William Simpson, RI FRGS (1823-1899) William Simpson was a pioneering Special Artist; that is a visual journalist sent to record major news stories for illustrated publications. Making his reputation with lithographs of his watercolours of the Crimean War, and even gaining the name ‘Crimea Simpson’, he later developed a close association with The Illustrated London News.
William Simpson was born in Glasgow on 28 October 1823, the son of a marine engineer and mechanic. His formal education as a child consisted of 15 months at a writing-school in Perth. However, he received some training in lithography from David Macfarlane, while working at his lithographic office, and then underwent an apprenticeship to Allan and Ferguson, a local firm of lithographers. When the Glasgow School of Design opened in 1845, he also attended classes there.
Moving to London in 1851, Simpson began to undertake a number of exciting assignments as an employee of Day & Son, and was able to claim to be the first Special Artist to be involved in action.
He was sent to the Baltic by Colnaghi to record the naval battles that instigated the Crimean War, and arrived in the Crimea itself in 1854, only two weeks after the Battle of Inkerman. The resulting lithographic folio, The Seat of War in the East, was the first of his many books. In the same period, he toured Circassia with the Duke of Newcastle. He spent three years in India between 1859 and 1862, in the aftermath of the Mutiny, making architectural and archaeological sketches, and visiting Kashmir and Tibet.
In 1866, Day & Son went bankrupt, and Simpson began to work for The Illustrated London News. He was sent to St Petersburg to record the marriage of the future Tsar Alexander III, and also toured Russia with the Prince of Wales, taking in Jerusalem on his return journey. Through the late 1860s and the 1870s he increased the rate of his travels. In 1868 he accompanied Napier on his expedition to Abyssinia expedition, and in 1869 was present at the opening of the Suez Canal. He covered the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and then the resulting Paris Commune. In 1872 he went to China for the wedding of the Emperor, subsequently visiting Japan and returning across America. He was in India with the Prince of Wales in 1875, Asia Minor in 1877 and Afghanistan in 1878-79 and again in 1884-85.
Though Simpson worked chiefly in monochrome for his assignments, he exhibited a number of watercolours and oils, from 1874, at the Royal Society of British Artists and the New Society of Painters in Water Colours. Elected an associate of the NWS in 1874 and a full member five years later, he was instrumental in transforming the society into the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1884. Following his marriage in 1881, he settled in Willesden, Middlesex, and devoted himself to writing. His autobiography would appear in print four years after his death at home on 17 April 1899.
His work is represented in the collections of the V&A, while The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, holds over 600 of his manuscripts, scrapbooks, drawings, sketches and watercolours.
Further reading Delia Millar, ‘Simpson, William (1823-1899)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 50, pages 716-718; Simon Peers and Paul Theroux, Mr William Simpson of ‘The Illustrated London News’: Pioneer War Artist, 1823-1899, London: Fine Art Society, 1987