In 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.