William Simpson’s Afghanistan

Travels of a Special Artist and Antiquarian during the Second Afghan War, 1878-1879

Date Published :
May 2016
Publisher :
Helion and Company
Editor :
Peter Harrington
Illustration :
c 16 color and c 85 b/w illustrations
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781909982802
Pages : 312
Dimensions : 9.64 X 6.69 inches
Stock Status : Available


‘Left London, on a journey with Kabool as my objective via Brindisi and Bombay’. With these words written on Tuesday October 15, 1878, the Scottish artist William Simpson (1823-1899), commenced a daily journal which he later entitled Diary of a Journey to Afghanistan during the Campaign of 1878-79. Simpson was no stranger to the life of a ‘special’ having previously covered military campaigns in Abyssinia, France, and California on behalf of his employer, the Illustrated London News. Earlier, his efforts in the Crimean War had already established his reputation for accuracy and an eye for detail.

As an ‘embedded’ artist with the Peshawar Valley Field Force, Simpson recorded the events leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 which brought the first phase of the Second Afghan War to a close. During his six months in Afghanistan, he sent back numerous sketches, drawings and watercolors accompanied by detailed captions to his newspaper in London. This period could be described as a ‘phony war’ as the British waited for the various tribal leaders to come into camp in Jalalabad and swear their allegiance to the British Government. The inactivity of the army with only the occasional punitive expedition to alleviate the boredom allowed Simpson to pursue his antiquarian interests by exploring caves and excavating several ancient Buddhist burial monuments known as stupas.

In addition to the finely detailed and exquisite pictures, Simpson’s diary contains accounts of his studies of these ancient sites as well as commentaries on the people and places he observed. Upon his return to England, he collected all his original sketches, drawings and watercolors sent to ‘News and mounted them in two large albums, one dealing with the war, the people and the country, the other containing all his archaeological pictures.

The diary paints a rare picture of the life of a 19th century ‘special’ artist in a war zone and the mechanics and editorial decisions that went into the pictorial coverage of a colonial war. It also offers a unique insight into early colonial archaeology undertaken by Simpson and a number of British officers while on campaign continuing the tradition of oriental scholarship among army officials. While much of this revolved around ‘treasure hunting’ Simpson went beyond this to understand the Buddhist culture that created the many monuments surrounding the Jalalabad Valley. This edition of the diary benefits from an extensive introduction and appendices.

About The Author

The editor, Peter Harrington is curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University Library. A native of England, he has lived in the United States since 1981. His main area of research is artists and images of war, and he has written and lectured extensively on this subject.


“ … There are numerous excellent illustrations, in colour and monochrome, reproducing Simpson’s work… Original, interesting, and well worth reading.”

- Soldiers of the Queen

“ … Offers a unique perspective on the war, and indeed of Afghanistan in the second half of the 19th-century … Pulling together this collection of Simpson’s diaries and sketches was clearly a labour of love… A worthy source for the Second Afghan War and for the journeys of a gentleman archaeologist, artist, and diarist in Afghanistan in the late 19th century.”

- Asian Affairs, March 2017

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