne; William Ponsonby, later Viscount Duncannon and Earl of Bessborough; Richard Grenville, Earl Temple; and Sewallis Shirley, Comptroller of Queen Charlotte’s household.

It also included such notables as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles James Fox, George Selwyn, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Sir Joseph Banks, Charles Francis Greville, Sir William Hamilton and the great actor, David Garrick.

In 1769 the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds painted two group portraits of members of the Society of Dilettanti. Now in a private collection, the portraits are rightly famous, not least for their many visual jokes at the expense of the sitters. The first of these portraits contains likenesses of seven men:  from left to right: Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, John Taylor, Stephen Payne-Gallway, Sir William Hamilton, Richard Thompson, Walter Spencer Stanhope and John Lewin Smyth.

Members of the Society of Dilettanti by Reynolds. Walter is top right.

What is the significance of Walter’s membership of this organisation and his portrayal by Reynolds? First, it may well explain why his eldest son John took himself off to Greece in 1812 to study archaeology and to carry out some of the first scientific measurements of classical ruins. John Spencer Stanhope published several books on his interest in classical architecture.

More intriguingly, perhaps it adds weight to various claims concerning Thomas Atkinson’s paternity. Thomas’ mother was Martha Witlam, a maid at Cannon Hall. But there have always been suggestions that perhaps Thomas was an illegitimate son of Walter Spencer Stanhope. Walter had 15 children by his own long-suffering wife, but it would not have been unheard of for a senior estate worker such as Thomas’ widower father William to be asked to bring up a child fathered by someone in the ‘big house’. There is little evidence in this particular case, other than the deep interest the Spencer Stanhopes’ took in Thomas’ welfare throughout his life and the encouragement offered to him.

Now that we know that Walter was also a member of the Society of Dilettanti, where bastard children would have been a feather in the cap to its members, perhaps it strengthens this argument.


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.

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.

Cannon Hall-NBF
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.