Atkinson, John Augustus
- Alan Bird
Atkinson, John Augustus (1774x6–1830), painter and engraver, is of unknown parentage. He was taken as a boy aged eight or nine to St Petersburg by the mezzotint engraver James Walker, who may have been his uncle and who had accepted a post at the court of Catherine the Great. There is no record of Atkinson's having had any formal training while in Russia, but the empress was taken by his precocious talent and mischievously asked him to include in a picture he was painting of the Shrovetide fair in St Petersburg a portrait of Naryshkin, the court chamberlain, dining on the balcony of his house with a large napkin under his chin 'pour démontrer', as she put it 'qu'il étoit bien élevé' (Cross, 105). Atkinson's interest in Russian life is further shown in Ice Hills on the Neva (1792; State Russian Museum, St Petersburg), his depiction of a typical Russian amusement, that of sliding down artificial ice hills. He painted two large episodes from Russian history for St Michael's Castle, the damp and gloomy edifice which the emperor, Paul I, had built in a futile attempt to protect himself from assassination. Atkinson also made a portrait of the emperor on horseback (1797; Palace of Pavlosk, St Petersburg); and, in the same year, two portraits of Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov (one after the portrait by D. G. Levitsky), which were engraved by Walker. In 1801 he painted a striking full-length of Count Nikolay Petrovich Sheremetev robed as a knight of the order of Malta (Kuskovo Palace Museum, Moscow). Atkinson illustrated an edition of Samuel Butler's Hudibras published in Königsberg in 1798.
Atkinson and Walker returned to London in 1802. According to the diarist Joseph Farington who was visited by them on 5 April of that year, Atkinson was studying painting (Farington, Diary, 6.2005). However, he seems to have decided to profit from the prevailing taste for books on costumes and foreign life usually illustrated with hand-tinted engravings or aquatints. First came A Picturesque Representation of the Manners, Customs and Amusements of the Russians in 100 aquatinted plates with an informative commentary by James Walker, published in 1804. This work, which was the first in English to give an accurate representation in both text and illustrations of the manners and customs of the ordinary Russian people, demonstrated Atkinson's lively draughtsmanship and the width of his observations. In 1807 there appeared A Picturesque Representation of the Naval, Military and Miscellaneous Costumes of Great Britain drawn and etched by Atkinson and published by Walker and William Miller and Sixteen Scenes taken from ‘The Miseries of Human Life’. Atkinson also contributed to other ‘costume’ books. Earlier, in 1804, four sheets of a panorama of St Petersburg engraved by Atkinson from drawings he had made from the observatory of the academy of sciences in that city were published simultaneously by Atkinson and Walker, and John and Josiah Boydell. In 1814 he published Foreign Field Sports. Using the occasion of Alexander I's triumphal visit to London in that year, Walker engraved and published Atkinson's portrait of the tsar made years earlier. After 1816 the two men ceased working together, and the premises where they had worked in Conway Street were given up. Atkinson's last attempt to attract a wider public came with his large depiction of the battle of Waterloo, for which he travelled to the battlefield in June 1815 with A. W. Devis, who collaborated by painting in the faces of the leading officers. It was exhibited at the British Institution in 1817 and engraved by John Burnet two years later. Atkinson submitted a design for the Wellington shield but without success.
From 1803 until his death Atkinson exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, the Suffolk Street Gallery of the Society of British Artists, and the Society of Painters in Water Colours. His subjects included scenes from Shakespeare, French and classical literature, coastal and rustic landscapes, and also battles and military skirmishes for which he had a decided taste, and to which his style was well suited. His work was popular, and among his patrons were the duke of Wellington and Richard Colt Hoare.
Atkinson's work had something of the lively and happy interest in human life of Thomas Rowlandson and the caricaturists of the period. Although he worked in oils during his years in Russia and was known there for his portraits, after his return to London he worked almost exclusively in aquatint and watercolour both of which suited his deceptively improvisatory manner. His occasional weaknesses in draughtsmanship were more than compensated for by the sharpness of his observations and the vitality and liveliness of his compositions.
Atkinson died, unmarried, on 25 March 1830 at 48 London Street, Fitzroy Square, London. In 1833 James Walker's only child, Marianne (later Mrs Calmedy Richardson), with whom Atkinson had been brought up and to whom he was deeply attached, arranged a loan exhibition of seven works at the Suffolk Street Gallery. There are four of Atkinson's watercolours in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and a preliminary study for The Battle of Waterloo in the British Museum. His Battle at Vittoria, 21 June 1813 is in a private collection.
- B. K. Staniukovich, ‘Neizvestnaya rabota Dzhona Atkinsona’, Zapiski Istoriko - Bytovogo Otdela Gos. Russkogo Muzeia, 1 (1928), 328
- B. K. Staniukovich, ‘Unknown work of John Atkinson’, Transactions of the History-life Department, State Russian Museum, 1 (1928), 328
- D. A. Rovinskii, Podrobnyi slovar' russkikh gravirovannykh portretov [Descriptive dictionary of Russian engraved portraits], [new edn], 4 vols. (St Petersburg, 1886–9), vol. 3
- G. V. Smirnov, ed., Zhivopis' XVIII — nachalo XX veka: katalog / Painting, 18th century to early 20th century (Leningrad, 1980) [State Russian Museum, Leningrad]
- Engraved in the memory: James Walker, engraver to the Empress Catherine the Great, and his Russian anecdotes, ed. A. Cross (1993)
- A. Bird, ‘James Walker, a British engraver in St Petersburg’, British art treasures from the Russian imperial collections in the Hermitage, ed. B. Allen and L. Dukelskaya (1996), 92–102 [exhibition catalogue, Yale U. CBA, 5 Oct 1996 – 5 Jan 1997]
- The Royal Watercolour Society: the first fifty years, 1805–1855 (1992)
- A. von Kotzebue, The most remarkable year in the life of Augustus von Kotzebue: containing an account of his exile into Siberia, and of the other extraordinary events which happened to him in Russia (1804)
- Wilts. & Swindon HC, Hoare family MSS, accounts for work done