Thomas Witlam Atkinson
(Yorkshire 1799 - Kent 1861)
Kara-Noor, Formed by Lava of the Djem-a-Louk, Saian Mountains, Mongolia
signed and dated ‘Atkinson/June 1852’ (on the mount)
watercolour on paper
40 x 58 cm (15¾ x 22⅞ in)
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In this work Thomas Witlam Atkinson has depicted a monumental and forbidding landscape. Huge slabs of rock lye across the foreground, their orange and red hue recalling the lava that formed this valley. The still water of the Kara-Noor lake runs straight back into the work to the distant mountains, flanked on either side by craggy, intimidating cliffs. Despite the large lake, the landscape appears harsh and barren, emphasised by the dead tree in the foreground, and the black clouds against the pink of the sky carry a looming threat.
Atkinson was originally an architect, but his lasting legacy was his illustrated accounts of his travels through Eastern Europe and Asiatic Russia. He writes of his travels in the region of Lake Kara-Noor and the River Djem-a-Louk in his Oriental and Western Siberia: A Narrative of Seven Years Explorations and Adventures. He describes spending the night on the edge of the lake, which ‘is not large, nor is there any thing picturesque about it’, where he hunted and ate a meal of roasted duck, and swan and pelican soup.¹ Atkinson describes the area around Kara-Noor at length, saying ‘No scene with which I am acquainted conveys such an impression of the terrible and sublime as the prospect from some parts of this wonderful region’, and he certainly conveys this in the present work.²
Atkinson sketched throughout his trip and enhances the text with illustrations of the landscape. Although he does not seem to have used the present work as the basis for an etching, many of the prints in the book are comparable to Kara-Noor, Formed by Lava of the Djem-a-Louk, Saian Mountains, Mongolia. Zabata-Nor, Mongolia, shows a similar lake, surrounded by a rugged, mountainous landscape. The steepling cliffs, crevices and gullies in both works are awe-inspiring and alien to the viewer. In his influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke (1729-1797) distinguished between the Beautiful - things that are smooth, unthreatening and pleasurable - and the Sublime - things that are huge, obscure or terrible and arouse feelings that invigorate and elevate the mind. This concept was popularised in British landscape painting by artists such as J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), and Atkinson was similarly entranced by this type of landscape, saying ‘During a ride of ten days I made many sketches of the sublime scenery in these mountain regions, each view possessing some remarkable feature’.³
Atkinson was born in Yorkshire and although he originally began his career as a stonemason, he soon became an architect, practising successfully in London and Manchester. He also developed a talent for watercolour painting, of which the present work is an excellent example. It was in order to sketch the landscape that he embarked on his travels, as the scenery was little known to Europeans at the time, and his narratives were not of primary consideration. He travelled with his wife through some of the most treacherous and unexplored territories in Russia and Asia, covering an estimated 40,000 miles between 1848 and 1853. As his obituary remarked ‘Atkinson displayed in the course of his wanderings, great power of endurance and much address; so that his works have added important particulars in the knowledge of Russia in Asia including the River Amoor and the confines of Chinese Tartary’.