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.
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?