William Simpson (1823-1899) -- "Prince of Pictorial Correspondents"

William Simpson is widely-known known today as the war artist whose first-hand depiction of the Crimean War helped bring home the reality of that ill-managed campaign to the British public. His were the surrogate eyes of Empire in many Victorian military adventures, and he reported faithfully and, indeed, sometimes disapprovingly, on what he saw: "wherever shot and shell and ugly sword-blades are about, there he is sure to be", wrote the Glasgow Baillie of him in 1878, for Simpson was the first of the Victorian "Special Artists" whose primary focus was war, a group which has now yielded place to war correspondents and cameramen.

But Simpson was more than just a War Artist — his artistic stock in trade encompassed both the military and civil achievements of a world in which the British Empire was at its peak. Simpson was a Scot and proudly independent, and although attendant upon a culture in which jingoism was the dominant paradigm, he had a rare understanding of, and empathy with, many cultures other than his own. As such, he became one of that curious breed of peripatetic Britons who thrived on desolate places and exotic peoples — a breed which included the likes of Richard Burton, Mary Kingsley, David Roberts and David Livingstone. In the process, he acquired a knowledge of religion, history, ethnography, archaeology, architecture and linguistics which marked him as a true polymath.

There is a certain irony, therefore, that, in a career spanning over five decades, Simpson's best known work achieved its fame not because of any intrinsic aesthetic or cultural merit, but because its subject has come down in history as one of Britain's great military fiascos. It is far from Simpson's best watercolour — and the most familiar representation of it is, in fact, not his original watercolour but a lithograph worked up from it in the offices of the publisher of his Crimean portfolio, The Seat of the War in the East. The work is entitled The Charge of the Light Brigade, and it represents an incident in British military history that has now reached mythic proportions, made all the more famous by Lord Tennyson's poem with the well-known words: "Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the Valley of Death rode the Six hundred."

The significance of this painting lies largely in the fact that its gestation exemplified his innovative approach to his art — he preferred accuracy to drama, spirit to extravagance — and equally, it depicts both his ability to charm influential people and his pragmatism in the face of obduracy. The story goes that, having arrived in the Crimea some weeks after the charge, he assiduously studied the valley where the charge had occurred and questioned the main participants in order to produce a painting. He also visited the Earl of Cardigan several times on his yacht in Balaklava Harbour with sketches to check on details, and each time Cardigan peremptorily dismissed them as inaccurate. "I felt rather nettled at the cold, haughty style of his lordship, but I was anxious to send home the sketch bearing with it the approval of the principal hero," Simpson later noted. Eventually after three attempts, "I was rewarded with the warmest praise ... The truth was that in the last sketch I had taken greater care than in the first two to make his lordship conspicuous in the front of the brigade." Tact was clearly an important attribute for an artist whose subject-matter encompassed significant events and, Simpson learned, this applied equally on the field of war.

Childhood and Youth

William was born in Glasgow on 28th October 1823, the son of James Simpson, a dissolute labourer who worked in the shipyards, and Ann (née Johnstone), a gentle woman for whom he always retained great affection. William recalled his father as being quarrelsome: he was

not naturally a drunkard ... If there was no-one there to tempt him he never went to drink himself, but unfortunately there were always one or two in every workshop who were given to visiting the public houses, and these men always became my father's friends and companions ... (When drunk he would be) uproarious and quarrellsome, and he would strike my Mother or myself, or throw things about and break articles in the house. From the small amount of money (he) brought in we were always in the most abject poverty — ill-fed and poorly clad — anything of value in the house was always at the pawnbroker. I regret to say that my Father seemed to have not the slightest sense of duty or of responsibility." Nevertheless, young Will did inherit an innate intelligence from his Father, whom he described as "a man of considerable ability

with an adept and agile mind, despite his fondness for liquor. James had, in his time, been one of Robert Owen's idealistic followers in his Utopian experimental society at Orbiston Estate near Bothwell.

But it was to his Mother than young Will turned for comfort and support. She also went out to work, washing and cleaning, and doing anything to add to their means — she was very close to her son and he regarded her as "the best of Mothers". "I owed everything to her," he later wrote, "and it was a great satisfaction to me that I was able to make the last few years of her life comfortable and happy. My success was, of course, a source of happiness to her also, and I always felt a deep regret that she did not live a few years longer to have had the further pleasure of enjoying the still greater success which fell to my lot from the work I produced in the Crimean War".

Although his formal education was scant, by the age of fourteen William had earned himself an apprenticeship in lithography, initially with David MacFarlane and later with the firm of Allan & Ferguson in Glasgow. He had also acquired a wide interest in the arts and sciences, and frequently attended free lectures at the Andersonian University and the Mechanics Institute, finding Chemistry and Natural Philosophy most to his liking. But art was his main interest. On certain days when no dinner was being made at home, a penny was given to him for food. By forgoing the meal, he could afford to buy colours in the art supply shop to enable him to sketch the people and street scenes of Glasgow.

Memories of Robbie Burns

Simpson's handwritten Notes & Recollections give an interesting and insightful anecdote of that time. In December 1840, Mr Robert Weir, a paper manufacturer and wholesale Stationer in Queen Street, Glasgow, returned from Canada with a two-volume Bible that the great Scottish poet Robert Burns had given to his lover, Mary Campbell (known as "Highland Mary"). Her relatives had earlier emigrated to Canada, and Mr Weir brought back the Bible in order to place it in the Burns monument at the Brig of Doon at Ayr.

Before they were sent to Ayr, the two volumes were handed to Allan & Ferguson to have what was still discernible of Burns' writing on the fly-leaves copied in lithography. On one of the fly-leaves a lock of the hair of "Highland Mary" was attached. It was the first year of Simpson's apprenticeship with Allan & Ferguson, and the employees of the writing and drawing department were greatly interested in the books — before they were returned to Mr Weir each had "abstracted" a hair. "Our act of sacrilege was never noticed," Simpson wrote later, "and it is doubtful if any of the other hairs ... have been preserved."

Later, probably some time in the 1860s, Simpson had the opportunity to visit Burns' (illegitimate) daughter, who was then a Mrs Thomson, living near Glasgow. She was brought up in the Burns family with the other children, and (Simpson wrote) she spoke highly of Burns' wife, Jean Armour. Her husband was a Cotton-spinner, so they lived in humble circumstances, and they had a grown-up daughter who could sing very well — Barnum had apparently tried, at the anniversary of Burns' birthday, to engage her to go to America to sing the Songs of Burns, but she had refused. "Mrs Thomson had wonderful eyes", Simpson recalled, "they were large but not projecting, and, if I recollect right, they were of a deep brown, and may have been like her father's, which have been spoken of as something that attracted attention." Simpson had painted a picture in oils of "Burns and Death", and he gave this to Mrs Thomson as a present. In return, she cut off a lock of her hair for him — which he later, in 1895, placed in a locket with the hair of "Highland Mary".

Crimea & the Military Campaigns

William Simpson on Cathecart Hill before Sebastapol by Roger Fenton. 1855. Click on image for larger picture.

In 1851, at the age of twenty seven, Simpson moved to London and took up employment with Day & Son, lithographers. Lithography was then becoming an important technology, and illustrated newspapers were about to revolutionise the profession of journalism. The Crimean War broke out in 1854 and Simpson was commissioned to prepare a drawing (contrived, as was usually the case in those days) of the fall of Sebastopol in expectation of that happy event. This was a task he found difficult because he wanted to make it as accurate as possible but there was a dearth of pictorial scenes of Sebastopol available in London for research. With news that an extended siege was imminent, it was decided to take the radical step of sending Simpson to the seat of the war to sketch on the spot — and hence Simpson became the first War Artist, eventually acquiring the sobriquet "Crimea" Simpson.

As a "camp follower" (for such was, strictly, what War Artists were) Simpson later also followed the British Army to Abyssinia with General Napier in 1868 to free the hostages being held by Emperor Theodorus; he covered the Franco-German war in 1870, and entered Strasbourg and Metz with the German troops (in the process being arrested as a spy); he covered the Paris Commune in the following year; and he accompanied the Afghan Expedition in 1878 and was present at the taking of Ali Musjid, and the advance of General Sir Sam Browne's column through the Khyber Pass to Jellalabad and Gundamuck, and remained until the signing of the Treaty of Gundamuck by Yakoob Khan and Cavagnari.

In all this he remained aloof from the naive and chauvinistic enthusiasm that tended to accompany military life; he maintained an affinity with the common soldier, but carefully refrained from taking any part in hostilities. During his time in the Crimea he wrote of a visit to the British batteries at Balaklava: "One of the men offered me his rifle to have 'a shot at the Rooshians.' I took the rifle and fired it, but took care not to run the chance of touching any of the 'Rooshians' ... I saw the dust knocked up from the ground where it struck."

Russian Letters

On 22nd May 1855, during the Crimean War, a joint British, French & Turkish force sailed to Kertsch at the entrance to the Sea of Azov, some three hundred kilometres to the east of Sebastopol, in order to cut the Russian supply route and to open the Sea of Azov to British gunboats. Simpson accompanied them, and his account of one incident well depicts his affinity for the common soldier. He was about an hour behind the British troops in their advance through the town of Kertsch and he found himself outside a well-to-do house, accompanied by a stray British sailor. They entered the house via a window, where they discovered a pile of feathers in the centre of the room, carefully heaped up to a point, like a pyramid, with a lady's bonnet on top. Clearly the preceding soldiers had been at play. "There was a small cabinet of drawers on one side of the room", wrote Simpson. "I pulled out the little drawers, but they were all empty. Evidently the place had been ransacked as the troops went through earlier in the day. At the top of the cabinet there was a single small drawer that had not been opened. This I called Jack's attention to, and he asked if I would like to get into it. On expressing a wish to do so, he pulled his revolver, put the muzzle to the keyhole and fired. I then took the handle and it opened easily. The drawer was full of smoke, the lock lay at the far end, and I found a letter or two only. These I put in my pocket — and that was the only loot I carried off from Kertsch." Simpson later had a friend translate the letters [text of the letters].

Archaeology and Ethnography

In all his military adventures (in the Crimea and elsewhere) Simpson inevitably took any opportunity that presented itself to pursue his own personal interests. In Abyssinia with Sir Robert Napier's Army, Simpson found time to make copious notes and sketches on everything that passed before him, including a detailed study of the Amharic language, the boiling point of water at Senafe (198F), an account of the traditional architecture of the area (including Houses of Refuge and Defence in Tigre Province and early Christian churches), and the customs and histories of the people. Whilst covering the Afghan War he made sometimes dangerous excursions to explore Buddhist stupas in the Jellalabad Valley and to study in detail the intricate ancient architecture. General Sir Sam Browne gave him some soldiers to excavate one tope, and Simpson uncovered a gold relic holder and some ancient gold coins, thereby causing something akin to "treasure fever" to spread among the local people. Seventeen of the coins were later identified as being of the Indo-Scythian period and three were Roman of the reigns of Trajan, Domitian and Hadrian.

Simpson's main concern as a "Special" was, understandably, his art, and he did not shrink from danger in order to get a better perspective. He came under fire several times in the Crimea and Afghanistan, and in 1873, while visiting a US cavalry detachment near the Lake Tule lava beds of northern California, he left the camp on the same morning as a scouting expedition led by a Major Thomas, but in a different direction. Thomas' party was massacred by the Modoc Indians that same day. Simpson later noted: "had I not been leaving, I should most certainly have gone out with the scouting party ... with the same sad fate that befell them. I look upon this as one of the narrowest escapes in my life — and I have had more than one of those in my time." Despite such close shaves and occasional misunderstandings, Simpson was always gracious in his descriptions of other cultures — the Modoc Indians were universally being condemned at the time in the press for their "savagery", but he was undeterred in writing of them in sympathetic terms. He was particularly proud of a testimonial letter he received from the Society of Friends (the Quakers) a few years later, which stated succinctly: "(To) William Simpson Esq., in appreciation of the considerate and humane tone in which he has referred to the War with the Modoc Indians in his volume, Meeting the Sun".


William Simpson in turban and Indian clothing. 1891. Click on image for larger picture.

But Simpson's achievements away from the world's battlefields were equally, if not more, memorable. He went to India several times, and, as so often happens with that deceptive subcontinent, he became enamoured of its cultures and its contrasts. The Great Mutiny of 1857 had brought India considerable attention in Britain, and Day & Sons concluded that the production of a large format book of tinted lithographs by Simpson of Indian scenes would be a profitable undertaking. A sign of the esteem in which Queen Victoria held Simpson as a result of his Crimean sketches was her permission to dedicate the forthcoming book to her, sight unseen. This, Simpson's first visit to India, lasted almost three years, from 1859 to 1862, and he sketched prolifically the architecture, archaeology, and daily life of the people, from the southern plains to Nepal and Tibet. Unfortunately, during his absence from Britain Day & Sons failed, and Simpson's watercolours of India eventually became part of their liquidated stock. A small book, India, Ancient and Modern, was later produced, but was of poor quality. Unfortunately Simpson had funded his own travels and he was left almost destitute on his return to London.

Nevertheless, Simpson's writings on a range of learned topics about the sub-continent earned him a reputation as an Indian expert. He wrote a paper entitled "Architecture in the Himalayas" for the Royal Institute of British Architects; a trip to the holy source of the Ganges, the "Cows Mouth", was described in a paper presented to the Alpine Club; a piece entitled "Pujahs in the Sutlej Valley, Himalayas" appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society; and a treatise on Indian jewellery appeared in The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith. His interest in Eastern mysticism was also thoroughly nurtured, resulting years later in a book, The Buddhist Praying Wheel.


Simpson's interest in exotic philosophies and mystical teachings was to develop and endure for the rest of his life, but it was not always appreciated by the hidebound Victorian elite. In that peculiar way common to Victorian eccentrics, he courted notoriety and even posed for a photograph later in life with wig of long hair and the skimpy dhoti of an Indian ascetic. The Illustrated London News, a journal to which he was a frequent contributor, noted patronisingly on 21st February, 1874

Mr Simpson ... is an enthusiastic connoisseur of all the Oriental religions — Judaism, Mohammedanism, and the Coptic, Abyssinian, Armenian, and Russian modifications of the Greek Church; the Parsee faith, and other most ancient beliefs of Iran; the Brahminism of India, the Buddhism of Thibet, the creeds of Tau and of Kong-Fu-Tze in China, and that of Shin-Too in Japan — his eclectic philosophy has a share of consideration for each and all. The extant forms of human credulity are not enough for his eager study. We can even detect ... a hankering desire for a few more strange religions, which may have abused the minds of dim barbarous nations long since become extinct. Indeed, this intelligent and ardent curiosity, with regard to such old-world and other-world concerns, has always seemed to us remarkable in a man so keen and so alert to pursue the most practical objects of interest which beset us at the present day.

Simpson was clearly a man ahead of his time.

Suez and Palestine

In 1869, with the impending completion of the Suez Canal, Simpson was sent by the Illustrated London News to sketch the opening ceremony and scenes on this "new route to India". On the way, he took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund in order to make detailed pictures of some of the excavations which Captain (later Major General Sir) Charles Warren had undertaken, particularly of some ancient water tunnels and caverns under that city. These tunnels were originally used as ancient water supplies and were mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus.

In surveying the area, Warren had found sewage flowing in some tunnels, and was forced to use rafts made of old doors to traverse them. Simpson had it a little easier. He and Warren scrambled through "all sorts of queer holes" in the ground, and magnesium wire was burned to provide sufficient light for him to sketch. Simpson's drawings became a unique record of these important archaeological places because Warren filled up the shafts and galleries after him, and it is only in more recent years that excavations have again uncovered some of them.

In an interesting historical footnote relevant to international tourism, Simpson returned to Jaffa (near present-day Tel Aviv) on completion of his task in Jerusalem, and encountered a curious procession on horseback passing in the opposite direction. "There were some forty or fifty persons," he noted with his usual irrepressibly twinkling humour, "and I mentally ejaculated 'Cook's Circus!' I was nearer the truth than I supposed. It turned out to be not Cook's Circus, but the Cook's tourists, the first party that enterprising provider had sent, 'personally conducted,' to Jerusalem."

Around the World

Simpson was commissioned in 1872 by the Illustrated London News to travel to China to sketch the marriage of the Emperor, and he took the opportunity to extend the trip to a round-the-world journey. Meeting the Sun: A Journey All Round the World, his account of this journey, was published in 1874, at about the same time as Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. The similarities between the two books are interesting, even though one is a work of fiction and the other of fact. Phileas Fogg's fictional journey closely followed the route of Simpson's round-the-world trip, and even the dates are close — Simpson left London on 5 August 1872 and took 322 days for the trip; Verne had Phileas Fogg leave London on 2 October 1872, and dramatic necessity dictated that his journey take only 80 days. Moreover, Fogg notionally crossed the International Date Line on 23 November 1872 on board the Pacific Mail Steamship Company ship General Grant, whereas Simpson crossed it in reality ten weeks later on the same company's ship Alaska. Indeed, the "twist" in Verne's book — that is, gaining a day in crossing the International Date Line — was also highlighted in Simpson's book, hence the title: Meeting the Sun. The publication dates of the two books preclude any suggestion that Verne used Simpson's book as a source, but it is highly likely that Simpson's earlier accounts in the Illustrated London News and the Daily News, formed a significant part of Verne's source material.

With the opening of the Suez Canal the journey from England to India had been shortened considerably — from three months to just one — and this "new route" had become extremely popular. But as Simpson's steamer, the Ellora, negotiated the canal, and the heat of the desert permeated the ship, Simpson's main concern lay not with the discomfort, but with the "danger" of falling for some young lady in the confines of ship-board life — an interesting preoccupation for a bachelor now well into middle age.

Eventually Simpson reached China — and he set about his preparations to undertake the original purpose of this journey, which was to sketch the marriage of the Emperor. He found, however, to his consternation, that the ceremony and procession were to be conducted in utmost secrecy — and the public was barred from viewing it. Undeterred, he found a spot in an opium den overlooking the route of the procession, and sketched the scene through a spy-hole he made in the paper covering a window.

It was later on this same trip that he visited California and had his close shave with the Modoc Indians. He travelled part of the way by stagecoach, not a mode of transport he relished — "by imagining yourself rolling down a hill inside a barrel you may form some idea of the amount of comfort to be enjoyed."

Royal Patronage

Simpson's reputation had grown by this stage, and he had earned himself the title in some quarters of the "Prince of pictorial correspondents". In keeping with this, he also seemed to have developed an affinity with royalty, calling on the Queen occasionally, and becoming friends with the Prince of Wales, through various visits to sketch the royal households.

On Simpson's return from the Crimea in 1855, he had been commissioned to sketch the victory parade of the returning artillery contingent before the Queen at Woolwich. The sketch was sent to Buckingham Palace for approval, and, a few days later, Simpson was ordered to attend at the palace to discuss it. To his surprise, the Queen herself received him, and discussed very knowledgeably and with great interest the events of the war in the Crimea. This was his first meeting with the Queen.

Her Majesty was very plainly dressed, and had a small white cap on her head. She came forward bowing and smiling, and stood at the window while the interview lasted... I was rather astonished at the knowledge the Queen possessed about myself. She alluded to me having been made a prisoner of the French [and] it rather astonished me to discover that [she] knew a story about me that had almost escaped my own mind. . . [She] was so easy and natural in her manner, that I was not at any moment of the interview embarrassed in the least.

He became a frequent visitor to royal residences after this meeting, and the royal family often commissioned him to make drawings of ceremonies and special events.

Simpson visited Balmoral and Abergeldie Castles to sketch while the Prince of Wales was in residence in 1881. On his arrival at Abergeldie,

the question was put as to whether I had a servant or not. This being answered in the negative, a gorgeous creature in blue plush breeches, a red coat, powdered hair, and silk stockings was told off for me, and he made a request for the key to my portmanteau. This was an ordeal I had not prepared for, but without hesitation I gave the keys. While doing so there flashed through my mind the thought that some of my stockings might have darning upon them, and an internal shudder seized me as I imagined this magnificent being turning over and transferring them from the portmanteau to a chest of drawers... It is perhaps well that what he thought, or what he said, was never revealed to me.

Simpson went deer-stalking with the Prince whilst at Abergeldie, and the two of them drove in a trap past Balmoral Castle — where they encountered the Queen walking on the grass. "The Prince stopped the trap", Simpson later recalled, "and I remember that the conversation was about President Garfield. The Queen had had a telegram that morning announcing his death, and the two royal personages spoke very feelingly about the event."

On another occasion Simpson was invited by the Prince of Wales to Sandringham to sketch the grounds. The Turkish Ambassador and Canon Duckworth were also guests, and after dinner they all played bowls in an American bowling alley which had been specially constructed for His Royal Highness. The Prince kept score, and, seemingly, "the clerical eye was not so good as the artistic, and the Church got beaten by Art". On Simpson's departure the Prince gave him a hamper of game as a parting present.

There was a big label on it with the words, 'From H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, Sandringham'. I gave the hamper a wide berth at the (railway) stations where we had to change, for I had no exact notion of the exact amount of backsheesh it would be necessary to offer to a railway porter for moving a hamper bearing such an important piece of information. At one place I saw quite a crowd round the hamper reading the label.

His friendship with the Prince of Wales also led, in 1875-6, to Simpson accompanying him to India, and on trips to Berlin for the Silver Wedding of the Crown Prince and Princess of Germany and to Moscow for the coronation of the Czar.

Troy, Mycenae & Ephesus

In 1877 Simpson visited the eastern Mediterranean to sketch Schliemann's excavations at Mycenae, Troy and Ephesus, a trip he particularly enjoyed for it allowed him to pursue his interest in archaeology, a science which was then in its infancy, and which Schliemann was giving a new popularity. A degree of professional enmity had arisen between the two men — "I became a sort of 'Head-Centre' of Schliemann's enemies, and he had many", Simpson wrote privately. "Letters came to me from all parts about him... Schliemann was a very able man in many ways, but no dependence can be placed on what he has written". The disagreement between the two men approached a feud, and centred on whether Schliemann's identification of the Homeric cities was accurate — a doubt which lingers to this day. The Illustrated London News of 5th January 1878 recorded one of the points of contention,

we do not wish here to revive the controversy that went on last July and August in Fraser's Magazine and The Times, but as Dr. Schliemann's case rests partly upon his collection of portable relics from the Troad, now on view at the South Kensington Museum, our readers must be warned of the conflicting arguments for and against the Hissarlik site of Troy. That this site is to be preferred to Gergis or Bournabashi, is admitted by Mr. Simpson, but he disbelieves the Scaean Gate and Priam's Palace, and the Keep or Great Tower of Ilium, mainly because he thinks it impossible that the structures to which Dr. Schliemann gives those names can have existed together at one time, and because the style and materials of their building, compared to those of Tiryns and Mycenae, contemporary Greek cities, do not support the identification.

There ensured a battle between the two men in the pages of The Times, and Simpson's feelings obviously ran high for he wrote in his Autobiography (and he was rarely publicly critical of people), "later on [Schliemann] invited me to dinner; I had another engagement. Then he sent me the later editions of his Troy books, and he even wrote saying there was no difference of opinion between us. But — as soon as he returned to Hissarlik he removed the 'palace' (from his descriptions)." Simpson's involvement in the field of archaeology earned him a reputation as an authority on the subject, and he was made an honorary member of the Royal Institute of Biblical Archaeology and elected to the executive committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

He returned once again to the Indian subcontinent in 1878-79 for the Afghan War, and again indulged his love for the scenery and people of that region. His activities were, however, circumscribed by his obligations to sketch the activities of the military expedition, and so his cultural and historical explorations had to be "fitted in".


Simpson was getting well into his fifties by this stage and had gained a degree of financial independence, but he remained a bachelor — "few men have passed through as many years (as I had) without finding someone to attract them", he wrote. Probably more significantly, the main incubus in his life had disappeared with his father's death in Glasgow in 1879. He wrote:

One reason, and the principal one, why I never ventured on the cares of a married life was on account of my Father. Although he ignored me — he never communicated with me or sent a message of congratulation about anything I ever did, or inquired after my health when I was ill — still I could not conscientiously throw him aside, and not provide for him. The cost was not a great deal, and I may have been able to sustain that as well as a wife, ... (but) the horrors of my early days with the struggle we all had for existence was a thing I feared again to encounter. At that time I was not responsible for the poverty, but should I undertake new ties, and could not support my duties, the responsibility would be mine. To fail in my duty has a terror for me that few people are liable to. On this account, to take on obligations I cannot realize, or even to have a doubt about being able to perform what I undertake, makes me shrink from such risks.

So wrote the famous war artist who was renowned for taking risks on the battlefield to capture a mere sketch.

Many years earlier, Simpson had made friends with a Dr. Anthony Beale at the court of the Governor General of India, Lord Canning. Beale introduced him to his sister, Kate, who, in turn and on his return to England, introduced him to her niece. Her name was Maria Eliza Burt, and she was an accomplished painter of miniatures whose small, finely-detailed portraits had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. She was the daughter of an engineer who fortunes had waxed and waned, and came from a middle-class family which claimed Huguenot descent and Henri IV of France as a long-distant ancestor (albeit via an illegitimate birth). William Simpson had probably known Maria for at least fifteen years when he married her in a private ceremony in Willesden in 1881, and the eighteen-year difference in their ages seemed to bother them not a whit. Maria was, by this stage, a pretty, petite and prematurely-grey woman of thirty nine, William was fifty seven. They honeymooned in Brighton and the Isle of Wight, returning to London via the Salisbury Plains and Stonehenge.

To suit his newly married status, Simpson acquired a large house in Willesden, and a year after their marriage Maria was pregnant. To their sorrow, a daughter was still-born on 4th June, 1882. Then, on 28th January, 1884, a second pregnancy was successfully concluded, and a healthy daughter named Ann Penelope entered the household. Simpson was sixty and Maria was forty two.

The Boundary Commission

Simpson was still working, despite occasional bouts of ill-health, and in 1885 he undertook one last major expedition — with the Afghan Boundary Commission, led by Sir Peter Lumsden, through Persia and Afghanistan. The commission's role was to define more precisely the border between Russia and Afghanistan, and the task became a thousand mile trek on horseback and by caravanserai, no mean feat for a sixty-one-year old whose body by this stage was occasionally assailed by recurring fevers, probably malaria, acquired at some stage in his previous travels. Nevertheless, he revelled in the opportunities the journey presented to sketch the desolate locations and the cultural and historical sights. In Tehran the group made a ceremonial call on the Shah of Persia, who was particularly interested to hear details of Simpson's war exploits.

Despite the remoteness of the places he visited his thoughts clearly rarely strayed from his wife and young daughter. Maria wrote to him, and somehow, a letter reached him in far-off Persia bearing a lock of hair of his little daughter. This moved him greatly and he carried it with him thereafter.

It was on this trip that he visited Nishapur in Persia, where the eleventh-century Poet Omar Khayyám was buried (near modern-day Mashad in Iran). He explored and sketched the tomb, and then

looked about to find some flowers or plants, a green leaf, or anything growing on the spot, to take away as a souvenir. The few plants growing through the bricks were all poor, and undesirable as relics. I looked into the garden in front of the tomb, and to my delight I found a row of rose-bushes. At that season the flowers were gone, and even the leaves were brown and withered. Still, I found a few that were green, and there were three hips, which I secured.

He sent these back to England, where they were cultivated at Kew Gardens and later planted on the grave of Khayyám's English translator, Edward Fitzgerald. This plant, a Damask rose with a fine fragrant pink flower, has been propagated over the years and can now be found in rose-gardens all over the world. Known as the Omar Khayyám rose, it serves both as a reminder of the beauty of the Rubáiyát and as a poignant memento of the peripatetic, inquiring and enlightened life of the Scottish "Special Artist" who brought it to Britain.

Old Age

William Simpson in old age. Click on image for larger picture.

Returning to England later that year, Simpson immersed himself in the rare luxury of home life, and took Maria and Ann on frequent picnics and outings to the sea. But he was now getting well into his sixties, and his health remained problematic. Consequently he limited his travels to shorter excursions from Willesden.

In 1888 Simpson visited Berlin to sketch the funeral of Kaiser Wilhelm, and (in a busy year) also took Maria and Ann with him to see the International Exhibition at Glasgow. But in 1890 a trip back to Scotland to sketch the opening of the Forth Bridge by the Prince of Wales heralded a major decline in his health — the weather was sleety and foul, and he acquired what seemed to be a chronic case of bronchitis which persisted off and on for years thereafter.

In 1892 he was asked by the Prince of Wales to sketch the remains of his son, the Duke of Clarence, at Sandringham prior to the funeral service, a touching and poignant task, for he was quite friendly with the Prince by this stage.

But it was his family life that he savoured most. Every Friday evening Simpson and his wife gave dinner parties for old friends. Visitors included Robert Carrick, the distinguished artist, and Walter Besant, novelist and brother of Annie Besant. He continued painting, and worked up larger watercolour paintings from sketches made during his heyday. And he completed two books which had long been on his mind: The Buddhist Praying-Wheel, a comprehensive study of Tibetan Buddhism and its role in the culture of the Tibetan people, and The Jonah Legend, a comparative study of various world cultures whose mythology encompassed a man being swallowed by a fish.

The Illustrated London News asked him to visit Chicago in 1893 to sketch the Great Exhibition, but his health was not up to it, and on doctor's advice, he declined.

Simpson died at his home in Willesden on 17th August 1899, aged 75, his wife and daughter by his side. He had never fully recovered from the attack of bronchitis he caught nine years earlier while sketching the opening of the Forth Bridge. He was buried in his mother's grave in the dissenters' section of Highgate Cemetery in London — and there is a certain aptness in the fact that he now lies peacefully slightly to the left of another great Victorian social commentator (of a vastly different ilk), Karl Marx. The juxtaposition of the graves would have made him smile — and it does make for both a fine metaphor and a suitable memorial.


Last modified 12 December 2004