Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atkinson, John Augustus

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ATKINSON, JOHN AUGUSTUS (b. 1775), painter, was born in London. At the age of nine he was taken by his uncle to St. Petersburg. He studied in the royal galleries, and gained the patronage successively of the Empress Catherine and her son, the Emperor Paul. Kotzebue celebrates two pictures by Atkinson, which in 1799 hung in the palace of St. Michael—the ‘Victory of the Cossacks of the Don over the Tartars,’ and the ‘Baptism of Count Wladimir’ (Nagler). In Russia he made many drawings illustrative of native manners and costume, and furnished designs for a Russian edition of ‘Hudibras,’ which appeared at Königsberg in 1798. He returned to England in 1801, and first exhibited here at the Academy in 1802. In 1803–4 he prepared the plates for ‘A Picturesque Representation of the Manners, Customs, and Amusements of the Russians,’ which seems not to have actually appeared till 1812, when it was published by Bulmer in 3 folio volumes. In 1807 he published ‘A Picturesque Representation, in one hundred coloured plates, of the Naval, Military, and Miscellaneous Costumes of Great Britain,’ and in the same year a set of soft-ground etchings to illustrate the misery of human life. The two first-named of these works will be found in the print-room of the British Museum. The plates are all etched (in soft ground) by the artist himself, and printed in colours. We have few better examples of aquatint engraving than these supply, and no collected specimens of Atkinson's work so readily accessible. In 1805 Boydell published a ‘Panorama of St. Petersburg’ drawn by Atkinson, and a portrait of Suwarrow, both of which were engraved by Walker. In 1819 he exhibited in London, amongst other pictures, the ‘Battle of Waterloo,’ some of the portraits in which are by A. W. Devis. The two artists made their studies for the picture upon the battle-field in 1815. It was engraved by John Burnet, on the anniversary of the battle, in 1819. A fine water-colour study for this picture in the print-room attests its merit. Composition and colouring are excellently good, the figure-drawing is spirited and lifelike, though seldom faultless. In the drawing of horses Atkinson was no master. There are various differences between this water-colour study and the engraving from the finished picture. In 1808 he exhibited as an ‘associate’ at the Water-Colour Society. In 1812 he sent Shakespeare's ‘Seven Ages’ to the same gallery. He ceased, after 1813, to be a member of the society, but continued to exhibit till 1818. To the Royal Academy he sent many pictures, his last in 1829. The date of his death is not known. At the South Kensington Museum are four good water-colours, which show skilful composition and a fine feeling for colour. His figures, artistically arrested in movement, show rather an actor's sensibility than a draughtsman's skill; they are spirited and interesting, if sometimes faulty. His rustic groups, his soldiers and sailors, are charming, and pleasantly reminiscent of Morland. In 1817, according to Nagler, Atkinson essayed authorship, and published ‘Incidents of English Bravery during the late Campaigns on the Continent.’ Füssli (Neue Zusätze zu dem allgemeinen Künstler-Lexikon, 1824) gives an account of the painter which is largely occupied with a consideration of his masterpiece, the ‘Battle of Waterloo.’ He comments upon the prominence given to Wellington in the picture, and rather drily remarks (quoting the Tübinger Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände for 1820) that the rearward position assigned Blücher is not an ungraceful tribute to Germany! the intention undoubtedly being ‘der deutschen Bescheidenheit ein Compliment zu machen.’

[Füssli's Neue Zusätze; Nagler's Künstler-Lexicon, 2nd ed.; Redgrave's Dict. of Painters; Tübinger Morgenblatt, 1820.]

E. R.