Asian Affairs, the Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, has just published my article on Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. In this 7,000-word article, Thomas and Lucy Atkinson: Pioneering Explorers of the Steppe, I have made the case for a reassessment of the importance of their travels and their writings.
I argue that their extensive travels over the course of seven years – around 40,000 miles by horse, carriage, raft and sometimes on foot – shone a light on many areas of Central Asia and Siberia that had never been seen by Westerners before. The fact that they travelled as a family group, including their son Alatau, is probably unique in the annals of Western exploration. Thomas’ paintings of the landscapes through which they travelled, together with the portraits he made of nomadic Kazakhs, are a remarkable legacy, rightly treasured in the many museums in which they are held. And Lucy’s wonderful book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes, is one of the earliest genuine travel books every written by a woman.
For those of you who have a subscription to Asian Affairs, you can access the article here. Otherwise, you can read my unedited manuscript as submitted here: Article for Asian Affairs Journal: I would be delighted to hear any comments.
I have commented before on the fact that the title of Thomas Atkinson’s second travel book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor, published in 1860, seems odd in the light of its content, which is mostly about Central Asia, with only a small part about the Amoor – or Amur, as it is now known – most of which was taken from Richard Maak’s book on the River.
We know that Atkinson was prevented by the Russian authorities from travelling on the Amur River, probably due to concerns that he may pass on information that might be of use to the British Admiralty in the event of a war between the two countries. At that time, in the early 1850s, the Russians were in the process of seizing large chunks of Chinese territory along the Amur and had no wish for nosey British subjects to witness their activities. Atkinson had intended to travel from Irkutsk to the Pacific coast along the river, but this plan was blocked, despite his urgent appeals. In the end, he was only able to travel to the river’s headwaters in the Khingan Mountains in what is now northern Mongolia.
I have always thought that the title of this second book was decided upon by Atkinsons publishers, because the Amur was in the public consciousness at that time and they wanted to capitalise on this fact. This theory may be borne out by one of the documents in the Dahlquist Collection, held by Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist in Hawaii. One of the original documents is a draft outline for the title of the book. Clearly written in Atkinson’s own hand, it reads as follows:
Travels In the Great Deserts of Gobi and the Northern Regions Of China With adventures in the Chinese Penal Settlements; among the Escaped convicts And Mongols.
Also an account of Russia’s progress towards Pekin, Her Harbours in the Sea of Japan And Their influence on The Tea Trade,
At the top of the document, is the following inscription, written by Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son: “My father’s first draft of the title to his book”.
This would appear to confirm that the decision on what to call the book was more than likely made by Hurst & Blackett, his publishers. Unfortunately, we are never likely to know for sure, as the company’s archives were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
In its issue of 17 September 1881, the Barnsley Chronicle published the latest in its series of articles about prominent citizens of the Yorkshire town, setting out a detailed biography of Thomas Atkinson, who was born in the nearby village of Cawthorne. The article quotes extensively from correspondence sent by Thomas’ wife Lucy, and includes many fascinating details about the great explorer’s humble beginnings.
Generally, the article, which is unsigned, is very accurate and informative. But there is one section which is mistaken and perhaps here is the place to lay it to rest. It states:
“In addition to the son referred to above, who is now in Honolulu, Mr Atkinson left two daughters by a previous wife; one of whom we have been told, was many years ago engaged as a teacher of languages at Wentworth Castle. Miss Emma Wilsher Atkinson, one of these daughters, is not unknown in the literary world, having written ‘The Lives of the Queens of Prussia’ and ‘Extremes’, a novel in two volumes. The materials for the former work, which was published in 1858, she collected during her residence in Prussia; and it is dedicated to ‘a much-beloved invalid sister’. ‘Extremes’ is a novel written with a sober purpose and wound up with a moral…”
In fact, having looked into this in some detail, I can confirm that Emma Wilsher Atkinson was not related in any way to Thomas Witlam Atkinson. It is true that the latter had a son and two daughters through his first marriage to Rebecca (nee Mercer). The eldest daughter, born in 1819, was Martha, who went on to marry the very successful railway solicitor James Wheeler and eventually ended up living in a very grand house in Hyde Park Gardens in Central London.
His second daughter, Emma, was born in Pimlico in 1829. She appears never to have married and lived with her sister’s family until at least 1871. After that I have not been able to trace her. But she was never a writer and had no connection with the other Emma Atkinson.
Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s son, Alatau, certainly must have created an impression when he attended Rugby School in the 1860s. I have previously commented on a school song that used to be sung about him, but yesterday, whilst trawling through the British Newspaper archive, I came across the following, published in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo on 14th December 1891 – many years after he had left the school and settled in Hawaii:
“The name of a boy at Rugby School in 1875 was Alatau Tam Chiboulac Atkinson. It was understood that the poor lad was born in Armenia and was named after some mountains there.
But this even is not so bad as this instance. In St Faith’s District, Norwich the birth was registered in 1874 of Dodo Eliza Delilah, daughter of Arphad Ambrose Alexander Habakkuk William Shelah and Virtue Leah Woodcock.”
The author managed to get the date of his time at Rugby – he was there from 1864-66 – and the location of Alatau’s birthplace wrong, but nonetheless made his point.
My newspaper trawl also turned up several reports of an appeal made by Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographical Society, concerning Alatau. It was already known that following Thomas Atkinson’s death in August 1861, Murchison had launched an appeal in London to help pay for Alatau’s education. However, it is clear that the great geographer did not miss an opportunity during his travels around the country to help raise funds: a report from the Manchester Courier for 11th September 1861, when Murchison was giving a speech at the Manchester branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, shows this to be the case:
“He (Murchison-ed) said that Eastern Siberia and the great steppes beyond it were explored a few years ago by that remarkable and enterprising traveller, Thomas Atkinson, who once lived in Manchester and had built one very good church here, and whose skill and taste as a landscape painter were well known – who had directed his enterprise for a series of years to the exploration of those remarkable regions of Mongolia and the eastern steppes of the Kirghis. The volumes which he had published had been received with much approbation by the public, and had been read with much avidity; and he had thrown much light upon tracks in which he might venture to assert, not only Englishman, but scarcely any European, had previously trod. He knew of no traveller that had penetrated where this remarkable man had been. In his travels he had a spirited wife, who accompanied him throughout – and at the foot of one of those desolate mountains – the Alatau (in the Actau range, the middle horde of the Kirghis, and near the celebrated spring Tamschiboulac) she gave birth to their only son, now twelve years old, who, by the lamented death of Mr. Atkinson, at Walmer, only a few weeks ago, was left in a state want. For Mr. Atkinson did not travel the expense of either the Russian or the British government, but entirely at his own cost, and had expended his little means in his extraordinary journeys. It therefore occurred to him (Sir R. Murchison), as it had on similar occasions, that it was his duty, as the president of the Geological Society, to make some appeal to the public in order to establish a fund to help in the education of that fine boy, who, in commemoration of his having been born in such a remarkable spot, had been named Alatau Tamschiboulac Atkinson. They were, of course, exceedingly anxious that this young man, with so remarkable a geographical name, should in future life prove equal to his father; and in order to enable him to do so, the first thing was to give him a good education. Several subscriptions were announced.”
Considering that Murchison was the greatest geographer of his age, this is indeed a remarkable tribute, both to Thomas and Lucy and also to Alatau, who did not let down his sponsor, but proudly carried his name throughout his life and rose to be director of education for the Hawaiian Islands and organiser of its first census.
OCA Magazine has just published an article I have written about this summer’s expedition to the Jombolok Volcano Fielding in the Eastern Sayan Mountains of Buryatia. You can read it here. Scroll through the magazine to find the article.
I have recently obtained a copy of this wonderful aquatint, published in January 1832 and depicting a ‘South-West view of St Nicholas Church in Lower Tooting, Surrey‘, one of Thomas Atkinson’s first substantial architectural commissions.
The dedication beneath the picture states that the church was designed by Thomas Witlam Atkinson at a cost of £4619 and that it can accommodate 1083 persons. Like many of his other church buildings, it was a Commissioners’ church of stock brick, designed to provide a place of worship for the growing urban populations of the early nineteenth century.
The etching is actually dedicated to the Reverend John Ravenhill, the rector of the old church on the site. Sadly, the 82-year-old Dr Ravenhill died suddenly of apoplexy within two hours of the church being consecrated on 14th February 1833, an event recorded on a plaque inside the church.
The picture itself was engraved from Atkinson’s original by Charles Rosenberg, a well-known engraver who specialised in London genre scenes in the 1830s and later became known as an engraver of maritime scenes. It is tempting to think that the woman and three children on the left of the picture are Atkinson’s first wife, Rebecca, and his three children, Martha, John and Emma.
The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, etc for 14 April 1832 was full of praise, both for the building and the aquatint: “A simple but pleasing ecclesiastical edifice, which does much credit to the taste of Mr Atkinson, the architect. The plate is beautifully engraved by Mr Rosenberg: we never saw an aquatinta ground of greater tenderness and flatness.”
The church, now Grade II-listed, still stands in Tooting, where it is a well-known landmark, often illustrated on postcards. Today it refers to itself as “a church in the Conservative, Evangelical tradition”.
Thomas Atkinson produced etchings of a number of his buildings, probably to give to potential clients to illustrate his work. In this case, from the dedication beneath the picture, it seems likely that copies were given to the patrons of the church and prominent members of the congregation.
During the summer of 1851 as Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, together with their young son, Alatau, rode through the Eastern Sayan Mountains in Siberia, Thomas made more than 90 sketches of the beautiful landscapes he saw. They are all neatly listed in his diary for that year, along with the date each sketch was made.
Sadly, today there is no trace of these or any of the more than 500 sketches he made during his travels in Siberia and Central Asia. Of the 90 or so watercolour paintings Atkinson completed, I know the present whereabouts of less than 40, and only two or three of these show scenes from Siberia. Some of the missing pictures may have been destroyed in a house fire at the Hawaiian home of Thomas’ grandson, ‘Jack’ Atkinson, but otherwise they are all presumably hidden away in someone’s bottom drawer or tucked away on a long-forgotten library shelf.
The loss of these pictures is certainly a tragedy, not just because they are Atkinson’s pictures, but because images of these very remote regions from the middle of the nineteenth century, before the popularisation of the camera, are extremely rare. Until recently I believed that no-one else was regularly painting such landscapes in Siberia at this time.
Then, prompted to look by my good friend Vladimir Chernikov, I came across an extraordinary collection of paintings and images held in Paris at the Musée des arts et métiers. If you follow this blog you will already know about Monsieur Jean-Pierre Alibert, the prospector and adventurer who discovered a graphite mine in the Eastern Sayan Mountains. As previously mentioned, Thomas and Lucy stayed with M. Alibert at his mine on the Batagol Mountain in July 1851 while they were on their way to the Jombolok Volcano Field.
On his return to Europe in the early 1860s M Alibert donated an exquisite album of 61 guache paintings of Siberia to the museum. The album’s binding is itself stunning, illustrated with two vignettes and finely guilded. Some of the paintings, which are all signed by Carl Wolff, appear to be based on early daguerreotype photographs taken by Alibert himself, who was an early adopter of what was then a very new technology. Others, based on Alibert’s drawings, show scenes from the years M. Alibert spent prospecting and travelling throughout Siberia.
So, even if we do not have Thomas Atkinson’s sketches from the Eastern Sayan, within Alibert’s album, we do have a group of about 15 paintings of the area that are almost contemporary with Thomas and Lucy’s visit. After much negotiation I have been given permission by the museum to present some of these images here on my blog. So readers will forgive me if I run them here, together with a few words of commentary.
The first scene, dated 16 September 1847, shows local Soyots and Russians celebrating after discovering pure graphite in the workings at the summit of Batagol Mountain.
The second, dated 18 March 1849, show a caravan bringing provisions to the mine as it passed along the frozen Irkout river near the Khanginsky Guard Post, close to the border with China.
The third, dated 20th March 1849, shows a difficult passage for horses and sledges on the frozen River Irkout.
The fourth, also in winter, shows a view of the glaciers between Russia and China, close to the Narinkoroisky Guard Post.
The fifth shows a view of Lake Gargan, source of the River Irkout. We passed this point during our expedition this summer. Alibert can be seen sketching in the foreground.
The sixth shows the neat, well-ordered buildings around the graphite mine at Batagol.
The seventh shows the well-constructed farm and outbuildings erected by Alibert in the cleared forest land in the valley below the mine. This is where the Atkinsons would have lodged during their stay with Alibert.
The eighth shows a view of the farm (in the distance) in the valley at the base of Batagol, looking towards the north.
The ninth shows a view of the farm and valley, looking towards the south.
The tenth shows farm animals and, on the left, the road built by Alibert that led up the Batagol mountain to the mine.
As I mentioned, this is just a small selection of these remarkable paintings. You can see more by searching for Alibert in the museum’s image bank, which you can find here. Until the Atkinson sketches turn up one day, these are the closest we will get to seeing things as the Atkinsons did in the summer of 1851. Once again, my thanks to the Musée des arts et métiers for giving me permission to reproduce these pictures.