Circassians at the Fort of Waia, 8th October 1855
Circassia. Tcherkess of the Soubash.
Mongolia. Group near the Great Wall of China.
Born into poverty in Glasgow on 28 October 1823, Simpson went on to become one of the leading 'special artists' of his day, and sketched many scenes of war for the Illustrated London News. His early years were very difficult living in a house with an abusive and alcoholic father, and in 1834 he was sent to live with his grandmother in Perth. Simpson's only formal schooling took place during this period and within a few years, he was working as an apprentice in the Glasgow lithographic firm of Macfarlane. The artist stated later that "this was the turning point which changed all my boyish intentions." It was during the years in Glasgow that he attended the Andersonian University and the Mechanics Institute in the evenings. His next position was with the lithographic company of Allan and Ferguson where he spent four years learning the trade.
In 1851 Simpson moved to London where he was hired by Day & Sons. While at Day's he was able to work on several important lithographic sets.
He became famous initially for his work in the Crimean War where he was sent by the firm of Colnaghi to create a series of watercolors suitable for lithographing. In the late 1850's he was sent to India to sketch scenes relating to the recent Sepoy Revolt. He joined the ILN in 1866 and covered the Abyssinian Campaign of 1868. In 1870 he went to France to sketch the war with Prussia, and in the following year observed the barricades of the Paris Commune. During a trip around the world, he stopped off in California and traveled to the Lava Beds area to report on the Modoc War in 1873. Five years later, he journeyed to Afghanistan to provide illustrations of the Second Afghan War that had broken out; he returned to London in the summer of 1879. In 1890, he observed the opening of the Forth Bridge and caught a chill which was to have detrimental effects on his health.
He died at home in Willesden, north London, on August 17, 1899, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Besides his war pictures, he covered state events, coronations, funerals, and other ceremonies. He was particularly interested in India and sketched scenes of the Kashmir Maharajas.
Simpson was a noted ethnographer and antiquarian, and wrote extensively on ancient religions, customs, and ancient artifacts. During his time in Afghanistan, he excavated several ancient Buddhist topes. He was a frequent visitor to Windsor and Balmoral, and Queen Victoria acquired a number of his works. It is said that she intervened to prevent him from going out to Italy in 1859 to cover the Austro-Sardinian War, for fear that he would get killed.
Simpson is represented in the following collections: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Victoria and Albert Museum, London amongst others.