Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Simpson, William (1823-1899)
SIMPSON, WILLIAM (1823–1899), artist and war correspondent, was born in Glasgow on 28 Oct. 1823. His father, William Simpson (1791-1879), a native of Perth, was a marine engineer, and afterwards a mechanic in Parkholm Printfield, near Glasgow. While quite young Simpson was sent to Perth to live with his grandmother, and began his education in a writing-school there, where he remained for fifteen months. This was all the regular schooling he ever received, though he afterwards became deeply learned in the European and oriental languages. In 1835 Simpson entered an architect's office in Glasgow, and there his taste for art was developed, and two years afterwards he was apprenticed to the firm of Allan & Ferguson, lithographers, Glasgow. David Allan took much interest in his apprentice, and confided to him the task of sketching many old buildings for Stuart's 'Views of Glasgow,' which was published in 1848 by the firm. Simpson removed to London in 1851, and was employed by Day & Son, then the leading lithographers. After the Crimean war broke out Simpson was engaged upon views of the Baltic battles for Colnaghi & Son ; and when that firm decided to publish a large illustrated work on the Crimean campaign from sketches made on the spot, Simpson was selected for the work on Day's recommendation. He started on short notice, arrived at Balaclava in November 1854, and remained with the British army till the fall of Sebastopol. Simpson was thus the pioneer war-artist, and received several commissions to paint incidents in the war for the queen. The 'Illustrations of the War in the East' was published in two volumes by Colnaghi in 1855-6, and is still regarded as a brilliant example of lithographic work. Before Simpson returned from the Crimea he was invited to join the Duke of Newcastle on a tour in Circassia, and made many sketches in that little-known country.
The Indian mutiny of 18o8 had directed attention to Hindostan, and Day & Son projected a large illustrated work on India, and sent Simpson thither to make sketches. For three years he remained there, visiting both the eastern and western cities, sojourning in the Himalayas, and even venturing across the border of the 'forbidden land' of Tibet, where he had access to some of the Buddhist temples. The finishing of his pictures occupied four years after his return, and he had completed 250 of them and placed them in the hands of Day & Son when that firm suddenly became bankrupt, and all Simpson's work for seven years was reckoned as an asset of the firm, because of the advances they had made to meet his current expenses. It was after this catastrophe in 1860 that Simpson met Mr. (now Sir William) Ingram, editor and proprietor of the 'Illustrated London News,' and a lifelong connection began. Simpson was sent to Russia to make sketches of the marriage of the Czarewitch (afterwards Alexander III) with the Princess Dagmar of Denmark in November 1866; and he then accompanied King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, on a tour to various parts of Russia.
Before his return to England Simpson visited Jerusalem, where Captain (now Major-general Sir Charles) Warren was conducting excavations for the Palestine Exploration Fund committee, and Simpson made over forty sketches of archaeological interest, afterwards exhibited under the title 'Underground Jerusalem.' In 1868 Simpson accompanied the Abyssinia expedition under Lord Napier of Magdala, returning in time to sketch the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. His next experience was in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when he went to Paris in July, travelled to Metz, was sent back to Paris a prisoner as being a suspected spy, made his escape, and travelled to Sedan in time to witness the surrender of Napoleon III. Returning to Metz, he was shut up in that fortress with Marshal Bazaine until the capitulation. A severe illness compelled him to return to London ; but in 1871 he was again in Paris during the Commune. Next year he was sent to China to make sketches of the marriage of the Emperor Tung-Chin, and while there he wrote a remarkable series of letters to the 'Daily News' on Chinese social life. From China he went to Japan, crossed the Pacific to San Francisco, traversed California and North Carolina during the rebellion of the Modoc Indians, visited the Yosemite Valley, Utah, the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky, and Niagara, bringing back numerous sketches, afterwards exhibited under the title 'Round the World.'
In 1875 Simpson returned to the Far East as artist, making sketches for the 'Illustrated London News' of the tour of the Prince of Wales through India. He exhibited over two hundred water-colour sketches of Indian scenery after his return. His next journey was in 1877 to Mycenæ, Troy, and Ephesus, to make sketches of the excavations directed by Dr. Schliemann, and over sixty pictures were shown by him in London, besides the drawings made for the 'News.' When Sir Samuel Browne was engaged in Afghanistan in 1878-9, Simpson accompanied him through the whole campaign, was at the Khyber Pass, at Fort Ali Musjid, and at the signing of the peace at Gundamuck. He remained at home till 1884-5, when he went with Sir Peter Lumsden to Penjdeh with the Afghan boundary commission, which was his last expedition. He settled at Willesden in 1885, where he spent the remainder of his life in literary work, and he died there on 17 Aug. 1899.
Simpson occupied a unique position in art. On 23 March 1874 he was elected an associate of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours, and became a full member on 3 Feb. 1879. It was partly through his exertions that it was elevated by charter to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1884, and he continued to exhibit annually up till the year of his death. Between 1874 and 1899 he exhibited fifty-nine pictures. Simpson was one of the original members of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours (now the Society of Oil Painters) when it was founded in 1883, but retired in 1886. His reputation as an artist in black-and-white overshadowed his fame as a colourist, though his pictures were always characterised by accurate draughtsmanship and quiet natural colour. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, an honorary associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and also of the Glasgow Institute of Architects; a member of the Royal Asiatic Society; one of the executive of the Palestine Exploration Fund; and founder, with Samuel Birch [q. v. Suppl.], of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. To all these societies he contributed numerous papers on a vast variety of subjects, chiefly architectural and archaeological. Simpson had a long and honourable connection with freemasonry, which he often found useful in his travels. He was initiated in 1871, was one of the first members of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge in 1886, and two years afterwards became worshipful master, contributing many valuable papers to the 'Transactions.' His last combined literary and artistic work was a volume entitled 'Glasgow in the Forties,' in which he reproduced many of his sketches of Glasgow street architecture, made about 1848, and wrote descriptive letterpress. The volume was published posthumously in December 1899, with a biographical sketch.
Simpson's principal works were: 1. 'Illustrations of the War in the East,' 1855-6, 2 vols. with 81 tinted plates. 2. 'Meeting the Sun, a Journey round the World,' 1873. 3. 'Picturesque People, or Groups from all Quarters of the Globe,' 1876. 4. 'Shikar and Tamasha, a Souvenir of the Visit of the Prince of Wales to India,' 1876. 5. 'The Buddhist Praying Wheel,' 1896. 6. 'The Jonah Legend,' posthumously, October 1899. 7. 'Glasgow in the Forties,' posthumously, December 1899, with a portrait of the author. He was a voluminous contributor to the 'Proceedings' and 'Transactions' of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the Royal Asiatic Society, and the Quatuor Coronati Lodge. 'Harper's Magazine,' 'Fraser's Magazine,' and 'Good Words.' A list of his principal papers will be found in the memoir prefixed to 'Glasgow in the Forties' (1899).
[MS. Autobiography by Simpson, 1893; Memoir by the present writer, in Glasgow in the Forties; People's Friend, May 1900; Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, xii. 187; private information.]