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.
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.
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.
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.
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.