John Massey Stewart’s elegantly written, beautifully illustrated book opens with this thrilling summary of Thomas Atkinson’s hazardous journeys in the Urals, Kazakhstan and Siberia:
Wolves and snowstorms, camels and unbearable desert heat; bandits, murder attempts and night raids by enemy tribes; precipices, dangerous rapids; convicts, Cossacks, nomads – as well as balls and a fourteen-course dinner party for an archbishop; all this (and far, far more) was experienced during Thomas Witlam Atkinson’s seven years’ travels with his wife and infant son by foot, horse, sledge, carriage, boat and raft for nearly 50,000 miles in the remoter parts of the Russian Empire, resulting in 560 watercolour sketches [most of which have since been lost or destroyed] and fame as ‘the Siberian traveller’.
From humble beginnings, Atkinson became a successful architect, with many fine churches, houses and public buildings to his credit. He was born on 6 March 1799 in the village of Cawthorne, Yorkshire, then part of the Cannon Hall estate, where his father, a master mason, was employed. As a boy, Atkinson was taken at intervals from the local school to assist his father at work.
Having married in Halifax in 1819 and fathered a son and two daughters, Atkinson worked as a sculptor, stonemason, clerk of works and draughtsman. In due course he moved to London, where he studied and later practised architecture with his elder half-brother, Charles, who had taught him to write and