Underground Jerusalem

Jeffrey Auerbach

In 1869, William Simpson, already famous for his Crimean War drawings, accompanied the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, to Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. After finishing his work there, Simpson traveled to Jerusalem where Charles Warren of the Royal Engineers was conducting archeological excavations on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Warren was sending back written reports to The Illustrated London News, but did not have any images, so Simpson offered to make some sketches. He had already produced several illustrations for Rev. George Sandie’s book about Jerusalem but had never visited the city.

Over the course of two weeks, Warren guided Simpson through the subterranean labyrinths beneath the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif and around the ruins of the ancient city. Together they scrambled through tunnels that Warren and his men had dug and caverns they had excavated, burning magnesium wire so that Simpson could draw in the darkness. One day Warren took him down a 75-foot shaft at the southwest corner of the Haram to see some red letters written on the stones (PEF/P1/09) that were believed to have been written by the Phoenician masons who had laid the foundation stones of Solomon’s Temple in the tenth century BCE; another time Warren took him below Robinson’s Arch, where he sketched Warren’s assistant, Henry Birtles, trying to squirm his way through the fallen vousoirs, or wedge-shaped stones, of the arch (PEF/P1/16).


Simpson’s watercolors present a radically different view of the empire than predecessors such as William Hodges or David Roberts, whose grand canvasses tend to emphasize the picturesque aspects of the empire, often employing a wide-angle monarch-of-all-I-survey approach to the landscape and a monumental approach to ancient ruins. In contrast, Simpson’s paintings emphasize interiority. They feature narrow passageways with low ceilings and employ bold hues and dark shadows, rather than the soft golden sheen more commonly employed in paintings of the East. Simpson’s empire is confining, with none of the expansiveness characteristic of the picturesque.

One example is Simpson’s “Well of the Steps” (PEF/P1/27), which depicts the upper portion of what is commonly known as Warren’s Shaft, part of Jerusalem’s ancient subterranean water system that enabled the city’s residents to draw water from the Gihon spring without leaving the fortified walls of the city. Even where there is a sense of spaciousness, such as “Bahr el Khabeer or the Great Sea Rock-cut Cistern under the site of Solomon’s Temple” (PEF/P1/20), it is still circumscribed by walls, with dark tunnels leading off in multiple directions. Only a small square cutout in the ceiling of the massive cavern offers any possibility of escape.


There is also an immediacy to Simpson’s work that captures the incredible drama of Warren’s excavations. If imperial art is generally characterized by its tendency to affix colonial people and places in what Anne McClintock (Imperial Leather) has called “panoptical time and anachronistic space,” Simpson has done the opposite by portraying hidden places at transitory moments.

Whereas most imperial art depicts an empire that is already possessed, at least visually if not yet administratively or militarily, Simpson instead portrayed a region of the empire in the process of being uncovered. Warren does not stand on top of the ground, surveying his conquests; rather, he digs from underneath, probing, hoping that his rays of light will be sufficient to illuminate the darkness. In this respect he is like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, confronting “one of the dark places of the earth,” a place that the British do not yet know or possess.

Several of Simpson’s drawings were reproduced in the Illustrated London News (24 April 1869), but Simpson recognized that he had more than enough material for an exhibition, titled “Underground Jerusalem,” which took place at the Pall Mall Gallery in 1872. The Times (15 April 1872) praised Simpson’s ”artistic power” and “skill in color” and hailed the “new” and “unique” nature of the subject, which it said was of “unfailing interest” artistically, archeologically, and historically. Walter Morrison, recognizing the historical and artistic value of Simpson’s work, presciently purchased half of Simpson’s paintings for the PEF, where they can be viewed to this day for those researchers who want to see a unique view of Britain’s nineteenth-century empire-in-the-making.