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:
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.