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Painting - Buddhist vihara cave, Ajanta
  • Buddhist vihara cave, Ajanta
    Simpson, William R.I. F.R.G.S., born 1823 - died 1899
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Buddhist vihara cave, Ajanta

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Ajanta (made)

  • Date:

    January 1862 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Simpson, William R.I. F.R.G.S., born 1823 - died 1899 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Pencil, watercolour

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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.

Physical description

This image shows the artist Robert Gill seated with his painting easel in front of one of the cave entrances at Ajanta. He is copying the wall-paintings inside the cave.

Place of Origin

Ajanta (made)


January 1862 (made)


Simpson, William R.I. F.R.G.S., born 1823 - died 1899 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Pencil, watercolour

Marks and inscriptions

Buddhist Vihara Cave. Ajanta. Wm. Simpson. 1862.


Height: 31.5 cm, Width: 47.7 cm

Object history note

Historical significance: William Simpson (1823 - 1899)

William Simpson was commissioned to go to India by his employers, Day and Sons, the London lithography firm. Having established his reputation by documenting the Crimean war in 1854, he was instructed to sketch well-known sites in and around Delhi associated with the heavy fighting of 1857.

Simpson arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1859 and travelled widely. His rapid pencil drawings formed the preparatory studies for his finished watercolours which were done after his return to London in 1862. His fond memories of India, as noted in his journal, resulted in these highly coloured, evocative and romantic interpretations of the Indian landscape.

Simpson, a largely self-taught artist from a poor family in Scotland, had hoped to achieve fame on the publication of his paintings in a lavishly illustrated volume. Unfortunately, financial problems led to the poorly printed India Ancient and Modern containing only fifty images. Simpson called it the ‘big disaster’ of his life.

The V&A has the single most important collection of watercolours made during Simpson's first expedition to India.

Descriptive line

Painting of Robert Gill at the caves of Ajanta, by William Simpson, watercolour on paper, India, 1862

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

p. 312, pl. 29 and detail
Rohatgi P. and Parlett G., assisted by Imray S. and Godrej P. Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists: Paintings and Drawings from the Victoria and Albert Museum, 17th to the early 20th century. Published by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, in association with V&A, London, 2008. ISBN 81-901020-9-5.
p. 70
Patel, Divia; Rohatgi, Pauline and Godrej, Pheroza, "Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists: an exhibition of paintings and drawings from the 17th to the early 20th century organised by the V&A and CSMVS". Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai and Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008, ISBN:81-901020-8-7

Labels and date

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. [1/12/2008]


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South & South East Asia Collection

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