William Stephen Tomkin

Tomkin was one of Pitt-Rivers' assistants who worked for him at Rushmore after 1880. His principal occupation appears to have been accompanying the General on many of his Inspector of Ancient Monument tours, preparing plans, and drawings of the ancient monuments and helping to prepare the Cranborne Chase volumes. He was a draughtsman of great ability. Here is what we have been able to glean about him from various sources.

William Stephen Tomkin was born in 1861 and died in 1940. Little is known of his education or his training as an artist. He worked for Pitt-Rivers from around 1882 until 1890. He was employed as a sub-assistant and earned £84 per annum. Thompson and Renfrew suggest that Tomkin might have contributed to volume 2 of the second collection catalogue (Cambridge University Library volumes, see here) though he is not named and did not sign the book to confirm this. Thompson says of him 'The most interesting [assistant] in many ways was Tomkin, who has left us those charming drawings of Pitt-Rivers acting as scale when he was on tours of inspection. He was evidently a skilled draughtsman ...' [Thompson, 1977: 95]

Tomkin has obviously been sent off to 'the Polytechnic 'to learn how to photograph in 1889 as is shown by the Inspectorate workbooks (39/10) where Tomkin records his instructions on preparing and taking photographs. It would appear from the contents of his notes, given in their entirety here, that Tomkin was not only learning how to photograph outside during the ancient monument inspections, but also how to photograph objects. Although it is extremely unlikely that Tomkin was the one to produce the photographs used in the catalogue of Pitt-Rivers' second collection, presumably that photographer used roughly the same techniques. It is not clear exactly where Tomkin was taught except it was in London and known as the "Polytechnic".

He prepared some of the drawings in Pitt-Rivers' private publications on the excavations on Cranborne Chase etc. [Pitt-Rivers 1892, xv] He had to redraw both skulls and coins for the first Cranborne Chase volume because Pitt-Rivers was not happy with the accuracy of his first attempt. [Bowden, 1991: 104]

Perhaps Tomkin's main task for Pitt-Rivers was helping with his archaeological work as an Inspector and on his excavations on his own estate (and the publications thereof). An image of him around this time is shown in Bowden's biography of Pitt-Rivers dated 1991 as Plate 27 on page 100. As Pitt-Rivers himself explained in his preface to the first volume:

"It only remains to say something of the way in which the work has been carried out. I saw clearly that it was more than I could accomplish without assistance in the brief space of time allotted to me at my period of life. I therefore determined to organise a regular staff of assistants, and to train them in their respective functions after establishing a proper division of work. It was necessary they should all have some capacity for drawing in order that the relics discovered might be sketched as soon as found ... Surveying I was able to teach them myself, having always been fond of field sketching as a soldier. ... Reserving, therefore, to my share of the work the entire supervision of everything, the description and arrangement of the plates, the writing of the record ... [etc] ... I have, after some changes and preliminary trials, been able to engage the following assistants with suitable salaries, viz. :-

Assistant .. .. Mr F. James

Sub-Assistants .. .. Mr W.S. Tomkin

Mr F.W. Reader

... Mr Tomkin has executed nearly all the drawings and plates ... Mr Reader, in addition to his work as a draughtsman, has made some excellent models for my museum above-mentioned, and has spent much time in ticketing and arranging the specimens. ...

A. Pitt Rivers
Rushmore, Salisbury
June 13th, 1887" [Excavations on Cranborne Chase, vol 1 page xix]

Some of the notebooks that Tomkin prepared during the Inspector tours can be seen on the National Archives website. On occasion (often because of ill-health on the part of Pitt-Rivers or his wife) Tomkin carried out Inspection duties on his own, this is reflected in the workbooks. In addition, Salisbury Museum holds some letters, an account book and sketch book (see Bowden, 1991: 168]

He left Pitt-Rivers' employment a year after his photographic training and went to work for Waterlow Brothers Ltd (a printing firm). Bowden suggests that he was forced to leave the General's employment because he could 'not afford to marry on the 'pittance' he was paid'. [Bowden, 1991: 106]

In later life he became known as a marine watercolour artist, producing many coastal scenes, seascapes and images of various types of boats. These still appear in salerooms and auction houses today, and examples can be found by searching for his name on the web. In 1909 he exhibited a painting, 'Wind Against Tide' at the Royal Academy (presumably at the Summer exhibition).

He also painted other images, including one of the downing of the Zeppelin at Cuffley on 3 September 1916, the flash of light from which was seen from Cambridge, many miles away. According to the website about this painting (produced when the picture was sold), the artist painted the picture from his garden at 107 Orford Road, Walthamstow and the artist mounted a section of the airship from the scene on the back of the picture.

He also appears to have sold some of  his work to be used in advertising (for example an image showing two steamers passing at sea, used to advertise the American Line from Southampton to New York, see here, circa 1920).

The Pitt Rivers Museum has 2 albums, donated by Pitt-Rivers' great grandson, Anthony Pitt-Rivers, of watercolours, plans and sketches by Tomkin see 2010.79.1 on the museum's photographic database.

A letter from Tomkin to Pitt-Rivers written a year after he left his employment shows his gratitude from Pitt-Rivers' training, '... My long drilling of careful draughtsmanship whilst with you I find helps me ...'. He wrote from 172 St Paul's Road, Canonbury.

AP March 2015 

See also

Photographing objects

Objects photographed by Tomkin

The assistants artistic training

Letter from Tomkin to Pitt-Rivers dated 19 November 1891 [L774, Salisbury Museum Pitt-Rivers papers]

Tomkin's tour of Scotland, 1885 (Inspector of Ancient Monuments tour summer 1885)





Bowden, Mark. 1991. Pitt Rivers: The Life and Archaeological Work of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1887. [a]. Excavations in Cranborne Chase near Rushmore on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire vol I, Rushmore, privately printed. [Transcription found here].

Thompson, M.W. 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press.


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