Thomas Atkinson’s contribution to the architecture of Manchester is finally beginning to get some of the attention it deserves. From his yard, first in Piccadilly and then around the corner in Store Street, he took on several substantial projects in the mid-1830s, although ultimately, the city was to be instrumental in his downfall as an architect.
Recognition for his work can be found in a newly published book by Manchester author and tour guide Jonathan Schofield. Illusion & Change: Manchester – Dreams of the city and the city we have lost by Jonathan Schofield devotes several pages to Thomas’ architectural work in the city, including the villas he designed for the hillside above St Luke’s Church in Cheetham Hill.
The church was built – and the tower survives to this day – but the villas, alas, were never completed. Also mentioned in the book are the headquarters for the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank, the observatory planned for Kersal Moor, his proposal for a Unitarian Church in Upper Brook Street and the church he built at Openshaw. We could also mention the superb houses he designed for John Cheetham and his brother in Stalybridge – both now sadly demolished.
Mr Schofield casts Thomas as a Cassandra, a man who made many plans for the city, but who was ignored by the establishment. This is slightly harsh, although understandable. I have previously noted the fact that he lost out on several commissions to the architect Charles Barry and it is certainly true that it was the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank building that finally sent him into bankruptcy in 1838. But The Builder magazine, in its obituary of him, published on 31 August 1861, was full of praise for his work:
“The building of the District Bank was as important an event in the architectural history of Manchester as that of the Travellers’ Club was in London since it showed the local public that effect was not dependent on mere “orders”, that there was something more than these in the matter of architecture. The epoch of the acquirement of this insight by the public cannot be too highly estimated. Subsequently the same architect opened out in like manner another avenue to taste, by the adaptation of the central lantern-lighted staircase hall, for which Barry is to be credited as regards the Royal Institution, but which with the surrounding arcades which Atkinson added, was a novelty in private houses.
During the few years in which Atkinson practised in Manchester, taste certainly improved by his example. In his Italian villas, bold cantilever cornices, and more effective porches and chimneys; and in his Gothic designs, the features which are now well known, but were then habitually caricatured, were introduced. Indeed, his Gothic was considerably in advance of that practised by London architects.”
Nor was it just his designs that were impressive. He also had an impact on the other architects in the City:
“To show the change that has taken place, it may be well to mention, that at Atkinson’s arrival in Manchester, the architects of the town had their assistants for nearly everything beyond surveying, from London. Most of these assistants had been indebted for what they could do, to one master, the now deceased too-much-forgotten George Maddox, of Furnival’s Inn: they had not rested long enough in his school to acquire his unquestionable taste; and they were generally deficient in such matters as Gothic mouldings and tracery, to an extent which now seems a deficiency in the power to produce no matter what character of good architecture. By all these gentlemen, some of whom have since deservedly attained a good position, and were then sufficiently qualified to judge, Atkinson was pointed to as a rare bird, a man veritably who made his own designs and was an artist.”
Anyone who wants to find out more about Thomas’s work in Manchester should join one of Mr Schofield’s tours of the city, several of which cover developments in the city in the nineteenth century. There is a further opportunity to hear more about Thomas’ work in the city on 16th November at the Victorian Society, when writer John Massey Stewart is due to give a talk on ‘Thomas Witlam Atkinson (1799-1861): a forgotten Victorian architect and artist’. Details can be found here.