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.

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