I have uncovered another fascinating document in the Manchester Archives about Thomas Atkinson’s activities as an architect in the city.
The letter to the Manchester Royal Institution signed by Thomas Atkinson and J G Irwin
(courtesy of Manchester Central Archives)
The document in question is a two-page letter in Thomas’ own handwriting, but signed by him and another prominent Manchester architect called John Gould Irwin. Dated 3rd December 1838 and sent from an address in Oxford Street, Manchester, it is addressed to the secretary of the Royal Manchester Institution and is written on behalf of the Manchester Architectural Society. This latter organisation only had a short life, from about 1837-45, but is noticeable for being the first such professional body of architects in the city. The fact that the letter is signed by Atkinson and Irwin suggests that they were officeholders of the Society.
The letter asks if the Royal Manchester Institution would be willing to let them use a room for their monthly meetings. According to Cornelius P Darcy, in his book The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Lancashire, 1760-1860 (MUP, 1976): “In order to encourage a greater interest in problems of art and architecture, the Manchester Architectural Society sponsored a series of conversazioni”, evenings at which prominent artist and architects would exhibit their works to municipal leaders to give them an idea of what was currently in fashion.
As Darcy states: “At these conversazioni, painters and architects had an opportunity to discuss with civic leaders problems of art and architecture and to review designs of proposed buildings for the community. In 1838 they examined designs submitted in competition for the Catholic Church, confident that ‘public examination is the most effectual mode of ensuring just decisions in competitions.’ Two years later, when the Society examined some twenty-five designs that were submitted for the new Independent College, ‘The general opinion was, so far at least as the first premium is concerned, the decision had been judicious’.”
The reference to the design for a Catholic Church is interesting because we know that in 1840 Thomas exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London “an interior view of a design for a Catholic church, Manchester”. It was one of several building designs from that period for which Thomas failed to win a commission. I have previously written about two other commissions – for the Athenaeum in Manchester and for a Unitarian Chapel in Upper Brook Street – in which Thomas lost out to the London architect Sir Charles Barry. It is likely that there was a lot of disquiet about the way in which commissions were awarded and this may explain Darcy’s comment about public examination being “the most effectual mode of ensuring just decisions in competitions.” It may have rankled even more with Thomas because in April 1838 he had been declared bankrupt, after one of his building projects was delayed. Even this, however, does not appear to have discouraged him from continuing to play an important role in this pioneering architects’ society.