Painting of Robert Gill at the caves of Ajanta, by William Simpson, watercolour on paper, India, 1862.
This painting depicts fellow artist Major Robert Gill (1804-79) copying wall-paintings inside the Buddhist Vihara (monastic) cave at Ajanta. In 1846 the Royal Asiatic Society had commissioned Gill to make a pictorial record of the complex of caves, and despite ill-health he lived there for eighteen years until the completion of his task. Although most of Gill's canvases were destroyed in a fire in London, four of them are now in the V&A. This is the only representation of Gill portrayed in the act of painting.
William Simpson was born on 28 October 1823 in Glasgow. Following a seven-year apprenticeship with a specialist lithographic firm, he moved to London in February 1851 and found employment with Day and Sons. In 1859 the firm commissioned Simpson to visit India and make drawings for a book illustrating well-known places associated with the 1857-58 uprising. Thus began Simpson's long association with India, and the first of his four visits to the subcontinent over the next twenty-five years. During these journeys he made numerous rapid pencil drawings in sketchbooks, often heightened with colour washes. Many formed preparatory studies for his finished watercolours, most of which he worked up after returning to London. The plan was for Day and Son to select 250 of these finished watercolours to be lithographed as illustrations in the projected volume. While Simpson was away in India, however, Day and Son had been drifting into debt. In 1867, before it finally went into liquidation at the end of the year, he was made a company shareholder as part payment. But, as he expressed it, 'the great work on India, on which I bestowed so much time and labour, never came into existence'. Two years later, Simpson's collection of 250 watercolours was sold off as bankrupt stock: 'This was the big disaster of my life', as he ruefully remarked. This painting by Simpson depicts fellow artist Major Robert Gill (1804-79) copying wall-paintings inside the Buddhist Vihara cave at Ajanta. In 1846 the Royal Asiatic Society had commissioned Gill to make a pictorial record of the caves, and despite ill-health and the hostility of the local inhabitants he continued to live there, even after his wife had returned to England and he had taken an Indian mistress. Sadly, twenty-five of Gill’s copies were destroyed by fire in 1866.
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