Lucy Atkinson and the Basnins

A little addendum to my note below about Thomas and his relationship with Vasily Basnin who, by 1850, had become mayor of Irkutsk. Today I checked Lucy’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes, for any mention of the Basnin family. Sure enough, several references come up. The first, rather irreverent (but warm) mention is dated March 1852 and although not named, it is clear that she is writing about the Basnin family:

A most hospitable and amiable family here I have not yet mentioned, and still scarcely a Sunday passes but we dine with them; he is a merchant, and, besides, mayor of the town, we have given him the honourable appellation of ‘lord mayor.’ He is a very clever man, and, being a merchant, has had every opportunity of collecting valuable Chinese ornaments; he has also a splendid library, besides extensive hot-houses. He spends enormous sums of money in collecting plants, and (would you credit it?) he understands nothing about them! The only benefit he derives from his large outlay is to walk through his hot-houses after dinner, and smoke his cigar. Not one of the family has any real love for flowers. His eldest daughter is a clever girl, but with no taste for horticulture; she is, however, an excellent musician, and many a pleasant hour do we spend in hearing her play. The wife is no lover of flowers; indeed I do not know what she is a lover of: she belongs to the old school of Siberian wives, that is, she is literally, an automaton, seldom seen by visitors, and never visiting. I believe the old lady talks to me more than she does to anyone, and her confidence in me is great. This being the first winter her daughter mixes in society, she has begged of me to take charge of her.

Would you like to know how these hot-houses are managed? The mayor has a friend, a counsellor, who undertakes the whole arrangement, and I can assure you he does it well. The one likes to have the shrubs and plants from vanity, and, having a well-stocked purse, is able to gratify it; the other loves them for themselves, and, not having the pecuniary means of gratifying his passion, is able to do so by serving a friend, and thus they are mutually satisfied. But it is quite amusing to see the ‘lord mayor’ asking permission to cut his own flowers, or even to gather a strawberry.”

The second mention is in January 1853 from Barnaul in the Altai region, where Lucy mentions the difficulty of finding appropriate headwear for a ball to which she had been invited: “The last ball I was at I was a little troubled how to arrange for a head-dress: I had never bought one; what on earth should I have done with flowers whilst travelling? In Irkoutsk I managed capitally, as Miss Basnin sent me fresh flowers each time I went out, I was the only one so indulged. Here we cultivated some in our rooms, and I had used the last; what was to be done? I would willingly have gone without, but that could not be. A sudden idea crossed my husband’s mind, so I sent to Miss Annossoff for some ivy leaves, when he made me a beautiful wreath interspersed with red berries made from sealing-wax on the heads of pins, it really looked nice.”

So there you have it. Miss Basnin, probably Vasily’s daughter Lydia, regularly sent fresh flowers to Lucy every time she attended a social occasion in Irkutsk. The mention of flowers confirms it is the same family and at the same time confirms the closeness of the relationship. As she says, “I was the only one so indulged”.

Further confirmation of the close relationship between the Atkinsons and the Basnins can be found in Thomas’ diary for 1851, which contains the following note:

A list of our effects left in Irkoutsk 23rd May with Mr Basnin, the mayor:

  1. A view on the Altin Kool with frame and glass
  2. The General’s picture with paper etc
  3. Leather folio with two views and two unfinished.
  4. A large wood case with four views. Boxes, etc
  5. Ditto. With three views and paper laid down.

Thomas and the Siberian botanist

For some time I have been looking for material in the Russian archives that could help to flesh out the biographical details of the Atkinsons. Until today it this had been a very frustrating exercise. Despite the fact that Lucy spent at least 18 years in Russia and Thomas at least a decade, very little has so far turned up that can fill in some of the gaps. However, perhaps my luck is beginning to change.

Today I came across a fascinating article by Dr Viktor Kuzevanov, director of the Botanic Garden of the Irkutsk State University. His article Pineapples under the Pine Trees, tells the remarkable story of  Vasily Nikolaevich Basnin, scion of a famous merchant family of Irkutsk, who became obsessed with horticulture, so much so that he built a number of wonderful hothouses in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia in order to grow exotic fruits and plants.

V N Basnin photographed by KA Bergner in 1860 (IZO GIM – Fine Art Dept of State Historical Museum, Moscow)

Working closely with a young finance officer sent out from Moscow called N S Turchaninov, Basnin set about building a Siberian botanical garden that could rival any in the world. Starting in the early 1830s he began planting flowers, shrubs and fruit trees in the gardens and specially built hothouses. Not only did he collect plants from around Lake Baikal and other parts of Eastern Siberia, but he procured seeds from all over the world.

According to Dr Kuzevanov’s article, the gardens eventually covered over half of Basnin’s estate and included a large system of greenhouses comprising three interconnected glass houses and hothouses with a total length of 70 meters and width of 10 meters . The garden itself occupied around 5,000 m2. Local records show that the greenhouses were kept in perfect order: visitors were impressed by the immaculate cleanliness and “artistic” arrangement of plants. The greenhouses themselves contained a special hall for blossoming flowers and in the fruit greenhouse, peaches, pineapples, apricots, pears, apples, cherries, lemons, oranges, grapes, and other fruits were all grown.

What is fascinating from my standpoint is that Dr Kuzevanoz has found out that Thomas Atkinson designed a heating system for Basnin’s greenhouses. He has even found a drawing of the plan, which I reproduce below.

Thomas Atkinson’s plan for heating Basnin’s hothouses (RGADA, The Russian State Archive of Ancient Arts)

It is not clear if the heating system was ever installed.

Like Thomas and Lucy, Vasily Basnin was also close to many of the Decembrist exiles, large numbers of whom lived around Irkutsk. He sponsored the brothers A. I. and P. I. Borisov, for example, both of whom collected local plants and drew them for the collection. Sadly the garden only survived until 1879, when a huge fire destroyed most of the old wooden buildings of Irkutsk, although the mansion survived. A new botanical garden was created in the 1930s.

A photo of Basnin’s garden taken in 1869 (from the Zenkovich Archive) together with one of Borisov’s watercolours

This is a wonderful discovery and I hope to be able to add more detail in the coming weeks.

Ancient remains on the Steppes

Wherever he travelled in Central Asia and Siberia, Thomas Atkinson always took an interest in archaeological remains. He was not a historian, but would often try to find out about the various impressive ruins and strange earthworks he came across on his travels. For example, in Oriental and Western Siberia he describes a copper knife he had been given by Cossacks, who had found it near the Bouchtarma River in what is now northern Kazakhstan. They cut it in half, he says, believing it to be gold.

On 30th November 1859 Thomas also delivered a paper at the Geological Society in London “On some bronze relics found in an auriferous sand in Siberia”, at which he exhibited the said fragments. He told his audience that the decorated bronze pieces, which appeared to be either from a horse harness or a bracelet, were found in August 1851 on the River Shargan in southern Siberia (lat. 59֯ 30’ N and long. 96֯ 10’ E) and that he was given them only hours later by the director of the goldmine in which they were found. The miners were excavating a bank of gravel and sand and the objects were found at a depth of around 14 feet. “As I have no theory to establish, I give them without any speculations as to the period when these relics were deposited in the sandy gold-bearing bed”, he remarked.

Oriental and Western Siberia also gives a brief description of Thomas’ visit in 1847 to Ablaikit, near Oskemen, (Ust-Kamenogorsk) in north-eastern Kazakhstan. This is the site of a ruined Buddhist monastery compound that dates back to the seventeenth century and which had also been visited and drawn (see below) by Peter Simon Pallas, the German-born scientist who spent the years 1768-74 travelling in Siberia and Central Asia. The site is of great interest to modern-day archaeologists and this summer a major investigation into the site was begun.

ablaikit19      ablaikit13

Thomas, who was seemingly unaware of Pallas’ writings, writes: “We now turned to the south, riding along about a verst from the foot of the high rocks and had not gone far when we came upon a large enclosure surrounded by a thick wall build of very large blocks, with smaller stones fitted in between them. This wall encloses a space of almost a verst in length and half a verst in width, extending up to the foot of some perpendicular rocks. It has been a work of great labour and must have been built by a different race from the present, who look upon it with wonder. In some parts it is six feet high, in others a little less and seven feet thick. None of the blocks have been cut.” Clearly as a former mason, he was particularly interested in the stone work.

A contemporary view of the site at Ablaikit

He spent some time at the ruins, entering the enclosure, much to the surprise of his Kazakh guides, who declined to follow due to their superstitious beliefs.

Further south, during his journey to Kapal with Lucy in the summer of 1848, as he approached the Djungar Alatau mountains, Thomas came across further examples of earthworks and buildings from prehistory. He remarks in his second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor, on the profusion of kurgans (tumuli) they saw, describing some places where there were literally hundreds of mounds, of all shapes and sizes, dotted across the landscape.

One particular description has always interested me, but until now I have not been able to identify its location. He writes: “The ancient inhabitants of this region rendered it extremely productive. The numerous canals which still exist show their engineering skill and the extent of the irrigation it produced. In some of the channels the water yet runs and where it overflows, the sterile soil is covered with a luxuriant carpet of vegetation, adorned with flowers of singular beauty…The vast number of tumuli scattered over the plain, the extensive earthworks which have been either cities or strongholds, afford convincing evidence that a great people were once located here.”

He describes one such ancient group of buildings in the valley of the Lepsy River, describing it as “a parallelogram about 700 yards in length and 300 in breadth. The earth walls are now about 12 feet high and have been considerably higher. Their thickness is about 16 feet at the bottom and nine feet at the top. This enclosure was entered by four gates, one being in the centre of each side; but the eastern end has been partly destroyed by the river, which is gradually cutting down the bank.

“Half a mile to the north and south are numerous mounds and at about a mile from the western end there is a large tumulus, about 150 feet in diameter and 50 feet high. The people who produced them were a very different race to the present occupiers of the country and had made an extraordinary advance in agriculture and mining.

Last year, as I travelled south-west from Lake Alakool towards Lepsinsk, Sarcand and Kapal, I had tried to locate this place, but could find no-one who knew anything about it. However, this week, after a determined online search I think I have found the exact spot, which is in the modern-day village of Koilyk (previously called Kayalyk or, more recently,  Antonovka), not far from Sarcand. Read this recent description: “Kayalyk territory was surrounded by a fortified wall, having the form of an irregular quadrilateral with sides of 750 to 1,200 meters. Nowadays, it has been preserved well in the eastern part of the unoccupied area of modern buildings and the height reaches 4 m. Elsewhere it can be observed only fragmentary. Certain significant buildings, such as the Buddhist temple, are located at a distance of a few hundred meters from the city walls. This means that agricultural land, farms, centers of spiritual missions were at a considerable distance from the city, enclosed by the city wall, built from mud brick.” You can read more about this site here.

The irregular  ‘parallelogram’ enclosing Kayalyk that Thomas described can easily be seen in this picture, with a large ruin in the Western corner and other ruins close by

From this description I have no doubt that it is the same place described by Thomas as an irregular parallelogram. Recent archaeological investigation has revealed that the site is archaeologically extremely rich, with the remains of a large mosque dating back to the early Islamic period, as well as Buddhist and Manichaean temples. This was once an important town on the Silk Road, close to the ‘Djungarian Gates’ that lead through the mountains eastwards into what is now Xinjiang in Western China.

koilyk7          koilyk6

I am now working on an Atkinson Trail for the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan and Koilyk will certainly be one of the highlights.

Full house at the RGS for a talk on ‘Unknown Kazakhstan’

The crowd at last week’s RGS meeting

More than 100 people crowded into the Royal Geographical Society on 2 November to hear three speakers, myself included, talk about ‘Unknown Kazakhstan’. Development  consultant Sophie Ibbotson gave a broad outline that explained to newcomers the size of the country and the ease of travel. Dr Gai Jorayev, an archaeologist from UCL, spoke about his travels in the country and the exciting archaeological research that is taking place. I spoke mainly about the Zhetysu/Semirechye region where Thomas and Lucy Atkinson spent so much time and which I have now visited three times.

The three speakers

The large turnout and obvious interest from the audience suggests that Kazakhstan – largely unknown to all but the most determined travellers – may be in the process of becoming a more popular destination. One of the ideas that came out of this summer’s visit by the Atkinson relatives is to establish an ‘Atkinson Trail’ and discussions are now going on to make that a reality. The idea is to create an itinerary that travellers can either follow themselves or join a group. I will post more of this as it develops.

A bank in Hanley, Staffs, designed by Thomas Atkinson

(Picture courtesy of the Trustees of the William Salt Library, Stafford)

My picture shows an engraving of the  Manchester and Liverpool District Bank building in Hanley, Staffordshire. To the right of the caption you can clearly make out ‘Thomas W Atkinson, Architect, Upper Stamford Street‘. And just beneath the engraving on the bottom left you can also read the name T W Atkinson. So Thomas Atkinson both designed the building and drew the picture upon which this engraving is based. The building itself, which was located on the corner of Town Road and Huntbach Street, was completed in 1833 and this engraving appears to have been a gift from three of the directors to their colleagues and shareholders at the bank.

Thomas’ picture is interesting for several reasons. We know that a year after he completed the Hanley building, Thomas also designed the bank’s headquarters on the corner of Spring Gardens and Marble Street in central Manchester (for more on the Manchester headquarters building, see my posting of 11 October). This was a huge undertaking and was very favourably received by architectural critics, who compared it to the iconic Travellers Club in Pall Mall, London. So it is likely the bank’s directors, having been impressed by the Hanley bank building, decided to give Thomas the contract to design the headquarters building. In the end, ironically, it was this second contract that brought him financial ruin and bankruptcy.

In this mid-1830s drawing by F E Watts, the bank is on the right

The second point of interest is the construction of Thomas’ picture. Unusually for him, the foreground is occupied by a group of people, mostly market traders and their customers. Presumably the bank’s directors were keen to show commerce taking place in front of their rather magnificent building. Women with baskets and bonnets and men in smocks and hats carry on their business in front of the impressive gothic bank building.

A 1970s photo of the bank building on the right, showing how it was modified in the 1890s.

The building was modified in the 1890s, as can been seen in the picture above. Today, alas, it has disappeared completely, a victim of 1970s town centre redevelopment. The site is now occupied by a ghastly redbrick Natwest bank building.

Tamchiboulac Spring water…

On the 5th December 2014 I gave a talk at the Royal Asiatic Society in London about Thomas and Lucy’s Atkinson’s travels in Eastern Kazakhstan. At that point I was not long back from a trip to the region where I had been able to locate and visit the Tamchiboulac Spring, after which the Atkinsons named their son.

You can listen to a tape of the talk I gave here, where you will also find a set of pics that illustrated the talk. The talk was notable for one thing in particular. I brought back from the spring some of its curative waters, which I then bottled. That evening HE Erzhan Kazykhanov, the Ambassador of Kazakhstan, agreed to present the bottles of water from the Tamchiboulac Spring to several members of the Atkinson family, who had come along to the meeting.

Belinda Brown receives a bottle of Tamchiboulac Spring water from the Kazakh Ambassador

I had almost forgotten that the talk was online, but recently checked and found it was, hence this posting.

Solved! The Atkinsons’ house in St Petersburg

I can report further progress on the location of the Atkinsons’ residence in St Petersburg following their return from Siberia in December 1853. I have now located the actual building, which is still there. The property, known as Dom Gutschow, was originally built for the great German mathematician Leonhard Euler, who was given the money to build it by the Empress Catherine after a fire destroyed the previous building, from which Euler only just escaped with his life. He lived there from 1766-1783 and there is a plaque on the wall to commemorate this fact.

(It is interesting to note that Thomas mentions Euler’s granddaughter in the introduction to his book Oriental and Western Siberia, who he thanks and calls “a worthy descendant of the mathematician”.)

Dom Gutschow, with the 10th Line on the left side.
Plaque commemorating Leonhard Euler on the Gutschow House

Then in 1851 it was substantially altered and extended by the Saxon merchant Anton Gutschow. Gutschow was active in the flax trade and in various manufacturing businesses and was obviously a very wealthy man. He bought the two properties at the end of the 10th Line on Vassilevsky Island, adding a third floor in 1851 and building a new façade. Presumably Thomas and Lucy rented their property from him, although there is no information at present. Gutschow was well connected with many British merchants, as is clear from a cutting from The Times, located by Sally Hayles.

The Gutschow family company was well known in St Petersburg

Later, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, it became a school. Today part of it is occupied by the Institute of Oriental Studies.

You can see the location of the house on the map below:

The waterway to the south is the River Neva. So the house was almost on the main embankment facing the city from the island. Just a few hundred yards to the East on the other bank of the river is the Hermitage Museum and the beginning of Nevsky Prospekt. So the house was very central and rather grand, having only been completed three years before the Atkinsons took up residence.

The Atkinsons’ address in St Petersburg

I have a small update on the location of Thomas and Lucy’s residence in St Petersburg, where they lived together from the time they returned from Siberia in December 1853 until they returned to England for good in 1858. In the Paul Dahlquist Collection of Atkinson letters in Hawaii is a letter that Thomas wrote to Baroness Edith Fedorovna de Rahden. The baroness, who is thanked personally in the preface to Thomas’ book Oriental and Western Siberia, was a lady-in-waiting to the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlova, wife of the Tsar’s brother Paul.

The letter, dated 28th April 1855, concerns Thomas’ attempts to get his pictures seen by the Grand Duchess, who had previously expressed an interest in his paintings. I had not noticed before, but he gives his address as House Gutschow, 10th Line, Wassili Ostroff, St Petersburg. The same address is given in a letter that Thomas wrote to Tsar Alexander II, dated 26 April 1856, so we know it was not temporary.

Can anyone help identify this property? Does it still exist? Is there any sign of the studio mentioned by the Illustrated London News? Please get in touch if you can help with any of these questions.

Intriguing news in the ILN

The Illustrated London News for 4th August 1860 carries an extensive and complimentary review of Thomas Atkinson’s second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor.  The review states: “The title of this book is so suggestive that it would be calculated to attract attention even if it did not bear with it the authority of a gentleman, who, by a former work, Oriental and Western Siberia, has established a claim to be reckoned high amongst those author-travellers who write with a purpose, and are enabled to fulfill all the requirements of the duty and character which they undertake.”

Thomas was by this point beginning to weaken and tire, worn out by the many years of travel in Siberia and Central Asia. Even so, he was already thinking about a third travel book, to be written about the Decembrists – the army officers and others (later famously followed by their wives) – who had been exiled to a grim life in Siberia after failing in a coup attempt against Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. Thomas and Lucy – whose employer, General Mouravyev, was related to many of the leading Decembrists – met many of them during their travels and were deeply impressed by their bravery and fortitude.


In addition to the review, there is also an unsigned column in the same edition of the ILN that contains some fascinating information: “A strange, hardy, adventurous man must be this Mr T W Atkinson,” writes the columnist. “We happened to be in the capital of the Tsar four years since, just after this traveller’s return from Oriental and Western Siberia. For years he had been wandering, with a wife as heroic as Garibaldi’s Anita, in those inhospitable regions, often depending for his sole subsistence on his rifle and his fishing rod. We had the pleasure of inspecting in Mr Atkinson’s studio at St Petersburg the magnificent watercolour drawings he had made during his pilgrimage and of looking with great interest on the son who had been born to him in the course of his sojourn in the Altai Mountains, and to whom he gives the sonorous appellation of ‘Alla-tor-tam-tam-Tchiboulak‘. There’s a name for you, O ye Rosa-Matildas and Maria-Janes!”

Leaving aside the mis-spelling of Alatau’s name, the note contains two fascinating points. First, even though it was published before Thomas died, it mentions both Lucy and Alatau. The argument that Thomas’s first wife, Rebecca, did not know about Thomas’ second (and bigamous) marriage until after he died certainly cannot be true, as the ILN was widely read and these details would have been noticed. From her own correspondence, it does appears to be the case that Lucy knew nothing of Rebecca until after Thomas’s death. Which raises the interesting question of whether Thomas’ main objective in not associating with Lucy in public in England was not so that his first wife did not find out, but to make sure that Lucy did not find out about Rebecca.

The second interesting point from this column is the fact that the author refers to Thomas having an artist studio in St Petersburg, which he visited in 1856, presumably when Thomas was in London, having returned alone to his home country for the first time in ten years to deliver his manuscript for Oriental and Western Siberia. Thomas returned later to collect Lucy and Alatau. I know that for a time after they arrived back from Siberia in December 1853 Thomas and Lucy lived on Vasiliyevsky Ostrov (St Basil’s Island), right in the heart of the Russian capital. The island is famous for its grid-patterns of streets, known as Lines. The Atkinsons lived in a house on the 10th Line, not far from the English Quay. The picture below may or may not be the house in which they lived.

A house on the 10th Line in St Basil’s Island, St Petersburg.

Even if it is not the right house, it gives you some idea of the houses that existed there during the mid-19th century. The real job now is to locate the house in which Thomas and Lucy had their home and studio. If anyone can suggest ways of searching in Russia for documents that may shed light on this issue, please get in touch. Wouldn’t it be great if the studio has survived?