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WILLIAM SIMPSON, R.I., F.R.G.S. (1823-1899)

WILLIAM SIMPSON, R.I., F.R.G.S. (1823-1899)





Titled, signed & dated u.l. Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, Jerusalem, W Simpson 1871

Watercolour with bodycolour over pencil

33.5 x 25.5 cm



Pall Mall Gallery, London, 1872 [sold for 30 gns.]

Anonymous Sale, Sotheby's, London, 24.10.1990, Lot 212;

Private Collection, U.S.A.



Pall Mall Gallery, London, Underground Jerusalem, 1872, cat. no. 20



Simpson visited Jerusalem in 1868, following a trip to Cairo where he had accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales. In March 1869 Simpson accompanied Captain Charles Warren on some of his underground explorations of Jerusalem for the Palestine Exploration Fund in order to send illustrations to the Illustrated London News [1]. Within the numerous archaeological digs and caves beneath the ancient city, the local workmen uncovered a 4th century shrine to St Helena. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, was reputed to have discovered part of the True Cross in a cistern to the east of Mount Calvary during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 342. A chapel was built, and a shrine was erected in the deep cistern to mark the exact site of the discovery, beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Upon his return to London, Simpson held an exhibition, `Underground Jerusalem', at the Pall Mall Gallery, of forty Jerusalem. In the Descriptive Catalogue that accompanied the 1872 exhibition, Simpson wrote of the chapel, ‘This is a cave very deep down below the pile of buildings which all come under the name of the ‘Holy Sepulchre’. It is to the west, and pilgrims descend to it by the Chapel of St Helena, from which a stair leads down to the cave…’


Another view of the chapel (cat. no. 14 from the 1872 exhibition) was recently with Chris Beetles Gallery, London, which shows monks at prayer in front of the shrine, looking up the steps down from St Helena’s chapel towards the ‘window, seen in the drawing, in which Queen Helena sat and watched the workmen engaged in searching for the true cross’. That view was later reproduced as an engraving in the catalogue for the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour’s 1884 exhibition at the Piccadilly Gallery, London, where the painting itself was cat. no. 356.



William Simpson was a phenomenal polymath whose career encompassed a remarkable variety of disciplines and led him all over the globe, in an age before convenient and automated travel. Simpson was, first and foremost, a documentary artist and a proto-war reporter. Alongside his artistic achievements, he was a gifted linguist, a religious scholar, an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and a historian. He was among the most intrepid of travellers, let alone artists, of the 19th century, and visited India, Afghanistan, China, America and Ethiopia, and war-torn countries in Europe during the height of their conflicts.


Born into poverty in a Glasgow tenement, he trained as a lithographer and moved, in 1851, to London to work for the company Day & Son. His swift success there led Colnaghi & Co. to commission him to travel to the battlefields of Crimea in 1854, as the first artist to hold a specific commercial commission to record a war in Europe as it was ongoing. He made sketches at Balaklava and at Sevastopol during the siege, sending his watercolours back to London. The following year these were published as lithographs in The Seat of War in the East (eventually, two volumes of 80 plates, 1855-56, dedicated to Queen Victoria). The success of this series earned him the soubriquet ‘Crimean Simpson’.


The British public’s focus changed from Crimea to India in the wake of the ‘Mutiny’, and Simpson was sent there in 1859 to make studies for a publication that, it was hoped, would rival David Roberts’ seminal and extremely successful Holy Land in its size and scope. Simpson completed 250 watercolours on this trip, which were exhibited to public and critical acclaim back in London; however, Day & Son went into liquidation around this time, leaving Simpson without any compensation for seven years’ work, and the watercolours were never reproduced as a series of lithographs.


In 1866, the Illustrated London News appointed Simpson as their ‘Special Artist’, sending him across the globe to record events of public interest. From the Abyssinian Campaign of 1868 to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to the Afghan War of 1878-79, Simpson covered almost all of the British conflicts across the Empire as part of this role. In 1872-1873 he circumnavigated the globe, sailing to China to report on the marriage of the Emperor, continuing on via Japan to California and across America via Salt Lake City and Kentucky to New York. His account of the journey, Meeting the Sun: A Journey All Round The World, was published in 1874, two years after Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in Eighty Days.



Simpson’s visit to Jerusalem, following the aforementioned Royal visit to Egypt and the Suez canal, was also an ILN endeavour. He had some familiarity with the city from illustrations he had made for the Revd George Sandie’s Horeb and Jerusalem (1864), but he had never visited it himself; and was amazed at what he saw when he finally reached the city.


Guided by Henry Warren, he explored the subterranean labyrinths beneath the Temple Mount. Together they scrambled through tunnels that the Palestine Exploration Fund’s team had dug and entered caves and cisterns that had only recently been excavated for the first time in the Modern era, lighting magnesium wire so that Simpson could see to sketch by this pale greenish-yellow light. Simpson’s studies from this time also included several of the interior of the Dome of the Rock, where he had been granted rare permission to sketch.



    [1] See Autobiography, pp.210-4 and Illustrated London News (24 April 1869), pp.423-426

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