Walter Spencer Stanhope and the Society of Dilettanti

I have written previously about Cannon Hall, the childhood home in Cawthorne, Yorkshire, of Thomas Atkinson. Owned by the wealthy Spencer Stanhope family, Thomas’ father was head mason on the estate. We know that Thomas himself was supported by the Spencer Stanhopes during his career, particularly by Charles, a younger son of the family.

Walter Spencer Stanhope2
Early portrait of Walter Spencer Stanhope

Thomas showed his appreciation for the family during the 1820s, when following the death of family patriarch Walter Spencer Stanhope (1749-1822), he was commissioned to create a tomb for the local church in Cawthorne. Thomas completed the commission with much flair in 1829, creating a mediaeval design that reflected his growing interest in the neo-Gothic style.

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

But until now little has been written about Walter himself. New evidence suggests he was at the centre of intellectual life in the eighteenth century and possibly raises some interesting questions over Thomas’ paternity.

Walter studied at University College, Oxford and soon after, aged 26, became MP for Carlisle. He was to remain an MP for various constituences until 1812, forming close relationships with both Pitt the Younger and with the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, both of whom regularly stayed at Cannon Hall.

But what has been missed or ignored until now – and many thanks to Helen Bonney for pointing this out – is Walter’s membership of that most scandalous grouping, the Society of Dilettanti.  The Society was founded in about 1735 by a group of men who had visited Italy on the Grand Tour and wanted to continue to share and build on their experiences in a light-hearted manner. In 1743 Horace Walpole criticised the Society, saying that it was “a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy”.

The name Dilettanti comes from the Latin ‘dilettare‘, to take delight in, and the Society adopted a policy of ‘seria ludo‘ – looking at serious subjects in a light-hearted manner.

The Society’s members, mostly “young men of rank and fashion”, had to be personally known to an existing member and were elected by secret ballot. They met regularly at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, where their discussions regularly included the arts of classical antiquity – and sometimes more erotic subjects. The Society raised money to encourage the study of Greek and Roman art and backed some of the earliest archaeological expeditions to the Mediterranean.

Members included such people as Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, later 2nd Duke of Dorset; the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, later Lord le Despencer and proprietor of the Hellfire Club; Simon Harcourt, Viscount and later Earl Harcourt; Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne; William Ponsonby, later Viscount Duncannon and Earl of Bessborough; Richard Grenville, Earl Temple; and Sewallis Shirley, Comptroller of Queen Charlotte’s household.

It also included such notables as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles James Fox, George Selwyn, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Sir Joseph Banks, Charles Francis Greville, Sir William Hamilton and the great actor, David Garrick.

In 1769 the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds painted two group portraits of members of the Society of Dilettanti. Now in a private collection, the portraits are rightly famous, not least for their many visual jokes at the expense of the sitters. The first of these portraits contains likenesses of seven men:  from left to right: Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, John Taylor, Stephen Payne-Gallway, Sir William Hamilton, Richard Thompson, Walter Spencer Stanhope and John Lewin Smyth.

Members of the Society of Dilettanti by Reynolds. Walter is top right.

What is the significance of Walter’s membership of this organisation and his portrayal by Reynolds? First, it may well explain why his eldest son John took himself off to Greece in 1812 to study archaeology and to carry out some of the first scientific measurements of classical ruins. John Spencer Stanhope published several books on his interest in classical architecture.

More intriguingly, perhaps it adds weight to various claims concerning Thomas Atkinson’s paternity. Thomas’ mother was Martha Witlam, a maid at Cannon Hall. But there have always been suggestions that perhaps Thomas was an illegitimate son of Walter Spencer Stanhope. Walter had 15 children by his own long-suffering wife, but it would not have been unheard of for a senior estate worker such as Thomas’ widower father William to be asked to bring up a child fathered by someone in the ‘big house’. There is little evidence in this particular case, other than the deep interest the Spencer Stanhopes’ took in Thomas’ welfare throughout his life and the encouragement offered to him.

Now that we know that Walter was also a member of the Society of Dilettanti, where bastard children would have been a feather in the cap to its members, perhaps it strengthens this argument.


A new portrait of Thomas Witlam Atkinson?

unknown artist; Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman

Could this unloved, rather forlorn oil painting be a portrait of Thomas Witlam Atkinson? There are a few circumstantial details that could connect it to the great traveller, but not enough to make a definite attribution.

If it turned out to be a portrait of Atkinson, it would be the only one that has emerged to date. There is, of course, a single photograph of him, taken when he was ill, towards the end of his life. There are also at least two of Atkinson’s own drawings of himself, which appear in his travel books, although these are illustrations, rather than portraits.

The only known photograph of Thomas Witlam Atkinson

This is what we know about the oil painting. It was first brought to my attention by Helen Bonney, who noticed it online in the collection of paintings at Cannon Hall, near Cawthorne, outside Barnsley and who, based on the clothing, dated the picture to the 1820s. In the catalogue it is described as ‘Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman‘. It is not presently on display.

Cannon Hall is the ancestral seat of the Spencer-Stanhope family. Thomas Atkinson was brought up on the estate, where his father William was the head stonemason. We know from various sources that Charles Spencer-Stanhope in particular, supported and encouraged Thomas from an early age and guided him towards a career as an architect.

Cannon Hall-NBF
Cannon Hall, ancestral home of the Spencer-Stanhope family

Helen Bonney drew the picture to my attention earlier this year and since then Sally Hayles has visited the museum several times, where she has had the opportunity to examine it out of the frame and under UV light. Thanks are due to museum staffer Louise Wright in particular for being so helpful.

However, there is a problem with the picture. Its history is incomplete. Barnsley Council, which bought Cannon Hall in the 1950s and now runs it as a museum, says its records do not show when or how the painting was acquired. It may have been in the Cannon Hall collection since it was painted in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, or it may have been bought much more recently, even after the collection became the property of Barnsley Council.

An expert who recently examined the unsigned painting out of its frame tells us that the frame is not original and that the nails holding it into the frame are only 20-30 years old. There is a blue chalked number on the back, but no-one can say what this means.

Second, the painting is in oils on wood, which probably rules out Atkinson himself as the artist. There is no record of Atkinson ever painting in oils. He preferred to use watercolours, even for his most substantial paintings – although his son John William Atkinson certainly did paint in oils. However, John would have been too young to have painted this picture in the 1820s.

That having been said, the painting bears more than a passing resemblance to the photograph of Atkinson, although the former would have been completed at least 30 years before the latter.

Third, the picture is not of great quality. The hands in particular are very basic and the folds in the clothing are poorly handled.

Is there another possible candidate for the artist? Well yes, possibly. Like Atkinson, Abel Hold (1815-1896) was a local man also supported by the Spencer-Stanhope family. His portraits of several Cannon Hall estate workers – including Elkanah Clegg, a woodman, and Jonas Beaumont, the estate carpenter – can be seen hanging at the Cawthorne Victoria Jubilee Museum, only a mile or so from Cannon Hall.

Two other portraits of Cannon Hall employees by Abel Hold

                    Hold, Abel, 1815-1896; Elkanah Clegg (1803-1872), Woodman for the Spencer Stanhope Family   

Could the ‘Unknown Gentleman‘ be an early picture by Hold? It is possible, but there is no way of knowing for sure. The other known portraits and paintings (mostly of game) by Hold are on canvas, which may rule him out. The dress of the sitter places it firmly in the 1820s, when Hold would have been a child. For now we will simply have to think of this as a mystery portrait that may possibly be the young Thomas Atkinson.

Kazakhstan Cultural Forum in London

Some of those attending the forum

I was in West London yesterday for the Forum of Kazakhstan Culture and Literature. As well as Ambassador Erlan Idrissov and head of the National Library Umitkhan Munalbaeva, the forum included contributions from a number of prominent Kazakh artists and writers. These included philosopher Dr Yesim Garifolla, film maker Rustem Abdrashev, poet and scientist Bakytzhyan Tobayakov, Professor Zhanat Aimuhambet and Professors Charles Melville and Firuza Melville. Gillian Brown, whose husband Steve Brown is a direct descendant of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, also gave a speech.

I gave a paper on the literary connections between Britain and Kazakhstan, exploring the works of travellers and writers over the last 300 years who have visited the Kazakh homelands in Central Asia. These included such early figures as John Castle, the Atkinsons, William Bateson, Samuel Turner, John W Wardell and several others. In such a short presentation I could not go into great detail, but you can find an outline of my speech here: Kazconf speech

Thomas Atkinson in Hamburg

What was Thomas Atkinson doing in the north German city of Hamburg in the 1840s? To date little information has come to light. We know that he went there following the Great Fire of Hamburg which devastated much of the old town in early May 1842, including the grand old church of St Nickolaikirche and around 1700 other buildings.

Peter Suhr-Great fire in Hamburg1842
Peter Suhr’s painting of the Great Hamburg Fire of 1842

Atkinson, according to the Dictionary of National Biography and several other sources, moved to this important maritime city to take advantage of the need for skilled architects and builders in the aftermath of the fire. Once there, he entered the competition to design a new church and although he was unsuccessful, clearly found plenty of work to keep him busy.

We also know that Thomas’ son John William Atkinson died in Hamburg on 3rd April 1846 aged only 22 and that Thomas left the city for good shortly afterwards, giving up his work as an architect and making his way to Berlin and then to St Petersburg, never to return. Some sources say he was encouraged to travel to St Petersburg following a chance meeting with Tsar Nicholas I in the city, although there is little evidence.

Other than these few scant details nothing much was known. However, new evidence recently unearthed by Marianne Simpson paints a far more detailed picture of Atkinson’s activities in the town and opens up several lines for future investigation.

Recently accessed German records show that Atkinson was living in Hamburg by early 1844, in a house at No 6 Bergstrasse, in the centre of the town, close to the important quays and literally just around the corner from St Nikolaikirche. In 1845 and 1846 the records show he was living just along the street at No 16 Bergstrasse, close to the grand church of St Petri.

Bergstrasse is in the centre of the map, close to the church of St Petri

At both addresses the other occupier is listed as the important music publishers, Schuberth & Co. At neither address is Atkinson’s son, John William, listed, which suggests either than he had only recently arrived to live with his father when he died or that he was a visitor.

Bergstrasse. Atkinson’s house was on the left.
The view down Bergstrasse today, with the church of St Petri at the end of the road

The earliest mention of Atkinson in the German press dates from August 1843, in an article in the Hamburger Nachrichten, which mentions an exhibition aimed at raising funds for rebuilding of St Nikolaikirche. The article mentions five of the exhibits, which include cork models of churches, some of the paintings saved from St Nikolaikirche, plans for the enlargement of the railway station, some plans for the new church – although not those designed by the great Victorian architect and exponent of the Neo-Gothic style, George Gilbert Scott, who eventually won the commission – and plans for the Alsterdamm in Hamburg by Atkinson.

The Alsterdamm, known since 1947 as the Ballindamm, is the main inner-city boulevard of Hamburg, built alongside the Elbe River, and similar to the Embankment in London. What precisely Atkinson proposed is not yet clear, nor if his plans were ever accepted. But undoubtedly something kept him in the city for more than two years.

Der Alsterdamm in Hamburg 1852
The Alsterdamm in Hamburg, pictured in 1852

As previously mentioned, the successful winner of the architectural competition to rebuild St Nikolaikirche was George Gilbert Scott, who built over 800 buildings, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Albert Memorial, the main building of Glasgow University, the Martyrs Memorial in St Giles, Oxford and many others.

I recently discovered that Scott wrote about his experiences in Hamburg in Personal and Professional Recollections, edited by his son Giles and published in 1879. Here he noted that late in 1844 he became aware of the competition to rebuild St Nikolaikirche. Having decided his entry should be in the form of a neo-Gothic building – a style that was already growing in popularity in England – he immediately set out on a two-month tour of Germany, France and Belgium to view as many Gothic buildings as possible. He submitted his entry three weeks after the closing date, but it was accepted and soon became the subject of huge interest. As he notes: “My design was to their apprehension far more German than those of any of the German architects.”

He goes on to expand his point: “Professor Semper, my most talented competitor, had grounded his design on that of the cathedral in Florence, and Heideloff, Lange and others had made more or less of failures, while an English architect of the name of Atkinson (the future Siberian explorer), then living at Hamburg, who had made a powerful effort, had failed of making his design German”.

It is likely that although Atkinson also submitted a Gothic design, it was not in the ‘Middle Pointed’ style promoted by Scott and praised by the judges in Hamburg. A total of 39 designs were submitted for the church, all anonymously. Initially Professor Gottfried Semper won the competition, but a pro-Gothic faction were able to overturn the decision and award the job to Scott.

We know that soon after Scott sent several of his best assistants from London to Hamburg to oversee the project. Did Atkinson work for them on the massive detail work needed for the new building? No doubt more information will soon emerge from the German archives. Either way, the failure to win the commission for St Nikolaikirche in early 1845 was undoubtedly a blow to Atkinson. The death of his son just over a year later, in April 1846, must have been a terrible blow and may have been the event that prompted him to give up his work as an architect and travel to Russia to work as an artist.

Wikipedia page for Alatau Atkinson

I am delighted to see that a Wikipedia page has now been opened for Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, to join those of his parents, Thomas and Lucy. The detail of the entries for Alatau is mostly accurate, although it still needs more information, particularly in relation to his achievements in education policy and his role in the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii by the United States.