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.

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