Thomas Witlam Atkinson
Thomas Witlam Atkinson (1799-1861), architect and traveller, was born of humble parentage at Cawthorne, Yorkshire, on 6 March 1799, and received a scanty education at the village school. Left an orphan when a child, he began to earn his own living at the age of eight, first on a farm, then as a bricklayer's labourer and quarryman, and subsequently in a stonemason's yard. By the time he was twenty he was a stone-carver, and in that capacity executed some good work on churches at Barnsley, Ashton-under-Lyne, and elsewhere. At the last-named town he settled for a while as a teacher of drawing.
About this time he devoted himself to the study of Gothic architecture, and in 1829 published a folio volume entitled 'Gothic Ornaments selected from the different Cathedrals and Churches in England.' In 1827 he went to London, and established himself as an architect in Upper Stamford Street, Blackfriars. Among his works at this time was the church of St. Nicholas, at Lower Tooting, erected about 1831. A little later he obtained many important commissions in the neighbourhood of Manchester, including the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank in Spring Gardens, in 1834. About 1835 he removed to Manchester, where he began his principal work as an architect, St. Luke's church, Cheetham Hill. This building, designed in a modified perpendicular style, together with his Italian villas and other structures, had a marked effect in improving the architectural taste of the district. He remained at Manchester until 1840, after experiencing some reverses, owing probably to a too liberal expenditure on works of art.
Returning to London Atkinson was not more fortunate, and in 1842 he went to Hamburg, then to Berlin, and lastly to St. Petersburg, where he abandoned architecture as a profession for the pursuits of a traveller and artist. This was in 1846, about which period he seems to have visited Egypt and Greece. By the advice of Alexander von Humboldt he turned his attention to Oriental Russia, and, being furnished with every facility by the Russian government, including a blank passport from Emperor Nicholas, he set out in February 1848 on his long journey, accompanied by his newly married wife. His travels extended over 39,500 miles, and occupied him until the end of 1853. His avowed object in this expedition was to sketch the scenery of Siberia, and he brought back many hundreds of clever water-colour drawings, some of them five or six feet square, and most valuable as representations of places hitherto unknown to Europeans. He kept journals of his explorations, which were written with much power and freshness.
On his return to England he published them with some amplifications. The first volume was entitled 'Oriental and Western Siberia: a Narrative of Seven Years' Explorations and Adventures in Siberia, Mongolia, the Kirghis Steppes, Chinese Tartary, and part of Central Asia. With a Map and numerous Illustrations,' London, 1858. There followed in 1860 a second volume called 'Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower A moor and the Russian Acquisitions on the Confines of India and China,' London, 1860. This work was highly praised by the 'Athenaeum' on its publication, but its authenticity was subsequently questioned. Doubts were raised whether Atkinson had personally' travelled on the Amur, and the book was shown to be in the main a plagiarism of Maack's work on the same topic published in St. Petersburg in 1859' (Athenaeum, 9 Sept. 1899).
Meanwhile in 1868 Atkinson read a paper before the British Association 'On the Volcanoes of Central Asia.' In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1859 a fellow of the Geological Society. To the 'Proceedings' of the former body he contributed in 1869 a paper on a 'Journey through some of the highest Passes in the Ala-tu and Ac-tu Mountains in Chinese Tartary,' and in the 'Journal' of the Geological Society in 1860 he wrote ' On some Bronze Relics found in an Auriferous Sand in Siberia,'.
Atkinson in person was the type of an artistic traveller, thin, lithe, and sinewy, 'with a wrist like a rock and an eye like a poet's; manner singularly gentle, and air which mingled entreaty with command.' He died at Lower Walmer, Kent, on 13 Aug. 1861.
He was twice married; the second time, in 1847, to an English governess at St. Petersburg. She wrote an interesting account of the journeys she took with her husband, entitled 'Recollections of the Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants,' London, 1863. On 13 June that year she was granted a civil list pension of 100l. One of his two surviving children, Emma Willsher Atkinson, wrote 'Memoirs of the Queens of Prussia,' 1858, and 'Extremes, a Novel,' 1859. His son, John William Atkinson, who died on 3 April 1846, aged 23, was a marine painter.
[Dict. of Architecture, i. 119; Athenaeum, 24 Aug. 1861; Builder, 31 Aug. 1861, p. 590; Proc. Royal Geogr. Soc. vi. 128; Boase's Modern English Biography, i. 104; Axon's Annals of Manchester; Royal Academy Catalogues, 1830-1842.]
Charles William Sutton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement. pg. 84.