Magazine article Geographical

Around the World in Watercolours

Magazine article Geographical

Around the World in Watercolours

Article excerpt

On the centenary of his great grandfather William Simpson's death, Adrian Lipscomb celebrates the fascinating life of an accomplished traveller, artist and early Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

UNUSUALLY FOR A MAN OF HIS TIMES, William Simpson travelled to some of the most exotic and remote places of the world. Towards the end of his career he visited Nishapur in Persia-near the city of Mashad, in modern Iran-where the 11th century poet Omar Khayyam was buried.

Simpson explored and sketched the tomb, before looking 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, he noted, "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."

These he sent back to England, where they were cultivated at Kew Gardens and later planted on the grave of Khayyarm's English translator, Edward Fitzgerald. A damask rose with a fine fragrant pink flower, the Omar Khayyam rose can now be found in rose gardens all over the world. It serves both as a reminder of the beauty of rubaiyat (Persian verse) and as a poignant memento of the peripatetic, inquiring and enlightened life of the artist who brought it to Britain.

Art critics and historians have portrayed William Simpson as a "cultured traveller" and even rather gushingly as the "Prince of Pictorial Correspondents". Modern travel writer Paul Theroux had in mind Simpson's penchant for the village and the common people, rather than palaces and aristocracy, when he described him as "the Kipling of watercolourists". But to anthropologists, Simpson is best known as an early and learned commentator on Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Archaeologists still read with interest his critiques on Troy and Mycenae and refer to his sketches of underground Jerusalem. While architects acknowledge his commentaries on indigenous building styles, military historians honour him as the first war artist whose depictions of conflict accurately reflected its less glorious side.

Simpson was born in Glasgow on 28 October 1823, the son of James-a quarrelsome and violent drunk who laboured in the shipyards-and Ann, who young Will regarded as "one of the best of mothers". It was a hard childhood. Although his formal education was scant, by the age of 14 Simpson had earned himself an apprenticeship in lithography and had acquired a knowledge of the arts and sciences by attending free lectures.

Art, however, was his main interest. On certain days when no dinner was being made at home, he was given a penny for food. By forgoing the meal, he could afford to buy colours in the art supply shop to enable him to sketch people and street scenes. And so he developed a talent for observation and analysis that served Simpson well in his later career.

In 1851, at the age of 27, he moved to London and took up employment with Day & Son, lithographers. The Crimean War broke out in 1854 and Simpson was sent out to sketch on the spot-thereby acquiring the sobriquet "Crimea Simpson". As a "camp follower", Simpson followed the British Army to the Crimea in 1854 and to Abyssinia, with Napier, in 1868, to free the hostages being held by Emperor Theodorus. He also covered the Franco-German war in 1870, and entered Strasbourg and Metz with the German troops (being arrested as a spy in the process). He covered the Paris Commune the following year, and he accompanied the Afghan Expedition in 1878, and was present at the taking of Ali Musjid and the advance of Sir Samuel Browne's column through the Khyber Pass. All this time he remained aloof from the chauvinistic enthusiasm that tended to accompany military life and studiously refrained from taking part in hostilities. …

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