Thomas Atkinson’s remarkable drawing gadget

I spent the day yesterday in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries, something which has absorbed a lot of my time in the last couple of years. The five diaries, which span the years 1847-53, are mostly written in pencil. Atkinson’s neat handwriting is not too difficult to read, although often he writes in tiny lettering that requires the use of a magnifying glass.

After much time and effort I am now nearing the end of this enormous task and hope before long to publish the diaries in book form. They are full of surprises and remarkable stories and unlike Atkinson’s books, clearly ordered in terms of places and dates.

Most recently I have been working on the diary for 1849, during the summer of which Thomas and Lucy and their baby, Alatau, made the return journey from Kapal in what was then Chinese Tartary (and is now Eastern Kazakhstan), to Barnaul in southern Siberia. I won’t go into too much detail about the narrative, but I want to draw your attention to something that I have never before seen mentioned in any writing about the Atkinsons.

I am referring to a paragraph from the diary entry for Tuesday 16th August 1849. At this point, the Atkinsons had left the Djungar Alatau Mountains and had passed by the western edge of Lake Ala Kool on their way north into the Tarbagatai Mountains. Somewhere here they met up with Sultan Iamantuck and his family, who showed considerable kindness to the Atkinsons.

Thomas decided that he would create a portrait of the Sultan and his family. He describes the scene in his diary thus: “We had a visit from the Sultan early, but this being a fast he would not take breakfast. He had brought Lucy a present of some Chinese silk for a kalat (silk robe-ed). I desired our Cossack to say I wished to sketch him and would go to his yourt shortly. On arriving there I found him surrounded by many Kazakhs. He received me with great politeness. All seemed greatly interested in what I was doing and looked at my camera with great surprise. Having sketched the Sultan, I then sketched his daughter, a very pretty girl of 17 years old. She was busy making the ornaments for a yourt. I also sketched the son, a fine youth of 22 years old.”

What struck me about this paragraph is, I think, obvious. It is Thomas’ mention of a ‘camera’. Bearing in mind that this was 1849, we are talking about the earliest days of photography. Could it be possible that Atkinson had taken a photographic camera with him on this journey? If so, why had he never mentioned it before and why has no-one ever seen any photographs – probably Daguerreotypes, which were invented in 1839 – of his travels?

The answer was provided to me by the excellent staff of the RGS library, who were able to point out that Atkinson was probably referring to a camera lucida, which is an optical device made up of a mirror and lenses that is used as a drawing aid by artists. Patented in 1806, it superimposes the subject being viewed onto the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both the scene in front of him and the drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure.

A typical camera lucida

The fact that Atkinson used such a device raises some fascinating issues. First, we can now be sure that at least some of his portraits of Kazakh nomads were pretty accurate, as the camera lucida allows faithful picture to be drawn. Second, can we also assume that he used the device for some of his landscapes as well?

And here is a woodcut of Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck and his children, as published in his book, Oriental and Western Siberia:

29-Sultan Iamantuck and family
Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck

Sadly, the original drawings that Atkinson brought back with him from Siberia and Central Asia have long since disappeared. What a pity!

Russian university course on the Atkinsons

Following on from my previous blogpost, my good friend Natalya Volkova from Barnaul in southern Siberia has just sent me the outline for a university course at Gorno-Altaisk State University called Siberia in Letters of an English Lady: Lucy Atkinson. The course is a special English course on the History and Literature of Gorny Altai and you can find a copy of it here: Teaching the Atkinsons-Gorno-Altaisk.

Title page to the Gorno-Altaisk State University course on the Atkinsons

The course outline ends with an essay (in Russian) from Tatyana P Shastina on the place of the Russian Altai in the literature of the Russian Empire. Overall, it is a very impressive and fascinating course. What a pity the Atkinsons are not studied in such detail in their homeland!

A typical page from the course

Understanding Lucy Atkinson from a Russian perspective

Lucy Atkinson’s writings, contained in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants, (John Murray, London, 1863) are increasingly of interest in Russia. Her sharp observations and witty comments, added to the fact that her travels were so extraordinary for a woman at that time – provide an interesting insight into mid-nineteenth century Siberia. Three years ago, Natalya Volkova published a translation of some of Lucy’s writings in Barnaul in southern Siberia and these have now caught the eye of two academics at nearby Gorno-Altaisk State University, in the capital of the Altai Republic.

Dr Maria Ostanina and Dr Tatyana Shastina have written ‘An English Lady in the “Wild Space” of Siberia (based on Mrs. L. Atkinson’s Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants)’, Studia Litterarum, 2018, vol. 3, no 3, pp. 64–81. (In Russ.) DOI: 10.22455/2500-4247-2018-3-3-64-81. You can find a copy here.

I cannot give a full critique of the paper, as I don’t read Russian well enough, but with the aid of Google Translate I have been able to make some sense of the argument, which is about the way outsiders perceive the ‘wildness’ of Siberia. An interesting topic, which would perhaps be even more so were the authors to compare the attitudes of foreigners about Siberia to those of Russians themselves.

Locating the grave of Rebekah Atkinson

Another little mystery in the Thomas Atkinson saga has been resolved – the whereabouts of the grave of his first wife, Rebekah.

Thomas married Rebekah on 1 April 1819 in Halifax, where he was probably working in a local quarry. Rebekah, born in 1792, was six or seven years older than Thomas – who was 20 – and she was already pregnant with their first child Martha, born in November the same year. Although we don’t know the circumstances which led to the end of the marriage, we know that it probably broke down in the late 1830s or early 1840s, when the couple were living in Manchester.

The clues to their separation are few and far between. We know from the 1841 Census that at that time Thomas, together with his youngest daughter Emma, was living in Chapel Lane, a poor neighbourhood of Chorlton cum Hardy, then a rural village with around 700 inhabitants about four miles south of Manchester, where most people were employed on farms or in market gardening. Also living in the house was Alice Booth, 30, described as a family servant.

Thomas and Rebekah’s other daughter, Martha, had married Manchester solicitor James Wheeler in July the previous year in the local parish church and was also living nearby. The Atkinsons’ only son, John (b.1823), must have left home already, although I cannot find him anywhere in the 1841 Census.

Rebekah (sometimes spelled Rebecca) may have been living alone in nearby Chorlton on Medlock. There is a ‘Mrs Atkinson’ listed in Crawshaw Street and described as a washerwoman, but the details are hard to confirm because, as the census-taker noted in the margin, “house locked up and not back until Wednesday”. Most of the neighbours were cotton weavers. It is hard to believe that Rebekah would have been forced to take in washing, but the fact she was not present may mean this information was incorrect. The fact her son John cannot be found on the Census may mean that he was living elsewhere with his mother.

A decade later, at the time of the 1851 Census, Thomas was already long gone, having arrived in St Petersburg in July 1846. Even before that, it is likely he was living in Hamburg for several years, along with his son John. There is also some evidence that he travelled by sea to India in the early 1840s. In February 1848 he married Lucy Finley in Moscow.

Rebekah was noted in the 1851 Census as a visitor to No 5 Beaufort Street in Chelsea, along with another woman, Mary Ann Grouinett (possibly Groinett), who had come from Cheltenham. The head of household was Mrs Mary Anne Palmer, who lived there with her two daughters and her son. Whatever the arrangements at that time, Rebekah was to stay at the house for the rest of her life.

In 1861 – by which time Thomas, Lucy and Alatau were back from Russia and living in West London – the Census shows she is still in Beaufort Street with Mrs Palmer and her two spinster daughters and Mary Ann Grouinett. All are described as receiving an annuity. By 1871 Mrs Palmer is described as a boarding house keeper and Rebekah as an annuitant. Mary Ann Grouinett is also still there. The two daughters have gone and there are now more boarders.

Rebekah died at Beaufort Street on 7th May 1872, by which time she would have been 80, although described as 77 on the death certificate, which described her as “Widow of Thomas Witlam Atkinson, Architect”. A nurse, Jane Day, of nearby Cheyne Row West, was present at her death.

After searching for several years, Sally Hayles has now found Rebekah’s final resting place. In fact, she was interred in Highgate Cemetery in Hampstead, one of seven huge private cemeteries established by an Act of Parliament in the mid-1800s to relieve the pressure for burial plots in central London, which had run out of space. It was opened in 1839 and soon became a favoured place for London’s middle classes to be buried.

Rebekah grave marker2
Map showing the location of Rebekah’s grave at Highgate

The plot was purchased by her son-in-law James Wheeler, who paid 15/- for the privilege. There is no headstone or memorial associated with the plot. At the time of Rebekah’s death the Wheelers were living not far away in a very grand house in Cumberland Place, just off Marble Arch in Central London, together with six servants, including a butler and a footman. They are buried together in St Michael and All Angels Church in Cuxton, near Rochester, Kent – not far from Thomas, who is buried in Lower Walmer.

Sally Hayles had also previously located Lucy Atkinson’s grave. She died of bronchitis on 13 November 1893 in a house in Mecklenburg Square, close to Kings Cross in London and is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery (also known as Bow Cemetery) in Mile End. This is close to where she was brought up near the East London docks. An inscription on the gravestone – now unreadable – originally read:

Sacred to the memory of

Lucy Sherrard Atkinson

Widow of

Thomas William Atkinson, FRGS, FGS

Born April 16th 1819

Died November 3rd 1893

“We have loved thee with an everlasting love,

therefore to devine kindness were drawn thee.”

Thomas and Lucy’s son, Alatau, paid a total of 10 guineas for the plot, although he was living in Hawaii and did not attend the funeral. Presumably he also chose the quote, which is adapted from a line in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, although it does not follow the King James translation. The dates are slightly wrong, and Thomas’ middle name is wrong, which suggests it was carved by someone who was not given clear instructions. Close by in the same cemetery is the grave of Benjamin Coulson Robinson, in whose house Lucy lived for several years and to whom she was related. Benjamin’s wife Hannah was one of the witnesses to Lucy’s will.

Lucy gravestone
Lucy’s gravestone – now unreadable.