N. American Dostoevsky Society joins the debate…

I am delighted to report that The Bloggers Karamazov, the blog of the North American Dostoevsky Society, has published my last two blog postings on the connection between the Atkinsons and the great Russian novelist. You can find the postings, together with an explanatory note, here.

I am sure that there are more connections to be unearthed – one reader has already raised the question of whether or not one of the characters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina may have been based on Thomas Atkinson. Who knows where this will lead?

Romanian writer Mihail Sadoveanu

The reference to Thomas in fiction is not so strange as you may think. In 1935 the Romanian writer Mihail Sadoveanu published The Nest of Invasions, a novel based on the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. He quotes extensively from Atkinson’s book Oriental and Western Siberia and had also clearly read Lucy’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes. His aim was to portray nomad society in a ‘golden age’ before contact with the west. As well as a novelist, Sadoveanu was also twice president of Romania.

It should also be noted that the cover of Sadoveanu’s book is based directly on The Maral’s Leap, one of Thomas Atkinson’s woodcuts:

Sadoveanu cover            23-The Maral's leap

The American writer, naturalist and philosopher Henry Thoreau also took extensive notes from Atkinson’s book, Oriental and Western Siberia, although I have not yet been able to research this in detail. All assistance greatly appreciated.

Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky Pt2

Following on from my previous posting on the possible connection between Thomas Atkinson and Fyodor Dostoevsky I have been able to do a bit more digging, with remarkable results. In his book The Kazakh Khanates between the Russian and Qing Empires, Japanese Scholar Jin Noda notes that the Russian official appointed as Commissary to Kopal in about 1848 – where the Atkinsons were also staying – was Baron A E Wrangel. This is Alexander Egorovich Wrangel, the same person who Dostoevsky met in Semipalatinsk.

Baron A E Wrangel
Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel

David Clay’s book The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing also mentions Baron A E Wrangel. Referring to Dostoevsky’s visit to Wiesbaden in 1863, when he famously lost all his money at the card tables, Clay says that the novelist wrote to “an old family friend” to ask for 100 thalers to help pay off his debts. That old friend was in fact Baron A E Wrangel, who by this time was Russia’s emissary to Denmark! I have also found references to other contacts between the two men.

Thus Dostoevsky was in fact a close friend of the man with whom the Atkinsons had spent nine months in Kopal in the winter of 1848-49. Knowing this, I have no hesitation in suggesting that the Atkinson mentioned in Dostoevsky’s marginalia is undoubtedly Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Was the great writer thinking about creating a character based on Atkinson? We may not yet be at the bottom of this story.

Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky

In 2014 a scrappy piece of paper covered with jottings by the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky caused a bit of a stir, due to various doodles in the margin.

The page contained notes that were later used by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons, first published in 1871. One of the doodles was of a man’s head – see the picture below – which most experts took to be a portrait of William Shakespeare. However, beneath the little portrait can just be made out (in Cyrillic) the name ‘Atkinson’. Nothing else connects to the name and there is no further explanation. Who was this Atkinson mentioned by the great writer?


Dostoevsky close
The name Atkinson can be made out just below the portrait.

According to scholars, it could only be one of two men; either Thomas Witlam Atkinson or the British art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-86). Which one was it?

First, let’s deal with the question of whether or not the portrait is ‘Atkinson’. All the experts seem to agree that it is too close to the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare to be anyone else. That being said, there is a very superficial resemblance to Thomas Atkinson, although it is extremely unlikely that Dostoevsky ever met him. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk in Western Siberia from 1851-54 and subsequently lived in Semipalatinsk – in what is now northern Kazakhstan – for a while after that, but there is no evidence from either man that they met.

Considering the name alone, let’s look at the case for Joseph Beavington Atkinson first. Dostoevsky expert Professor Nikolay Zakharov notes that in his diary Dostoevsky mentions an anonymous article called “Angliyskaya kniga o russkom isskustve i russkikh khudozhnikakh” (“An English Book about the Russian Art and Russian Artists”) which retells and includes excerpts from J. B. Atkinson’s book An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873). Zakharov assumes Dostoevsky would have been provoked by Atkinson’s claims in the book that “up to now, the Russian school of art has not developed new styles or new themes”.

However, the date of the Atkinson book is a little late, considering that Dostoevsky’s novel was published in 1871.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

So what about Thomas? As stated above, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia for several years and could certainly have heard about the odd English couple and their child roving around the Siberian and Central Asian steppes at that time.

We also know that when he was living in Semipalatinsk, from 1854-56, Dostoevsky became friendly with Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel (1833-1915), an admirer of his books. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk and the baron later wrote a book of reminiscences about his encounters with Dostoevsky.

Interestingly, in 1848-9 when Thomas and Lucy were living in Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan – and directly south of Semipalatinsk – they also knew a Baron Wrangel, who was the commanding officer of the small outpost. As Thomas notes in Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor: “The society among which I was thrown was of a mixed character. At the head of the civil department was a German baron, who had won glory in the Caucasus, where he had received a wound from a Circassian sabre, that nearly proved fatal. He was the Priestoff, or political agent, whose duties were with the Kirghis. He was a good soldier, had few scruples, and was a most amusing fellow, believing himself equal to Nesselrode in diplomacy. Were fiction and invention essential in the acquirements of a minister, I would back the Baron against the Count.”

Thomas does not name the Baron, but Lucy does – more than 30 times! She writes many amusing anecdotes about Baron Wrangel, who was clearly a good friend of her husband. She even describes the two men playing duets – Thomas on the flute and the baron on the guitar.

Was this the same Baron Wrangel? Without knowing the full name of the Baron known to the Atkinsons it is difficult to be sure. Thomas’ baron had been wounded in the Caucasus, so that might be a clue. The baron known to Dostoevsky was born in 1833, which might make him too young to have been the same person known to the Atkinsons. If not, he was probably a close relative.

However, there are even more possible connections. We know that Dostoevsky went to live in Barnaul after leaving Semipalatinsk. Again, the Atkinsons were well known there, having spent two winters in the town. It seems very unlikely that Dostoevsky did not hear something of them during the time he spent there.

So, although we cannot prove definitively that Dostoevsky was referring to Thomas Atkinson in his marginalia, the likelihood seems very high. Did he ever appear as a character in a Dostoevsky novel? That is up to you, dear readers, to find out.

A picture for the governor of Siberia

When Thomas and Lucy Atkinson arrived on horseback in Kapal* in Eastern Kazakhstan in the autumn of 1848, they had no intention of staying in this remote Cossack settlement on the borders of China. That much is clear from a letter Thomas wrote to Prince Pyotr Dmietrievich Gorchakov in November 1848 and which is part of the Dahlquist Collection in Hawaii.

Atkinson had met Gorchakov, who was governor-general of Western Siberia, at Omsk in March that year, at the beginning of his and Lucy’s travels into Siberia. At that meeting he promised the governor a large painting of the River Irtisch, which runs along the border between the Kazakh Steppes and the southern border of Western Siberia. Only now was he in a position to send the completed work. On 19th November 1848 he wrote to Gorchakov, his letter presumably enclosing a rolled-up copy of the promised picture. “I trust it may not be the less acceptable as being the first work ever painted in the town of Kapal, founded by yourself”, writes Thomas.

Prince Pyotr_Gorchakov
Prince Pyotr Gorchakov

Thomas tells Gorchakov that he arrived in Kapal on 22nd September 1848, “since which time I have taken 11 views on the River Kora and several others near Kopal.” He adds that his intention is to move from Kapal to the more established town of Ayagus, which lies around 300km to the north. From Ayagus he would return south to the Djungar Alatau mountains in the spring in order to continue his sketching. Thomas asks for permission to continue his journey as far south as the River Illi, as “I should then embrace in my sketches all the characteristic features of this great mountain chain and steppe”.

Atkinson’s letter to Prince Gorchakov

One reason for the decision to move north may have been the birth of his son, which had occurred a couple of weeks previously. As he tells the governor: “I must not forget to tell you that on 4th November Mrs Atkinson presented me with a son, the first and perhaps the only Englishman that will ever be born in Kapal. This circumstance detained us here three weeks longer still.”

In fact, continuing snow and a very harsh winter prevented Thomas, Lucy and the newborn Alatau from leaving Kapal until the following May. As far as I can determine Thomas was denied permission to visit the Illi valley, which at that time was barely under Russian control. The danger of capture (or worse) by Kirghiz tribesmen was very real and the Chinese border was very close.

As for the picture Thomas sent to Prince Gorchakov – not to mention the 11 views of the Kora River – to date there is no record of it. It does not appear to be in any of the major Russian museums, so for now its whereabouts remains a mystery.

*Kapal is a small town in the Zhetysu region of Kazakhstan, in the foothills of the Djungar Alatau mountains. In the summer of 2016 I took a group of ten Atkinson descendants to the town, where they unveiled a superb monument commemorating the birth there of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson on 4th November 1848.

An early architectural commission by Thomas Atkinson

I am grateful to Sally Hayles for ferreting out diary entries from 1830 logged by a member of the Spencer Stanhope family that shed further light on the early architectural career of Thomas Witlam Atkinson. The entries, from a diary compiled by the Reverend Charles Spencer Stanhope, relate to the construction of a tomb and show that the young architect was held in high esteem by the family on whose estate he had been raised.

Charles was the tenth child (of 15!) of Walter Spencer Stanhope, the incumbent at the Cannon Hall estate at Cawthorne, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. He was only four years older than Thomas and had a lifelong friendship with him and corresponded with him almost to his dying day. Throughout much of his life he kept a detailed diary, now held in the Barnsley Archives.

Walter Spencer Stanhope2
A young Walter Spencer Stanhope

Thomas had been born on the estate, where his father was the Spencer Stanhope’s senior mason and his mother a maid in the hall. There he spent his early years learning his trade alongside his father.

When it became clear that the young man had a talent for drawing, the Spencer Stanhopes encouraged him to refine his skills and to move on from mason to builder’s clerk of works and then to become an architect in his own right. According to Lady Elizabeth Stanhope in her book The Letter Bag of Lady Elizabeth Stanhope: “By and by, owing to the influence of John Stanhope and his brother Charles, who were greatly struck by his talent, Atkinson went first to Manchester and thence to London, where he set up as an architect and where his advance to fame was rapid.”

As early as 1825 John Spencer Stanhope had introduced the aspiring young architect to Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), the great sculptor whose statue of Achilles in Hyde Park and of William Pitt the Younger at Westminster are well known.

Charles Spencer Stanhope became vicar of Weaverham in Cheshire in 1839 and for 52 years was non-resident vicar of Cawthorne, which he visited regularly. That he was impressed by the up-and-coming young architect is shown by the fact the family commissioned Atkinson to design and construct a tomb for Walter Spencer Stanhope, following his death in 1821. The tomb was to be placed within All Saints Church in Cawthorne and was one of his earliest works.

At around this time Thomas also presented Charles Spencer Stanhope with a picture of the Barnby choir stalls at All Saints, inscribed as follows: “To the Reverend Charles Spencer Stanhope, an admirer of Antiquities. This plate is inscribed with sentiments of esteem by T.W. Atkinson.

Cawthorne Church
Atkinson’s etching of the Barnby choir stalls at Cawthorne (Private collection). Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb can be seen in the background.

Also located in the same churchyard are the ornate gravestone carved by Atkinson for his mother and a tablet dedicated to his father.

Designed in the Gothic style championed by Atkinson at this time in his life, the tomb for Walter Spencer Stanhope was, according to Hunter’s Deanery (vol 11,p237) “designed by Mr. Atkinson after the model of the tombs of the early Tudor reigns.” It was not until 1830 that the family finally gave the go-ahead for the tomb to be built.

Sir Walter Spencer Stanhope tomb
Atkinson’s design for Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb

We knew very little about this until Sally Hayles recently located Charles Spencer Stanhope’s diaries in the Barnsley Archives – to whom we are grateful for permission to quote, particularly to Paul Stebbing. It contains many references to Thomas Atkinson, particularly to his visit to Cawthorne in February 1830 to supervise the installation of the tomb.

Charles’ diary notes on 16th February 1830: “Atkinson has not arrived.” The following day he went with his older brother John – who had succeeded his father as the new owner of Cannon Hall – to inspect the tomb as designed by Atkinson. He notes that they stopped a local mason, Ibbotson, from proceeding with the work until Atkinson had arrived from London. Two days later Charles notes “Atkinson made his appearance in the evening.”
The following day Charles and Thomas called on the Reverend Small at All Saints in Cawthorne to talk to him about the exact position of the tomb and to unpack the stone tablets from which it was assembled and on one of which a dedication was carved.

Over the next week Charles records several long walks with Atkinson. One visit was to a salt mine in Cheshire. What they discussed is not recorded, but it is clear that the two men were close. By Friday 26th February Thomas was taking measurements in the Church and had also begun a drawing of one of the grand rooms at Cannon Hall.

CSS diary 1830-1
A page from Charles’ diary

The extent of Charles’ interest in and encouragement of Thomas can be gauged from the fact that the former records that he walked from Cawthorne to Doncaster – a distance of over 20 miles – to try and get subscribers for Thomas’ part-publication Gothic Ornaments Selected from the Different Cathedrals and Churches of England. The book, which was issued in 1829, was published in folio, ie with one or two plates published every week to subscribers.

On 1st March Charles records that Thomas was still busy taking measurements in the church. He was finished a few days later. Much later, the tomb was moved and today is partly obscured by being built into the wall of the church.

Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb today

Following his return from Siberia and Central Asia, Thomas Atkinson was to make a final return to Cawthorne in October 1860. There is not enough space here to describe that journey in full, but it is worth including the following anecdote from Lady Elizabeth Spencer Stanhope:

Walking in Cawthorne shortly after his arrival, Atkinson encountered one of the cronies of his youth. The man, who had passed his life in the same little trivial round in his native village, failed to grasp the gulf which now separated him from the man of European reputation, the great architect, the great author, the world-wide traveller and the acquaintance of an Emperor. Clapping his old comrade heartily on the back, this friend of a dead past hailed Atkinson with the approving, if somewhat tactless comment, “And soa, lad, you’ve cum back to lay your ould bones among ous”. Atkinson, it is said, failed to appreciate the familiarity of this typical Yorkshire welcome and did not again honour Cawthorne with his presence.”

A good story – if a little harsh. After all, within nine months of this visit Atkinson was dead.