(1823 - 1899)
Signed 'W Simpson'
15 x 20 cms
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."
In the late 1850s he was sent to India to sketch scenes relating to the recent
Sepoy Revolt. The idea was to produce an illustrated publication similar to
the Crimean portfolio, and Simpson had discussed the possibility with Mr.
Day. The artist arrived at Calcutta on 29 October 1859, and travelled in Punjab,
Sutlej, Bengal, Lucknow and Cawnpore, central India, the Himalayas, Kashmir
and Madras. In February, 1862, he left Bombay and arrived in London only to
find that Day and Son could not afford to produce a portfolio. Nevertheless,
a large volume of coloured lithographs was published under the title India
Ancient and Modern. He was commissioned by Day & Son to visit these parts
of India and record the places affected by the momentous events of the 'Mutiny'
of 1857. Before leaving, he spent 'a considerable time in the library of the
India House, then in Leaden hall Street, looking over books about India, such
as Daniels', to see what had been already done, and to get hints as to places
I ought to visit'. The set of lithographs produced, based on his watercolours,
was intended to rival David Roberts' Holy Land in scope. However, the project
never came to fruition. This was caused by the financial collapse of Day &
Son, due to the rise of wood engraving. By 1866, Simpson had delivered 250
watercolours to Day & Son and these were subsequently sold off as bankrupt
stock. Only 50 had been prepared as chromolithographs, and were published
in 1867 as India ancient and modern. A series of illustrations of the country
and people of India and adjacent territories.
- Indar Pasricha Fine Arts
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