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.