British Legation, Peking

William Simpson (1823 - 1899)

Pencil, pen and ink and wash, on paper

November 1872
  • About the work
    Country: China
    City: Beijing
    Place: British Embassy

    In 1872 reporter and illustrator for the ‘Illustrated London News’ William Simpson travelled to China to illustrate the marriage of Emperor Tongzi. While there Simpson made this sketch of the British legation in Peking, a palace originally built as the residence of high-ranking Chinese official Kuei-liang and leased to the British since the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858. The building, with its grand entrance flanked by two carved stone lions, replicated in miniature the Imperial Palace. The site occupied three acres of land and included stables, a billiard room, bowling alley, theatre and skating pond.

    This watercolour was illustrated within Simpson’s article ‘Sketches of China’, in which described the complex as ‘…a little nation by itself in a small world of its own within these walls.’

    In 1959, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China requested that these premises be vacated by the British Embassy. A newly built house on a site opposite the Albanian Embassy was offered as temporary accommodation, along with the adjacent house, which would serve as the British Ambassador’s Residence. Blocks of flats for junior and senior staff were also made available. This arrangement remains largely unchanged today.

  • About the artist
    Watercolourist and painter William Simpson was born in Glasgow, the son of a marine engineer and mechanic. He trained as a lithographer under David Macfarlane and later Allan and Ferguson, and also studied at the Glasgow School of Design. In 1851 he moved to London to work for the lithographers Day & Son. He was sent to cover the Crimean War in 1854, after which he became known as ‘Crimean Simpson’. In 1866 he became an artist for the ‘Illustrated London News’, travelling in India, Russia and Afghanistan, and covering several major military campaigns of the 19th century. In 1874 he became a member of the Institute of Painters in Watercolour. He was also an amateur archaeologist and a prolific writer. Simpson died in London, aged 75.
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  • Details
    British Legation, Peking
    November 1872
    Pencil, pen and ink and wash, on paper
    height: 22.50 cm, width: 43.80 cm
    Purchased from Christie's Swire, Hong Kong, 22 October 1993
    Sold through Christie's Swire (Hong Kong) 25 October 1993 (Lot 1241); from which sale purchased by the Government Art Collection
    GAC number