William Simpson ~ Watercolourist and Journalist

“William Simpson (1823-1899), watercolour painter and journalist, was born on 28 October 1823 in a tenement in Carrick Street, Glasgow. He spent fifteen months at a writing-school in Perth, staying with his grandmother, but thereafter received no regular education. He trained as a lithographer under David Macfarlane in Glasgow. In 1840 he was apprenticed to the lithographers Allan and Ferguson. Commissioned by David Allan, Simpson sketched the city’s old buildings for Robert Stuart’s Views and Notices of Glasgow in Former Times (Stuart’s Glasgow) (1848). He attended the Glasgow School of Design from 1845 and sold his first watercolour in 1850. In 1851 he moved to London and worked for the lithographers Day & Son. During the Crimean War Simpson became a pioneer war artist: he recorded the naval battles in the Baltic Sea and then went on to Balaklava in November 1854. The drawings which he made during that terrible winter were sent home to England, and shown to Queen Victoria. Eighty of his Crimean drawings were lithographed in The Seat of War in the East (2 vols. 1855-6), which was dedicated to Queen Victoria. When the original watercolours were exhibited at Colnaghi’s gallery, Lord Elcho and other MPs called for them to be bought by the nation as a historic record of the war. This proposal was rejected and the watercolours were sold off. Simpson returned to England and over the next thirty years Queen Victoria was a steady patron for the painter. After the Indian mutiny Simpson went to India on a roving commission. He arrived in October 1859 and joined the party of the governor-general, Lord Canning, on a tour of the area where the mutiny had taken place. Over three years he visited much of the subcontinent, including Tibet and its Buddhist temples, the Himalayas, Kashmir, and Ceylon. When he returned to England in 1862, he had traveled 22,570 miles. He settled in chambers in London at 64 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, worked for four years completing 250 drawings. However, when his employers went into liquidation, his watercolours were taken over and sold off as bankrupt stock: Simpson received no recompense for seven years of hard work. Finally, fifty paintings were indifferently reproduced in a book with text by Sir John Kaye. In 1866, through William Ingram, editor and proprietor of the Illustrated London News, Simpson became a special artist for the paper. He covered many royal events. In the autumn of 1866 he went to Dunrobin in Scotland to record the Prince of Wales’s visit to the duke of Sutherland. At St Petersburg in November 1866 he illustrated the marriage of the tsarevich (later Alexander III) to Princess Dagmar, sister of the Princess of Wales, and he accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales to Egypt in 1868. In 1875-6 he covered the visit of the Prince of Wales to India for the Illustrated London News and made over 200 sketches, mostly in sepia with some watercolour. Forty-four of Simpson’s Indian watercolours are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. His last commission from Queen Victoria was in 1889, but for the Prince of Wales he drew scenes relating to the death of the duke of Clarence in 1892. Fifty of his works are in the Royal Collection. Simpson traveled round the world for the Illustrated London News, and his Autobiography (1903) describes his surroundings with clarity and passionate interest. Sketches sent home from abroad were worked up into watercolours on his return. On location he wisely disguised himself by wearing local native costume. As an observer and reporter for over forty year he mixed with people of every rank and learned many European and oriental languages and dialects needed on his innumerable travels. In 1868 he accompanied Lord Napier on the Abyssinian expedition: he made archaeological sketches to illustrate the Palestine exploration fund’s excavations in the Holy Land, was granted permission to sketch inside the Dome of the Rock, and in 1869 attended the Vatican Council in Rome. He returned to Constantinople to revisit the Crimea, and was present at the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869. In 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Simpson traveled to Metz and was briefly imprisoned. (Fortunately he had made his drawings on cigarette paper so that, when he was arrested as a spy, he could smoke them in front of his captors.) During the Paris commune he was under fire, and he witnessed harrowing scenes there before returning to London in June 1871. In 1872-3 he went round the world; he visited China to illustrate the marriage of the emperor Tongzhi and saw the Great Wall and the Ming tombs before traveling on via Japan to San Francisco. He was the only eyewitness reporter on the spot able to cover the rebellion of the Modoc Indians, and he visited Salt Lake City, Kentucky, New York, and Niagara, before returning to Liverpool in June 1873. He describes his travels in Meeting the Sun: a Journey All Round the World (1874). In 1877 he made sketches of the Schliemann excavations at Troy and Ephesus. He also covered the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80 and was with the Afghan boundary commission in 1884-5. Simpson became a good amateur archaeologist, had a profound interest in religions, and was a prolific writer. His published works include: Picturesque People (1876) The Buddhist Prayer Wheel (1896) The Jonah Legend (1899) Glasgow in the Forties (1899) and many articles, including papers on freemasonry in the Transactions of that society, into which he was initiated in 1871. It was not until 5 January 1881 that he married the miniature painter Maria Eliza Burt, daughter of Thomas Burt, a contractor’s agent; about 1884 the couple had one beloved daughter, Ann Penelope. Simpson became an associate of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1874 and a full member in 1879; he exhibited fifty-nine watercolours between 1874 and 1899. An original member of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1883, he resigned in 1886. He was also an FRGS, an honorary associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a founder member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. Simpson spent his last years writing his Autobiography, which he stipulated should not be published until after his death, which took place on 17 August 1899 at his home, 19 Church Road, Willesden, London. He was buried in Highgate cemetery, Middlesex.”