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.

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