I have recently finished cataloguing an album of sketches from the Crimean War by the Scottish artist William Simpson. It is a fascinating volume, not only as an important resource from this period in history, but also for the picture it paints of Simpson himself as an artist and a collector.
William Simpson was born in Glasgow in 1823 and began his artistic career as an apprentice lithographer. He moved to London in 1851, where he continued to work as an artist for a number of publishing firms. In 1854, shortly after the outbreak of the Crimean War, he was commissioned to create a drawing of the city of Sebastopol under siege. However, he was unable to find any source material to work from, as no British artist had ever been to Sebastopol to sketch it first-hand. In his autobiography, Simpson speaks of his frustration at being unable to adequately portray scenes from the war:
“The news came of the troops making the trenches before Sebastopol. A siege in form was all so new after such a long peace, that everyone was excited and anxious about every detail. I read the papers carefully, and used to talk to Mr. Day about it, and say I wished I were there. “Here they are making ‘gabions’, ‘fascines’, ‘traverses’ &c. What are these? No one knows. If I were there I could send sketches of them, so that every one would understand.”
These comments were heard by the lithography firm Colnaghi and Co., who quickly approached Simpson and asked if he would like to make the trip. He accepted, and arrangements were made for him to accompany the British Army to Crimea. Simpson produced hundreds of first-hand sketches of the people and places he encountered on his travels, which he sent back to London using the military’s official postal service. Thus he became one of Britain’s very first war artists, earning himself the nickname ‘Crimean Simpson’ along the way.
Using his first-hand sketches as preparatory studies, Simpson later produced a series of colour prints depicting various scenes from the war, which were published in the Colnaghi portfolio The Seat of the War in the East. Many years later, Simpson gathered all of his original sketches into a scrapbook-style album, along with a collection of other materials amassed on his travels such as maps, newspaper cuttings, and around fifty photographs by the photographers James Robertson and Felice Beato. The entire album was purchased by the V&A from Simpson’s widow in 1900, shortly after his death.
The album is a fantastic resource for anyone with an interest in the Crimean War or early war correspondence. When I began cataloguing the volume, I was immediately struck by Simpson’s dedication to meticulously documenting the material he collected, and preserving it for future generations.
Simpson was not concerned with presenting pristine finished drawings or showing off his considerable artistic talent in this album. There are a few beautiful watercolours pasted in amongst the pencil sketches, but the majority of the volume is made up of rough drawings, clearly sketched very quickly and on-the-spot in the middle of the action. Many are jotted on tiny corners of scrap paper, or even on bits of newspaper. Simpson seems to have been reluctant to dispose of even the smallest shred of evidence which might someday be useful to someone studying the war.
Throughout the volume, Simpson displays a remarkable level of foresight in the way he presents the material, and an awareness of its potential importance to future generations. He often adds his own notes to the drawings, jotting down interesting anecdotes about the people and events being depicted.
As a cataloguer, it can sometimes be very difficult to determine exactly what is being depicted in works from so long ago, and I was therefore genuinely touched by Simpson’s thoughtful notes and annotations on his own sketches. I felt as if he could imagine someone like me examining his album over a hundred years later, and wanted to make sure I had all the information I might need.
A particularly noteworthy example is this rather tatty-looking set of pencil scribbles, which at first glance might look like complete nonsense. However, thanks to Simpson’s neat note in the corner, we know that this actually the handiwork of Lord George Paget, and that the scribbles represent a plan of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. This diagram was drawn by Paget as he recounted the events to Simpson, some nine months later.
All of the sketches, photographs and other materials from the Crimea album can be found on the V&A’s Search the Collections page. Or, if you’d like to come and see the sketches in person, you can make an appointment to do so in our Prints and Drawings study room.