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!

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