A rare signed copy of Atkinson’s ‘Gothic Ornaments’

I have recently obtained a copy of Gothic Ornaments, the book Thomas Atkinson published in 1829 when he was working as an architect in London. This book contains no text, just very well executed lithographs of drawings of stonework from churches and Cathedrals across England. (In July 2016 I wrote about another copy of the book I had found that contained about half the original illustrations. You can find that article here).

One of the lithographs

Many of the lithographs were published in collaboration with another architect, Charles Atkinson (no relation) and both their names were on the original title page. However, Thomas and Charles appear to have parted company, as this version of the book, dated 1829, has a different title page and only bears the name of Thomas Atkinson, as the sole author. It contains 45 of the 48 plates that made up the original. The plates were issued on a monthly basis, two at a time, so that buyers could stagger the cost of purchase.

Gothic-Title page
Title page showing Atkinson’s name

What is also interesting is that this edition of the book contains a dedication written in Atkinson’s clearly identifiable handwriting. It says “To Mr John Wallis with the author’s sincere respects, 2nd May 1834.”

TWA dedication
Dedication to Mr John Wallis

I am not yet certain about the identify of John Wallis, but there is a possible candidate. There was a London publisher, bookseller and printmaker of this name, whose Royal Marine Library and reading room in Sidmouth, Devon, is commemmorated with a blue plaque. He was an associate of R Ackerman of The Strand and very active in the 1820s. He was also famous for publishing views of Sidmouth and the buildings in the area, some of which were in the neo-Gothic style championed by Atkinson.  Any further information would be gratefully received.

Thomas Atkinson’s diaries – audio file of my recent talk


If you would like to listen to a recording of the talk I gave recently at the Royal Geographical Society in London about the diaries of Thomas Atkinson, you can do so here.

Atkinson listed all the paintings and sketches he made on his travels

My purpose in this talk was to highlight some of the findings I have made in the last few years as I have transcribed Atkinson’s diaries. These diaries cover the years 1847 until 1853. Unlike either of Atkinson’s two books, the diaries make extensive reference to both Lucy Atkinson and also to his son Alatau, born in what is now south-eastern Kazakhstan in November 1848.

Atkinson’s diaries contain a list of all the letters he sent to Lucy before they married

They also contain descriptions of many incidents not mentioned in the books, including one occasion when Lucy was almost swept away in a fast torrent in the Altai Mountains. I have not been able to add the slides I used to illustrate the talk, but you should be able to understand most of the narrative. I hope to be able to publish the diary transcripts before long.

Many thanks to RGS Librarian Eugene Rae for organising this talk and also for taking the pictures of the diaries used to illustrate it. The pictures are under the copyright of the RGS.

Fossilised snails on the Steppes

William Bateson

Amongst the many less well-known explorers of the Central Asian steppelands, few were quite so intrepid as William Bateson, a Cambridge scientist who spent months alone in the late 1880s searching for fossilised snails in the many large lakes that can be found scattered across what is today northern Kazakhstan.

I recently took the opportunity to read through Bateson’s diaries, held by Cambridge University Library, and was delighted to find that Bateson was an inveterate note-taker – and photographer. The University Library has now published a short article I have written about Bateson and his importance to the history of Central Asian exploration. You can find the article here.

Bateson Map002 (2)
Map showing areas in which Bateson travelled and collected specimens

Transcribing the Atkinson Diaries – RGS talk

On Monday 13th May I will be giving a talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London on my work transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries. “Be Inspired – Transcribing the Atkinson Diaries” will take place at RGS headquarters at 1 Kensington Gore, SW7 2AR and starts at 14.30. Having spent the last couple of years travelling regularly to the RGS to work on these remarkable diaries, I will have a lot of fascinating information to share. Atkinson’s diaries cast new light on his relationship with his wife Lucy and provide details of their travels that cannot be found in their books. Click on the link above to book a ticket.

Good turnout for Hong Kong meeting


A great turnout for the meeting organised by the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Geographical Society on Tuesday. About 80 people attended the talk, which was partly on the many unknown and obscure travellers that will feature in my forthcoming book about the exploration of the steppe.

For the second part of the talk I was on more familiar territory; it concentrated on the recent expeditions I have organised in the footsteps of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Buryatia and Eastern Kazakhstan. Thanks are due to RGS-HK director Rupert McCowan for organising this meeting (and another, the following night, about my work as a reporter in Fleet Street) and to his staff for making the whole thing go so smoothly.


A talk at the RGS in Hong Kong

For those of you in Hong Kong – or nearby – I will be speaking at an event on Tuesday evening (9th April, starts at 19.30) organised by the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society. My speech is entitled ‘The Steppes of Central Asia: Rediscovering the History of Central Asian Exploration‘ and will be held at Hill Dickinson, Suite 3205 Tower Two, Lippo Centre, 89 Queensway, Admiralty. Further details can be found here.

The eagle hunters of Central Asia

Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveller, was probably one of the first Westerners to describe hunting with eagles, as practised to this day by the Kazakhs and other Central Asian people. In Book 2, ch.18 of his Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian he describes seeing eagles at the court of Kublai Khan in Karakorum in present-day Mongolia:
There are also a great number of eagles, all broken to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats and they do catch them in great numbers. But those specially that are trained in wolf-catching are very large and powerful birds and no wolf is able to get away from them.”

Sir Henry Yule’s edition of the book, published by John Murray in 1874, also includes an illustration of eagle hunting. On coming across this for the first time recently I was surprised to see that it was in fact a woodcut taken from Thomas Atkinson’s book, Oriental and Western Siberia. Atkinson wrote extensively about eagle hunting, providing one of the earliest modern-day accounts of this remarkable phenomenon.

26-bearcoote and deer
Atkinson’s woodcut of a hunting eagle attacking a deer

In a footnote commenting on Marco Polo’s observation, Sir Henry writes: “In Eastern Turkestan and among the Kirghiz (Kazakhs-ed) to this day, eagles termed Barkut (now well known to be the Golden Eagle) are tamed and trained to fly at wolves, foxes, deer, wild goats, etc. A Kirghiz will give a good horse for an eagle in which he recognises capacity for training. Mr Atkinson gives vivid descriptions and illustrations of this eagle (which he calls ‘Bear coote’), attacking both deer and wolves. He represents the bird as striking one claw into the neck and the other into the back of its large prey, and then tearing out the liver with its beak.

A modern-day Kazakh with his Golden Eagle

At least Sir Henry acknowledged Atkinson’s drawing. Other writers at that time shamelessly plundered his artwork and used it without acknowledgement.