A visit to Cannon Hall

Cannon Hall-NBF

This week I paid my first visit to Cannon Hall near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. This large mansion, once known as ‘Roast Beef Hall’ due to its owners’ generosity at dinner, was the ancestral home of the Spencer-Stanhope family, who made their fortune in the local iron industry. Those of you familiar with the background of Thomas Atkinson will know that his father was head mason on the estate and that Thomas had a close relationship with the Spencer-Stanhopes, in particular with John and his brother, the Reverend Charles Spencer-Stanhope.

Like many similar estates, the upkeep proved too much for the family and the house and grounds were sold to Barnsley Corporation in 1951. Today Cannon Hall, along with 70 acres of beautiful parkland, is a museum with fine collections of Moorcroft pottery, paintings – including works by Constable and Canaletto – and glassware. Although some of the rooms still contain artworks associated with the Spencer-Stanhope family, most of that has now gone and it is not easy to imagine what life would have been like in the house’s heyday in the mid-eighteenth century when the likes of William Pitt, the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and other grand figures were regular guests.

However, an insight into life at Cannon Hall can be gleaned from a wonderful book: Annals of a Yorkshire House from the papers of a Macaroni and his kindred, written by A M W Stirling and published in 1911. And before you ask, a macaroni was a kind of eighteenth century dandy, noted for their accentuated fashion, over-the-top hairstyles and exaggerated manner of speech. A quote from the book gives an idea of the extravagant entertaining that lay behind the nickname Roast Beef Hall during the days of Walter Spencer-Stanhope:
Stanhope, after his marriage, kept open house, where the guests who came uninvited were as welcome as the invited guest and it was a recognised fact that despite the ever-widening home-circle which the years brought, his family party never dined without the addition of several friends present. As his sons grew older they used to be expected to bring men in to dinner, and John used to relate that he often wandered about not liking to go back till he had captured his own contribution to the merry evening party. Once when Mary Winifred complained to her chef of the extravagance of the house-books, the man replied “Do you know Ma’am, although you had no party, how many people dined here last week? – A hundred!”. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square (where the Spencer-Stanhope’s had their London town house-ed), however, maintained that Mrs Stanhope must have a rout every night, so continuous was the stream of company which invaded her, while several of the old letters describe her house as ‘the gayest in town’.

From his humble beginnings as the son of a stone mason on the estate, Thomas Atkinson returned to Cannon Hall in 1860 as a guest of the family. It was, indeed, a remarkable turnaround for an uneducated Yorkshire lad. There are some small indications that the Spencer-Stanhopes saw the potential of the young mason and set him on his way to becoming an architect, even allowing him as a youth to take drawing lessons with the Spencer-Stanhope girls. That, like so many other aspects of this story, will be the subject of further research.

Volcano Atkinson and the Kara Noor

Kara Noor, formed by lava of the Djem-a-louk, Saian Mountains, MongoliaIn the winter of 1852, while staying in Irkutsk on the shores of Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia with his wife Lucy and young son Alatau, Thomas Atkinson painted The Kara Noor, formed by lava of the Djem-a-louk, Saian Mountains, Mongolia, one of several watercolours he painted of this remote area. Having recently acquired this painting, I have tried to find out as much about it as I can.

The subject of this painting was particularly important for Thomas and relates to a posting I made on this blog about the connection between him and the great German explorer and geographer, Alexander von Humboldt (see below). The important word in the title of this painting is ‘lava’, as it clearly implies the presence of volcanic activity. Humboldt believed that volcanoes were likely to be discovered in Central Asia and Siberia and yet, despite looking for them himself, he had failed to find any. It was only when Thomas came across an ancient, but massive lava flow in Eastern Siberia, that the evidence Humboldt was looking for was discovered.

Thomas describes what happened in his book Oriental and Western Siberia: “The lava rose like a wall, in some places forty feet high; in others, it was heaped into enormous masses, and great chasms crossed the bed, looking as if formed by the mass cooling. This volcanic matter interested me greatly and I determined to seek its source: for during my ride I had ascertained that it had flowed down the valley of the Djem-a-louk. At dusk in the evening we reached a Cossack piquet, when I made known my wishes to the officer, who told me that the Bouriats had great dread of that valley and never ascended it, except by compulsion. He ordered that seven good men should be collected and be ready to accompany me in the morning.”

Thomas describes how the next day the party – excluding Lucy – followed the lava flow up the valley in what became an increasingly dangerous ride. On the third day he reached the Kara Noor (Black lake), the subject of this painting, and on the following day proceeded on foot to find the source of the lava: “In doing this we had to descend into chasms sixty and eighty feet deep, where the volcanic matter had cracked in cooling. After a day of extraordinary toil, we slept on blocks of it at night. On the afternoon of the second day, we beheld the top of a huge cone, and, as the sun was setting, stood on its summit looking upon the terrific scene around. I at once began sketching a view of this wonderful region and gave orders to a Cossack to have a fire and preparations made for our night’s encampment.”

Thomas goes on to say how the Bouriats who were guiding them begged him not to sleep on the cone of the volcano, as Shaitan was sure to pay them a visit. He told them to make camp where they pleased. Meanwhile he continued to sketch. It was clearly a very moving place: “No scene with which I am acquainted conveys such an impression of the terrible and sublime, as the prospect from some parts of this wonderful region, in which I spent many days.”

The painting above certainly conveys an impression of the power of nature, particularly the dark reddish hues of the massive rock, the wreck of a tree and the red tint to the charcoal clouds. It was a piece of lava from this volcano that Thomas sent back to Humboldt in Berlin – the significance of which the German did not realise for a further three years.  Thomas made several other paintings of scenes in the immediate vicinity of the Lake, two of which appear in his book.

In more recent years, this particular volcano field has been the subject of much study by Russian geologists. Now known as the Jom-Bolok volcanic field, it is actually located in Russia in the Eastern Sayan Mountains. In 2011 it was the subject of a major Russian study which you can read here. That article by Alexei V Ivanov et al notes: “Despite the fact that the Jom-Bolok volcanic field has been known for almost one and a half centuries , it is little studied and no geological information has yet been published in English.

In an appendix to the article there is a historical note which states: “Initial information about the volcanoes in the East Sayan Mts. was published in a local Siberian newspaper in 1858 by an English architect, Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Later, he devoted a number of pages in his extensive travel book to the same volcanoes (Atkinson 1859). In 1852, Atkinson travelled from the inhabited Oka river area, along Jom-Bolok river (referred by him as Djem-a-look river) up to Haranur lake and the Hee-Gol valley. Apparently, he was among the first visitors to the volcanoes, because the local Bouriat people had great dread of that valley, and never ascended it except by compulsion. His report was used later by the Russian royal Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin, who was famous for both his anarchist philosophy and contributions to glaciology (see Ivanova and Markin 2008). He visited the volcanoes in 1865 and provided a geological description (Kropotkin 1867).”

So Thomas Atkinson, according to Russian geologists, was the first outsider to visit this remarkable volcano field. The second person was the great Russian anarchist Kropotkin! The Russian geologists who studied the volcano field decided that they should right a great historical wrong: “Volcano Medvedev was named in this paper for the first time after Marat Medvedev, whose field-book notes were used by us to find the location of this practically unknown volcano. The name Atkinson is given to a previously unnamed volcano to restore the historical fairness.”

Thus one of the cones in the Jom-Bolok volcano field is now called Volcano Atkinson. Not a bad result after more than 150 years. And here is a photo showing the volcano, which can be seen on the right of the picture.





Thomas Atkinson’s first book…

Gothic Ornament title page

When I began researching Thomas Atkinson, I soon found out that he had written a book in the late 1820s, not on his travels, but on architecture. The book was hard to find but I eventually found a copy in the architectural library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Entitled Gothic Ornaments selected from the different Cathedrals and Churches in England, and published in 1829, the book contains 44 engraved plates, made from drawings executed by Thomas and his business associate, Charles Atkinson (no rel.). They show details of carved stonework from places such as Lichfield Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Boston Church in Lincolnshire, St Alban’s Abbey, Westminster Abbey, St Catherine’s Church in Tower Hill and so on.

Thomas and Charles had recently set up in business as architects in Upper Stamford Street in Southwark, but the book clearly reflects Thomas’ background as a stonemason. That was also his father’s profession and it is clear that Thomas was expert in – and attached to – the carving of stone. His love of the Gothic extended to his design work as an architect and he quickly developed a taste for designing buildings – particularly churches – in the neo-Gothic style, which was undergoing a revival at that time.

It was, therefore, a great surprise to come across this frontispiece for the book, which is missing from the copy in the V&A and which carries another drawing by Thomas. There is, however, no text that I am aware of. The book was originally published ‘in folio‘, which means that the plates were issued at a rate of two or three a week, to be bound later at their purchaser’s expense. This book contains a total of 42 plates.

What is also remarkable is the similarity between this book and a very similar book, published by that great exponent of the neo-Gothic style, A W Pugin. Here is the frontispiece of Pugin’s book:

Pugin-Gothic Ornaments

As you can see, Pugin’s book is called Gothic Ornaments selected from various ancient buildings seen in England and France during the years 1828, 1829 and 1830. Perhaps like me, you will be struck by the similarity between the two works,which have almost exactly the same title as each other. As Thomas’ book was published first, would it be in order to suggest that Pugin had seen a copy of his book and then decided to produce his own version? Perhaps this kind of book was popular at the time? Either way, it shows that Thomas was at the heart of what was to become an important trend within British architecture at this time. Leaving aside the whole issue of Thomas’ travels and explorations, it is also probably time that his contribution to architecture was reassessed.