I have recently obtained a copy of this wonderful aquatint, published in January 1832 and depicting a ‘South-West view of St Nicholas Church in Lower Tooting, Surrey‘, one of Thomas Atkinson’s first substantial architectural commissions.
The dedication beneath the picture states that the church was designed by Thomas Witlam Atkinson at a cost of £4619 and that it can accommodate 1083 persons. Like many of his other church buildings, it was a Commissioners’ church of stock brick, designed to provide a place of worship for the growing urban populations of the early nineteenth century.
The etching is actually dedicated to the Reverend John Ravenhill, the rector of the old church on the site. Sadly, the 82-year-old Dr Ravenhill died suddenly of apoplexy within two hours of the church being consecrated on 14th February 1833, an event recorded on a plaque inside the church.
The picture itself was engraved from Atkinson’s original by Charles Rosenberg, a well-known engraver who specialised in London genre scenes in the 1830s and later became known as an engraver of maritime scenes. It is tempting to think that the woman and three children on the left of the picture are Atkinson’s first wife, Rebecca, and his three children, Martha, John and Emma.
The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, etc for 14 April 1832 was full of praise, both for the building and the aquatint: “A simple but pleasing ecclesiastical edifice, which does much credit to the taste of Mr Atkinson, the architect. The plate is beautifully engraved by Mr Rosenberg: we never saw an aquatinta ground of greater tenderness and flatness.”
The church, now Grade II-listed, still stands in Tooting, where it is a well-known landmark, often illustrated on postcards. Today it refers to itself as “a church in the Conservative, Evangelical tradition”.
Thomas Atkinson produced etchings of a number of his buildings, probably to give to potential clients to illustrate his work. In this case, from the dedication beneath the picture, it seems likely that copies were given to the patrons of the church and prominent members of the congregation.
During the summer of 1851 as Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, together with their young son, Alatau, rode through the Eastern Sayan Mountains in Siberia, Thomas made more than 90 sketches of the beautiful landscapes he saw. They are all neatly listed in his diary for that year, along with the date each sketch was made.
Sadly, today there is no trace of these or any of the more than 500 sketches he made during his travels in Siberia and Central Asia. Of the 90 or so watercolour paintings Atkinson completed, I know the present whereabouts of less than 40, and only two or three of these show scenes from Siberia. Some of the missing pictures may have been destroyed in a house fire at the Hawaiian home of Thomas’ grandson, ‘Jack’ Atkinson, but otherwise they are all presumably hidden away in someone’s bottom drawer or tucked away on a long-forgotten library shelf.
The loss of these pictures is certainly a tragedy, not just because they are Atkinson’s pictures, but because images of these very remote regions from the middle of the nineteenth century, before the popularisation of the camera, are extremely rare. Until recently I believed that no-one else was regularly painting such landscapes in Siberia at this time.
Then, prompted to look by my good friend Vladimir Chernikov, I came across an extraordinary collection of paintings and images held in Paris at the Musée des arts et métiers. If you follow this blog you will already know about Monsieur Jean-Pierre Alibert, the prospector and adventurer who discovered a graphite mine in the Eastern Sayan Mountains. As previously mentioned, Thomas and Lucy stayed with M. Alibert at his mine on the Batagol Mountain in July 1851 while they were on their way to the Jombolok Volcano Field.
On his return to Europe in the early 1860s M Alibert donated an exquisite album of 61 guache paintings of Siberia to the museum. The album’s binding is itself stunning, illustrated with two vignettes and finely guilded. Some of the paintings, which are all signed by Carl Wolff, appear to be based on early daguerreotype photographs taken by Alibert himself, who was an early adopter of what was then a very new technology. Others, based on Alibert’s drawings, show scenes from the years M. Alibert spent prospecting and travelling throughout Siberia.
So, even if we do not have Thomas Atkinson’s sketches from the Eastern Sayan, within Alibert’s album, we do have a group of about 15 paintings of the area that are almost contemporary with Thomas and Lucy’s visit. After much negotiation I have been given permission by the museum to present some of these images here on my blog. So readers will forgive me if I run them here, together with a few words of commentary.
The first scene, dated 16 September 1847, shows local Soyots and Russians celebrating after discovering pure graphite in the workings at the summit of Batagol Mountain.
The second, dated 18 March 1849, show a caravan bringing provisions to the mine as it passed along the frozen Irkout river near the Khanginsky Guard Post, close to the border with China.
The third, dated 20th March 1849, shows a difficult passage for horses and sledges on the frozen River Irkout.
The fourth, also in winter, shows a view of the glaciers between Russia and China, close to the Narinkoroisky Guard Post.
The fifth shows a view of Lake Gargan, source of the River Irkout. We passed this point during our expedition this summer. Alibert can be seen sketching in the foreground.
The sixth shows the neat, well-ordered buildings around the graphite mine at Batagol.
The seventh shows the well-constructed farm and outbuildings erected by Alibert in the cleared forest land in the valley below the mine. This is where the Atkinsons would have lodged during their stay with Alibert.
The eighth shows a view of the farm (in the distance) in the valley at the base of Batagol, looking towards the north.
The ninth shows a view of the farm and valley, looking towards the south.
The tenth shows farm animals and, on the left, the road built by Alibert that led up the Batagol mountain to the mine.
As I mentioned, this is just a small selection of these remarkable paintings. You can see more by searching for Alibert in the museum’s image bank, which you can find here. Until the Atkinson sketches turn up one day, these are the closest we will get to seeing things as the Atkinsons did in the summer of 1851. Once again, my thanks to the Musée des arts et métiers for giving me permission to reproduce these pictures.
In May I wrote about the fact that the explorer Samuel Turner had claimed to be the first person to climb in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. His book Siberia: a record of Travel, climbing and Exploration (1905) contains breathless accounts of his exploits in the region. However, Thomas Atkinson was there more than 50 years before him, having made two attempts to climb the tallest peak, Mount Belukha. Not surprisingly, without the benefit of modern climbing equipment, crampons, ropes, etc, Atkinson and his companions were turned back by the atrocious weather conditions.
I thought I was correcting an historical injustice and that no-one had spoken up for Atkinson when Turner’s book was published. I am therefore very grateful to Sally Hayles, who has just sent me a link to a letter published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1906. The letter was written by William Graham of Edinburgh, who states that Atkinson “visited and climbed to the foot of one of the twin peaks of Bieloukha, the Belukha of Mr Turner, and gives a graphic account of its dangers and of the storm which drove him downwards with his two Kalmuck companions. The whole Altai region was explored by Atkinson at that time and his descriptions convey vividly to the imagination the grandeur in form and colour of its scenery.”
How delightful to find that not everyone had forgotten Atkinson’s achievements.
The Atkinsons went to remarkable lengths to make sure they could always travel with their child, Alatau, even in the most remote of places. During their journey to the Eastern Sayan Mountains and the Jombolok Volcano field in the summer of 1851 the two-year-old Alatau had been ill when they started off and after a few weeks travelling had not improved. Eventually they had to get him to a doctor at one of the goldmines scattered across the vast territory. After that he improved.
This week, while transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diary for 1851 in the library of the Royal Geographical Society, I came across his accounts for this journey. The couple spent a total of about 170 roubles, including two roubles for the doctor at the goldmine. Listed separately is “Reindeer for Alatau, including saddle” which cost the couple 21 roubles – by far, the largest single item of expenditure.
Where did they manage to find reindeer? The answer is intriguing. As they made there way from one Cossack frontier post to another, they began to come across people who were different to the Buriats they had come across regularly ever since leaving Irkutsk. These were Soyots, a reindeer-herding Turkic people closely related to the Tofalars of Irkutsk region, the Tozhu Tuvans in the nearby republic of Tuva and also the Dukha people of Hovsgol Province, just to the south of the Sayan Mountains – all of whom herd reindeer. You can read more about the Soyots here. Today they number about 3,500, many of whom live in the small town of Orlik. Atkinson notes in his diary that he paid one Soyot to guide him and his Cossacks across a particularly remote mountain.
It must have been from one of these groups of Soyots – soyot means swan in Turkic – that the Atkinsons decided to buy some reindeer. Lucy referred to them as Samoyeds, of which they are a sub-branch. As she noted in her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863):
“We had some difficulty with Alatau over the morass, so resolved to invest a little money in the purchase of a pair of reindeer from a Samoiyede family, the only one said to be existing in these regions. They live in tents like the Tartars, conical and covered with skin; their dress also consists of skins. However, we found it a useless investment. The saddle was continually getting twisted, and I learned from our men that it required great tact for even a grown person to sit comfortably. So after the first day’s riding, we were obliged to abandon the use of them, and seat the boy on a horse, where he rode very comfortably. The delays in arranging his saddle on the reindeer impeded our progress greatly. He was obliged to be strapped on his horse; and it was rather fatiguing for him to be seated so many hours as he sometimes was. When sleep overtook him, we were obliged to carry him, which we did in turns.”
So despite the large expenditure, the investment was not particularly successful. Worse was to come, as noted by Thomas on 21 July 1851 in his diary: “One of our reindeer fell ill on the road. This delayed us very much and caused us to remain the night at Tabitteiskaia, 36 versts from Koultouck.”
Thomas Atkinson’s disappearance from England in the 1840s was so sudden and unannounced and there was so little news about him that some of his peers clearly thought he had died abroad. I have located an entry for Atkinson in the The Dictionary of Architecture, issued by the Architectural Publication Society, the first volume of which appeared in 1853. At this time, he was travelling with Lucy and Alatau from Barnaul in Western Siberia back to St Petersburg.
The Dictionary entry, while short, is complimentary to Atkinson:
“In 1841 he was erecting some villas in the Italian style in the neighbourhood of Cheadle, and had previously enriched the suburbs of Manchester with some of its best buildings. The Church of S. Luke at Cheetham Hill, 1840, and that at Openshaw, 1840, both near that city, were from his designs. In 1842 he exhibited drawings of the palace at Moorshedabad, designed by Major-General MacLeod, a fine model of which is in Hampton Court palace.”
However, the final line shows just how comprehensively Atkinson had disappeared: “On leaving Manchester he went to Hamburgh, and thence to S. Petersburgh, in which country it is presumed that he died.” In fact, he did not die until 1861, three years after he returned to England from Russia.
This was not the only occasion on which Atkinson was presumed dead. At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society held on 28 February 1859 there was a discussion about the fate of the German explorer, Adolf von Schlagintweit, who had disappeared while crossing from India into Tibet and was presumed dead. Atkinson took part in the discussion, counselling caution in presuming the German dead and telling the audience about a previous occasion on which he himself had been reported missing – he was referring to his and Lucy’s journey to Semirechye in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan in 1848-9:
“While I was absent I was lost for near eighteen months, and my friends in Siberia gave me up for dead. The gentleman with whom I had left what little property I had there, was about to make application to our minister in St. Petersburg, to know how it was to be disposed of. Fortunately, I returned and claimed it; and so, I think, Schlagintweit may turn up yet.”
Sadly, Schlagintweit was already dead, having been beheaded by Wali Khan, the emir of Kashgar, in August 1857 on suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. His fate was not discovered until Chokan Valikhanov, the Kazakh/Russian traveller and ethnologist, visited Kashgar disguised as a merchant in 1859. He was able to return to Russia with Schlagintweit’s head, which was sent to his family for burial. The return of the head eventually provided a plot element in Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful novel, The Man who would be King.
St Luke’s Church in Cheetham Hill, Manchester – now, sadly, mostly demolished – has always been regarded as one of Thomas Atkinson’s best church designs. I have just located a glowing appraisal of the church, written by architect Frank Taylor Bellhouse and published in 1841 by The Civil Engineer and Architects Journal that completely justifies this description.
Like so many of Atkinson’s other ecclesiastical buildings, it was what is referred to as a Commissioner’s Church, completed in 1839 with money received from the French as reparations for the Napoleonic Wars and designed to accommodate the growing number of worshippers to be found in the rapidly expanding industrial towns of the north. It was built of ashlar (finely worked masonry) in the Gothic Perpendicular style that Atkinson helped to popularise and originally it could accommodate a congregation of more than 1500.
Bellhouse, who is known to have designed parts of the Manchester New Workhouse and who was a member of the Ecclesiological Society, is fulsome in his praise of Atkinson’s building. “I consider the design and execution of the edifice alluded to be of such high excellence, that it is only doing a bare act of justice to the architect to whose genius we are indebted for this beautiful work of art, and also to the admirers of modern ecclesiastical architecture, to give a greater publicity to it than it has yet received”, he writes, adding, “Not having observed anything more than a casual notice of this edifice in your publication, I think a few descriptive remarks, even from an incompetent person, if given in sincerity, and with an eye to the advantage and improvement of the profession, would not be misapplied.”
Bellhouse goes on to give a detailed description of the new church, pointing out that it cost around £14,000 to build and also noting that it contained an organ designed by the well-known company of William Hill and Sons of London – on which the composer Mendelsohn is known to have performed during a visit to the city in April 1847. You can read a review of that concert here.
Most of the church was demolished in the late 1980s after it ‘fell into disuse’. Today only the church tower – minus its spire – remains, although it is Grade II listed. We can only imagine the interior, as described by Bellhouse:
“I am happy in being able to state that the finishing and painting of this beautiful church was intrusted to the care of Mr. Atkinson, who seems to have spared no pains or trouble in fulfilling the arduous task imposed on him. The whole of the walls are tinted of a warm stone colour, the mouldings left white, and the most prominent members of them gilt, which gives it a most rich and mellow appearance. The ceiling over the nave is divided by the roof principals, and moulded ribs into square compartments, and these again painted in imitation of oak tracery and panels. The pews are painted to imitate grained oak, and lined with crimson moreen.”