and Himalayan Architecture


William Simpson in his old age



It was the 19th century Scottish painter, William Simpson (1823-99), who first brought Himalayan architecture in detail to the attention of Europe. Having mentioned his name several times in this web site, I will narrate here his life in more detail, especially in relation to Himalayan architecture.

William Simpson was not only an excellent 'reportage painter' but also a writer of many monographs and books on architecture and archaeology. The reason I used an unfamiliar word ‘reportage painter’ is that, in the 19th century painters carried out the current role of ‘news photographers’ and particularly he became famous through his reportage of the Crimean War from the battlefields, even be coming celebrated as ‘Crimean Simpson.’
Needless to say, he did not paint only for reportage, but was descended from a line of British landscape painters who drew India, from William Hodges in the 18th century, through Thomas and William Daniells, and up to Edward Lear in the 19th century. And with probably the most talented ability in terms of sketching among them, Simpson painted Indian scenery and ancient buildings in abundance.

It can be said that Simpson spent all his life travelling around the world, witnessing major wars and events all over the world in the 19th century, and also attended various memorial celebrations, being personally close to the British and German royal families.
As he lived a stormy life, he got married and settled down late at the age of 57. His memoirs written for his only daughter, Ann Penelope, was posthumously published, entitled “The Autobiography of William Simpson, R.I.,” in which his life and the events he witnessed are vividly depicted.

Although he presented many articles and treatises to academic societies and associations, such as the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), he had hardly received any formal education in his childhood. He lived completely freely, studying by himself, drawing and painting, publishing books, and was widely known in society in those days.

"Lake and Palace in Udaipur" by W. Simpson

He was a Scot, born in Glasgow 15 years later than the great architectural historian, also Scottish, James Ferguson. (Subsequently, Simpson would become intimate with him, being deeply influenced by Fergusson to study Indian architecture.) As Simpson’s family was too poor to send him to school, the only formal education he received was for 15 months from the age of eleven while he was looked after by his grandmother in Perth.
When he was 14 years old, he had to start work as an apprentice at a lithograph studio in Glasgow; this would decide the direction of his future life.

While mastering the technique of lithograph, Simpson eagerly went to free introductory lectures at the Mechanic’s Institute and Andersonian University that were near the studio, and he went to libraries to avidly read books. He even attended an evening class in architectural and mechanical drawing at the Andersonian University from the winter of 1838 to the next year.

In 1840 he transferred to Allan and Fergusson's atelier, contracting to work as an apprentice for seven years. During that time, he took lessons in painting and design, attending the evening school of a newly established school of arts, the Glasgow School of Design (the future Glasgow School of Art), in which Charles Rennie Mackintosh would be a student about 40 years later.
Simpson wrote that he had sometimes saved money by skipping meals in order to buy paint and went to the country every holiday to sketch from nature and paint watercolors.

When he reached the age of 27 in 1851, he moved from Glasgow to London to obtain higher techniques in lithography. It was just the year that the first great Exhibition was held in London. He was able to get a job in the firm of Day and Sons', which was a renowned, excellent lithograph studio inaugurated by Day, who had been dead some years, and managed by his three sons in cooperation.

It was the age, when the photoengraving had not yet developed and the method of illustrations on books and magazines had shifted from etching to lithography, which was in its heyday, though it would be superseded by wood carving 20 years later. Day and Sons’ were very busy this year thanks to the works for the world's fair.

"Golden Temple in Amritsal" by W. Simpson

It was the Crimean War, which started in 1853, that brought a turning point to the life of Simpson, who had improved his skill remarkably on lithography and watercolor painting. It was a war on a large scale, which continued as long as three years, over the dominium of the Middle East and the Balkans between Russia, who took the strategy of pushing southward, and the allied forces of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, who intended to obstruct it.
When Britain, which had participated in the campaign in 1854, dispatched a fleet to the Black Sea, the news agency Colnaghi, taking the advice of Day and Sons,’ asked Simpson to go to Crimea as a painter to draw visually the reportage from the actual places.

He did not miss this chance and went to the Crimea. Experiencing shellfire at first hand, he resided there for a year from that winter, sending his watercolors depicting the sights of battle fields to London for the British newspapers.
This war not only produced the splendid nursing activity of Florence Nightingale and "Sebastopol Sketches" written by Lev Tolstoy, but also made William Simpson famous as a war artist in the 19th century, much like Robert Capa as a news photographer in the 20th.
After returning to London, he published his 80 watercolors from Colnaghi’s as a record of the Crimean War in the form of lithographs transferred by Day and Sons.’ It became widely popular, and based on his new reputation, he had works of art commissioned from the royal family, especially from Queen Victoria.


The next military engagement that Britain confronted after the Crimean War was the rebellion of Indian soldiers against Britain, called the ‘Indian Mutiny.’ Taking the opportunity of the revolt of sepoys (mercenaries of British India), Indian soldiers and peasants rose against the ruling East India Company, crowning the Mughal Emperor at their head. This ‘mutiny’ continued for two years from 1857 in various districts in India.
Although the revolts were eventually suppressed, the British side also suffered immense losses. With this warfare as a turning point, the British government broke up the East India Company and made India a colony directly controlled by the British Crown. The Governor-General of India, Charles Canning, who got over the mutiny somehow or other, then added the title of ‘Viceroy of India’ to his name.

"Devi ka Makan" by W. Simpson

Day and Sons’ planned to report visually the state of India after the Mutiny, and requested Simpson to be their correspondent. Simpson, who had long been interested in the Orient, planned on this occasion to travel extensively throughout India and draw everything of its culture, geographical features, customs, and religions.

Close to ten years before that, David Roberts, also a Scottish painter, made a grand tour (1838-39) through Palestine, as the birth place of Christianity, to Egypt and completed the publication of five volumes of a large-sized book of lithographs entitled “The Holy Land” which was praised with great admiration. It was an excellent book of paintings consisting of 123 plates in total, in the form of lithographs colored by hand; a masterpiece in the history of lithography.
Simpson harbored a sense of rivalry with that, so he aimed to produce a greater book of pictures on India consisting of 250 plates of lithographs, using the subsequently developed technique of chromolithography (colored lithography).

Since the 18th century, many British landscape painters had already sailed for India and painted its exotic scenery in various methods, such as watercolor, oil painting, lithography, and etching, to introduce them to British society.
What Simpson most referred to before his trip was the six volumes of book consisting of 144 plates of aquatint, a kind of copperplate print, drawn by Thomas and William Daniels, uncle and nephew: “Oriental Scenery” published in 1795-1803.
Though this is a precious book of pictures, which depicts the ruins, monuments, and views of India at the end of the 18th century, their pictures are overall stiff and dismal, somewhat lacking animation, as Edward Lear criticized them later. It can be said that a talent for painting was much more abundant in Simpson.

"Children sleeping out of doors" by W. Simpson

After he landed in Calcutta in October 1859, he travelled in India for as long as two and half years, untiringly drawing on his sketchbooks everything he saw, like buildings, ruins, townscapes, people’s figures, and landscapes. He went to Delhi by train, on the railroad that had just inaugurated, to meet the Governor-General of India, Canning, and his wife. Simpson attended all the Viceroy’s official events, drawing those sights, and became painting teacher to Lady Canning who loved pictorial art.

In an age when transportation was not as convenient as now, Simpson explored hinterlands, getting on a ‘Dooly’ (simple palanquin without a roof) carried by Indian coolies, and drawing natural objects and buildings in regions which the British had not looked at, referring to this, in his phraseology, as ’True India.’
In both the summers he spent in India, Simpson went to the summer capital Shimla, escaping the unendurable heat of Delhi. The Himalayan nature and wooden architecture around Shimla vastly pleased him, inducing him to hope to travel deeper into the Himalayas. Fortunately, he was able to join a party with Captain Evans up to Chini (currently Kalpa) in the Satlej Valley. It was here that Himachal architecture at Sarahan and other spots came to be recorded for the very first time in many of his sketches.

When returning to England in 1862, Simpson started to produce works of full-scale watercolor based on the sketches that he had accumulated in India. It took four years to complete a total of 250 plates, preparing the publication of a book of pictures in four volumes in the form of chromolithography, handing them over successively to Day and Sons.’
However, the Goddess of Fortune did not smile upon him. During these two years, management conditions of Day and Sons’ had bitterly deteriorated and eventually the firm became bankrupt. Simpson’s works, being property of the firm, were wholly sold off as security for a loan. The publication project of the great book of pictures, which would have exceeded "Oriental Scenery" by Thomas and William Daniells and "The Holy Land" by David Roberts, collapsed sadly and tragically. Simpson was at the age of 39.

"Worship of the Devi at Kothi" by W. Simpson

As 50 watercolors among the 250 had already been transferred into lithographs, these came to be published as two volumes of a large-sized book of pictures under the title of “India Ancient and Modern.” However, since competent lithographers had already left Day and Sons,’ the quality of these lithographs never satisfied Simpson.
Working for six and a half years, travelling and sketching in India, painting watercolors, and the expenses for them was almost entirely in vain. His grief was extremely deep. And it is also the grief of posterity and this writer. If that great book of pictures had materialized as originally planned, it would not only have enhanced his fame but also added a great amount of wealth to the paintings of 19th century India by British artists. I miss his talent deeper than any other artists among those numerous landscape painters.


Though intensely discouraged, Simpson was able to get a commission for a new job. It was an article in “The Illustrated London News,” the world’s first weekly graphic newspaper; Simpson was to be a ‘special artist’ to draw the Prince of Wales’ tour to attend the marriage ceremony of the Tsarevich, the subsequent Emperor of Russia Alexander III, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
While there, Simpson was requested by the Prince of Wales, with whom he had become friendly, to go on to Moscow together, so he was able to stay at the Kremlin and sketch its interiors.

With this as the start, he would be dispatched as a freelance reportage painter to various spots in the world for The Illustrated London News at every important event or celebration, and his paintings, transferred to woodcuts, would adorn its pages.

In 1868 Simpson went to the scene of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) War for reportage, and then travelled through Egypt to Turkey until the next year, attending the inauguration ceremony of the Suez Canal. He became a permanent staff member of the newspaper that summer.
He stayed in Rome from the end of 1869 to the next year to report the Vatican Council, went to the scene of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and then investigated the Paris Commune on the ground, drawing the real state of affairs of the revolution from the inside of the civil army.

The next year he was requested to report on the Prince of Wales’ tour to China for his attendance at the marriage celebration of the Emperor of Qing. Availing himself of this opportunity, Simpson planned an around-the–world trip.
His reportage of this grand tour was published two years later under the title of “Meeting the Sun” in two volumes. For the frontispiece of this book, to my surprise, is his painting of Mt. Fuji; he travelled to Japan on his way to America after his duties in China. The description of his stay in Japan for one month is pretty interesting, from Nagasaki, through Kobe and Kamakura, to Tokyo. It was only six years after the Meiji Restoration, and four years before the coming of the English architect Josiah Conder, who was employed all the way to the Far East by the Japanese government to first teach Western architecture in Japan.

"Fujiyama in Japan" by W. Simpson

After his first journey in India, he made the acquaintance of the architectural historian, James Fergusson. Fergusson showed interest in his itinerary and recognized its value as material on the history of Indian architecture, particularly his sketches of the Himalayan region and Kashmir, and recommended him to give an account to the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). From then Simpson became a contributor of reports and essays on his experiences to the transactions of the RIBA, RAS (Royal Asiatic Society), and so forth.

Among his numbers of writings including his autobiography, apart from the books of pictures, what was reprinted long afterward in the U.S.A. is the book entitled "The Buddhist Praying-Wheel." Though the title includes ‘Buddhist,’ it is a book pursuing the symbolical meanings of circular motifs in various religions in the world, starting from the ‘Mani wheel’ in Tibetan Buddhism, researching their origin in images of the sun.

He carried out travels in the Indian sphere four times in total, among which the second one was from 1875 to 76, accompanying the Prince of Wales, hunting tigers together in Nepal. The third one was from 1878 to 79 mainly for the reportage of the Afghan War, which was the warfare between Britain, who desired to rule Afghanistan, and Afghan Guerrillas, similar for Britain to the Vietnamese War a century later for the U.S.A.

"A Reconstruction of the Ahin Posh Tope" by W. Simpson

While executing such reporting journeys, which continued up to his old age, holding an interest in architecture and archaeology throughout his life, he would always make time between assignments to visit antique edifices and ancient ruins. In Afghanistan he found the Stupa of Ahin Posh near Jellalabad and excavated it through the cooperation of the army, unearthing a receptacle containing ashes and coins from its central part. He drew up a reconstruction after returning to England.

Among his many writings, the most important one might be "Origin and Mutation in Indian and Eastern Architecture" published in the Transactions of the R.I.B.A. but I am most interested in his "Architecture in the Himalayas," in which he narrates his three journeys to the Indian Himalayas, twice for six months each and a three month expedition from Shimla to Chini (currently kalpa) with the party of Captain Evans. The article includes fair copied fine sketches of Himalayan architecture.

"The Temple at Chergaon" by W. Simpson, 1860
(From "Architecture in the Himalayas" by William Simpson, 1883)

An especially excellent one among them is a sketch of a temple standing at Chergaon in the Satlej Valley, which was reprinted in Fergusson’s revised edition of the "History of Indian and Eastern Architecture," so it became well known by later people. Its ‘picturesque’ figure is counted one of the best pieces of Himachal architecture.

However, none of the books on Himachal architecture published since then have included any single photograph of this temple. Whenever the temple at Chergaon is mentioned as an example of Himalayan wooden temple architecture, this sketch by Simpson has been reprinted at all times, almost as if this temple does not exist anymore.

Maheshwara Temple at Sungra

As a result of thinking about this, together with looking in detail at Simpson’s itinerary, I surmised that that temple must be the current Maheshwara Temple at Sungra. In the book “Antiquities of Indian Tibet” written by A. H. Francke, who carried out a great research tour from Shimla to Shrinagar about 50 years after Simpson, there are placed only photos of the temple at Sungra without any reference to Chergaon. This fact can also be considered an endorsement of my conclusion.

Temple at Sungra, old and new

Even so, there was still a question; while the temple at Sungra is entirely covered with carved wooden panels, on Simpson’s sketch it is not, furthermore the total proportions of both temples seem a little bit different. In addition to that, I had not heard that the village name, Chergaon, was an ancient designation of Sungra.
When I found one more sketch of the temple of Chergaon in a book authored by Mildred Archer, the doubt increased much more.

The temple at Chergaon sketched by W. Simpson in 1860
(From "Visions of India" by Mildred Archer, 1986, London)

It is a Simpson’s sketch on location and I came to know that the foregoing sketch is one tidily redrawn for publication. In this sketch, I noticed, a little surprisingly, a Square-Tower type bhandar depicted behind the temple. At Sungra, there is no space behind the temple for a bhandar because of its location directly facing a precipitous ravine at the rear. Then, are the temples at Chergaon and Sungra utterly discrete from each other, or did Simpson assemble two buildings into one drawing for fun? I worried whether the illusionary temple at Chergaon had really been lost or not.


There is a small town named Chirgaon in the east of Rohru, upstream of the Pabbar River; I wondered if Chergaon that Simpson visited would have been this Chirgaon. In order to resolve this long embracing question, I extended my journey to this town, but everyone asserted that there was no such temple in the town.
While I thought it was still an illusionary temple and was about to give up my pursuit of it, a man told me that he knew the temple standing on a nearby hill. So, much surprised and delighted, I hurried by jeep at once to the hill. The hill road however was too bad to go swiftly and the sun was setting, and I only found a fine unknown Square-Tower type temple at a village up on the opposite hill.

Village and Temple at Devidar

Not able to reach the aimed temple by car, I asked a villager to guide me in walking there in almost complete darkness, and eventually we arrived at the Kantu Devta Temple at Devidhar village that I had seen some time ago in the distance. I underwent a deep feeling of frustration, not being able to find the illusionary temple of Chergaon after all.

Incidentally, at almost the same time I started this journey, Shin-ya Takagi also headed off toward the Himachal region to spend three months travelling on foot. When I asked him about the outcome of his trip, he surprised me by saying that he had identified the temple of Chergaon, not in the Pabbar Valley but in the upper Satlej Valley, near Sungra.
According to him, the village is nowadays called Chagaon and the temple of Simpson’s sketch stands in the center of the village. He arrived there during the days of festival and the scene of villagers dancing in a round is just the same as that of Koti village drawn in Simpson’s painting 160 years ago.

Maheshwara Temple at Chagaon

What Mr. Takagi heard from villagers is that there are three brother temples around there: the eldest brother temple is at Sungra, the second elder is at a village named Katgaon (said to have been reconstructed after destruction by fire in 1971), and the youngest is this temple at Chagaon. All of them enshrine the same god Maheshwara (Shiva) and were constructed in the same style. It is difficult to tell them apart from only their sketches depicting temple forms instead of photos, since they are entirely made of cedar as far as their roofing and finials.

As a result of that, the long obsessing problem for ten years has been at last resolved and the illusionary temple has become an actual temple, proving the accuracy of Simpson’s sketches. I am quite impressed looking at the photograph of the actual village and its temple how just it is the same as the skillful sketch that Simpson made a century and a half ago.

*     *     *

William Simpson is not as famous as Thomas Daniel or William Hodges among the British painters who painted India, due to the fact that his great book of pictures of India did not materialize. In spite of that, I am convinced that he was an excellent artist depicting Indian architecture and scenery more accurately and poetically than any other painters, through his profound knowledge of architecture and his gifted talent for exact sketching.

In 1893, when he was 70 years old, a world’s fair was held in Chicago, in which young Frank Lloyd Wright was deeply impressed by an exhibition of Japanese architecture. Simpson was asked to sail to Chicago and report on the fair, but he was dissuaded by his doctor because of his advanced age. After that he spent the remainder of his life quietly with his wife, a portrait painter, and his only daughter, Ann Penelope.
He passed away at the age of 76. His tomb is in Highgate Cemetery in London, where there is also the tomb of Karl Marx who had died 16 years earlier.


BOOKS written by William Simpson
● THE SEAT OF THE WAR IN THE EAST : 2vols. 1855-56, Paul & Dominic Colnaghi, London
● INDIA ANCIENT AND MODERN, A Series of Illustrations of the Country and People of India and Adjacent Territories, 2vols. 1867, Day & Son, London
● MEETING THE SUN, A Journey All Round the World : 1874, Longmans, London
● PICTURESQUE PEOPLE, being Groups from All Quarters of the Globe : 1876, W.W. Thompson, London
● THE BUUDDHIST PRAYING-WHEEL, A Collection of Material Bearing upon the Symbolism of the Wheel : 1896, Macmillan, London
● GLASGOW IN THE FORTIES : 1899, Morison Brothers, Glasgow
● THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM SIMPSON, R. I. (Crimean Simpson) : George Eyre-Todd (ed.), 1903, T. Fisher Unwin, London

ARTICLES written by William Simpson
● On the Architecture of India : 1861-62, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● Abyssinian Church Architecture : 1868-69, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● On the Architecture of China : 1873-74, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● Buddhist Architecture in the Jellalabad Valley : 1879-80, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● The Buddhist Caves of Afghanistan : 1880 (?), Journal of the R.A.S.
● Origin and Mutation in Indian and Eastern Architecture : 1881 (?) , The R.I.B.A. transactions, vol. VII. N.S

● Architecture in the Himalayas : 1882-83, The R.I.B.A. transactions, Rep. 1970, Susil Gupta, New York
● Punjabs in the Sutlej Valley : 1884, Journal of the R.A.S.
● Costume and Jewellery Worn by Ladies of the Delhi Zenana : 1886, The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith
● The Threefold Division of Temples : 1888, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● Some Suggestions of Origin in Indian Architecture : 1890 (?), Journal of the R.A.S. vol XX. part 1.
● Classical Influence in the Architecture of the Indus Region and Afghanistan : 1894, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● The Bamian Statues and Caves : 1894, The R.I.B.A. transactions
● The Orientation or Direction of Temples : 1897, The transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge
● Abyssinian Church Architecture : 1898, Architectural Review

REFERENCE BOOKS on William Simpson
● VISIONS OF INDIA, The Sketchbooks of William Simpson 1859-62 : Mildred Archer (ed.), 1986, Phaidon Press, London
● SCENIC SPLENDOURS, India Through the Printed Image : Pheroza Godrej and Pauline Rohatgi, 1989, The British Library, London; Arnold Publishers, New Delhi
● UNDER THE INDIAN SUN, British Landscape Artists : Pauline Rohatgi, Pheroza Godrej (eds.), 1995, Marg Publications, Bombay


© Takeo Kamiya
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