- 19 May 2023
- 1:00 – 2:00 pm
- Paul Mellon Centre
Between 1877 and 1878, the Scottish painter William Simpson (1823–1899) travelled to the Ottoman Empire, specifically to the region of Western Anatolia. The visit was a detour ahead of his deployment to document the second Anglo-Afghan war, where he was sent in his capacity as an artist and war correspondent for the Illustrated London News. Over the course of his illustrious career, the Glaswegian travelled as far as China and the United States on his reporting trips, leaving behind an extensive collection of works on paper, journals, scrapbooks and letters detailing his experiences.
Simpson’s visual and textual archives reflect the views and perspectives of an artist deeply engaged with the architectural and urban features of the places he visited, as well as those of the colonial journalist. Attempting to work simultaneously as a dispassionate, nuanced observer of the world and as an agent complicit in the project of British imperialism, Simpson serves as a complex figure in the history of late nineteenth-century British art.
My presentation will introduce the audience to the work of William Simpson, who is an understudied figure today, despite his professional success, national recognition and prolific output in the nineteenth century. Taking the works on paper and subsequent prints that he produced of Western Anatolia as a case study, I will demonstrate the ways by which Simpson negotiated his roles as a perceptive observer of urban and environmental spaces with his status as a representative of a British imperial vision.
Simpson travelled to the Ottoman Empire at a time of profound change: reforms to the administrative state had inaugurated a variety of modern institutions within the empire and a host of infrastructural projects, such as railways and telegraphs, had transformed transportation and communication across Ottoman domains. What Simpson chose to represent from his time in Anatolia, however, were not these symbols of Ottoman modernity, but rather ancient ruins, picturesque vistas and archaeological sites. His artistic decisions to marginalise, sometimes quite literally, or completely obfuscate “modern” features such as railway lines from our field of vision demonstrate his adherence to an Orientalist mode of seeing the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, his attention to detail captures other trappings of modernity that collapse our image of a “timeless Orient”: the presence of foreign tourists and amateur archaeologists, both of whom began to appear in the Ottoman Empire in greater numbers after the advent of steam transport. Looking at William Simpson’s work allows us to see how artists in the late nineteenth century struggled to reconcile their lived, empirical experience with the Orientalising artistic conventions that dominated representations of the Ottoman Empire.
Listing image caption: William Simpson , The Aqueduct - Ephesus 1877. V&A Museum, SD.974 Online catalogue link here.
About the speaker
Alex Solovyev is a doctoral candidate in the history of art at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the network of commercial and vernacular visual cultures which formed around the British railways that were constructed in Ottoman Anatolia during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Her broader research interests include British Levantine communities in the Ottoman Empire, Orientalism and Orientalist art, late Ottoman visual culture, and the intersections of art, archaeology and tourism.