RBTH: Why did Atkinson travel to Siberia?
Nick Fielding: At first he wanted to paint it, but as the journey progressed and time passed – we’re talking about seven years in Siberia and more than a decade in Russia – it grew to be about more than this. He became fascinated with Siberian culture and the people of Central Asia in particular.
The only modern image of Thomas Atkinson. Source: courtesy of Paul Dahlquist
He was very interested in the Decembrists – aristocratic revolutionaries who led a failed uprising in 1825 – and the milieu of the time, which definitely marked him out to the Tsarist police. I’m sure there’s a huge archive of reports on Lucy and Thomas’s movements somewhere in Russia, but I haven’t located it yet.
In her book Lucy says that it wouldn’t have been a punishment for her to be arrested and sent to Siberia: they were not afraid of the climate, the harshness and the isolation. They had a very positive view of Siberia’s people and its culture.
Irkutsk and Barnaul were two intellectual cities that were quite radical at the time because of their high number of exiled anti-tsarist political figures. Barnaul was noted for its beautiful museums and very free conversations in salon meetings. This was in stark contrast to St. Petersburg, for example, where the tsar’s spy network was very active and people were continually looking over their shoulder.
RBTH: Did Lucy describe this in her book?
N.F.: They both discuss it, but Lucy in particular. Thomas was setting out his travels, but Lucy was more open to talking about what happened when they traveled. I should point out that a lot of Lucy’s book was based on Thomas’s diaries, which I’ve also read. I can tell you that he was thinking about these issues too, but he didn’t write about them.
RBTH: What were your reasons for traveling to Siberia?
N.F.: I first came to Central Asia more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been back many times to Siberia, Tyva, Kamchatka, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I’ve always enjoyed traveling in the region and have hiked thousands of miles there. I was also interested Central Asian textiles, and I was curious where the designs came from: they were being made by Muslims but without Islamic designs. The answer was that they came from Siberia.
“It wouldn’t have been a punishment for her to be arrested and sent to Siberia.” Source: Nick Fielding
I discovered that Siberia itself is a wonderful place, and I began researching who else had been here and what they’d written about it. I read everything I could – I’ve got an enormous collection of books about Siberia going back hundreds of years to the earliest travelers. I came across the Atkinsons and wondered why they have been largely forgotten by history. They’re an extraordinary couple – two of the greatest travelers of all time.
RBTH: How important was Lucy’s presence to the success of the trip?
N.F.: Very important. I think Thomas wanted to travel with Lucy partly because she spoke Russian and he didn’t. She had already been living in St. Petersburg for eight years and was a governess in a Russian family, so she also knew how Russian society worked. 19th-century Russia was very stratified: everybody had their place, and you had to know who you could speak to and how you could speak to them. Lucy knew that very well.
She was a woman of action who wasn’t frightened – or perhaps she was frightened but was still brave – and she actually saved his life on one occasion. She would carry guns, and when two men grabbed him from behind she pulled a weapon, pointed it at them and demanded they let him go. He picked a very good traveling companion, in my view. Particularly when you consider the general difficulties of the trip.
Presumably on this painting Thomas is shooting in local gunmen. Source: courtesy of Nick Fielding
RBTH: What were some of these difficulties? For you as well as them.
N.F.: Their trip was made incredibly complicated by the fact that she became pregnant almost immediately. She was crossing really fast-flowing rivers on horseback up to her knees. When the baby was delivered two months prematurely in Qapal [Alma-Ata Region, modern-day Kazakhstan], the Cossack doctor, who was only 23, told her that this had been caused by riding horses.