|Bio Notes: ||John William Simpson was born in Scotland in 1858, the son of Thomas Simpson, architect, but was brought up in Brighton. He was articled to his father in 1875 but by 1878 had moved to 144 Finborough Road, London, to study at the RA Schools under R Phené Spiers, with, in the words of his fellow student Walter Millard, the object of making 'his own way in the world as quickly as possible', and found 'a market … for his powers as an able and hard working draughtsman'. |
In 1881 he was taken into partnership by the much older Michael Prendergast Manning, a dissenting United Reform Church architect with an office at 6 Mitre Court Chambers, Temple, and while there he passed the qualifying exam. He was admitted ARIBA on 6 November of that year, his proposers being Spiers, Joseph Douglass Matthews and Thomas Henry Watson, with whom he may have found some employment while at the Schools. By that date he had travelled in France and Belgium.
In 1884 the partnership with Manning was dissolved and in 1887 Simpson formed another partnership with a fellow student at the RA Schools, Edmund John Milner Allen, who was slightly younger, born 1859 or 1860, and the son of the painter John Milner Allen. He had won the Schools' Silver Medal in 1880, and had been articled to William Warlow Gwyther 1876-80. Thereafter he had been assistant to Thomas William Cutler. The purpose of this partnership appears to have been to enter major competitions in which they had a fair degree of success, coming third in the Edinburgh Municipal Buildings Competition and first in that for the City Hospital in Liverpool, both in 1887, followed by firsts for the Victoria Institute, Worcester, 1890; Glasgow Art Gallery, 1891; and Manchester Royal Infirmary, 1896.
Milner Allen's health failed and he died in 1912. Some years prior to that event, in 1905, Simpson had taken into partnership Ormrod Maxwell Ayrton. It was an astute move: although Simpson's domestic work had become decent Arts and Crafts, it brought the practice's somewhat dated 1890s free baroque instantly up-to-date. Ayrton was born in 1874. His career had begun inauspiciously as an articled apprentice to Harry Beswick of Chester in 1890. He remained with him as an assistant until 1897 when he moved to London as assistant first to William Eden Nesfield's former chief clerk, Richard Creed, then William Alfred Pite and finally Edwin Landseer Lutyens from 1897 to 1899. These posts enabled him to study at the South Kensington Schools and pass the qualifying exam in 1903, his proposers being Simpson, Pite and Lacy William Ridge. He was briefly in independent practice from 1899 until he joined Simpson in 1905.
From 1905 onwards Ayrton was responsible for most of the design work, his best known work in these later years being the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924-25 which brought Simpson a knighthood. The exhibition put Ayrton in contact with its civil engineer Owen Williams, resulting in their subsequent collaboration on the design of Williams's Scottish bridges.
By the time Ayrton formed the practice Simpson had begun to become deeply involved in the work of the RIBA and in particular in its European contacts, having developed a wider interest in the architecture of the Renaissance 'and the byways of architectural history (especially in France)'; he encouraged and helped W H Ward to write 'The Architecture of the Renaissance in France' (1911) after the publisher, Batsford, found W J Anderson's text too incomplete. In 1904 Simpson became Honorary Secretary of the British section of the Permanent International Committee of Architects, a role in which he became Sir John Burnet's closest friend within the profession in London. As a result he became a corresponding member of the Institut (Académie des Beaux-Arts), The Société Centrale des Architectes, the Société des Architectes diplômés par le Gouvernement de France, the Central Vereinegung der Arckitekten, Vienna and the Sociedad Central de Arquitectos, Buenos Aires, and was one of the principal founders of the Franco British Union of Architects. In 1908-09 he was responsible for drawing up the code for international competitions, and in 1910 he became Secretary General of the RIBA Town Planning Conference and Exhibition in the RA galleries at Burlington House. Sir Raymond Unwin recalled his 'untiring energy' and 'unfailing courage in the face of difficulties' in 'trying to reduce to order material … which was coming in from all parts of the world, much of it late, and some having to be found and fetched from the docks'. Simpson was President of the RIBA 1919-21 and the prime mover of the Allied Societies Conference which took place during his presidency. He was Vice-President of the International Committee from 1927 until his death.
In 1928 the partnership of Simpson and Ayrton was dissolved. Although now seventy years old, Simpson did not retire, taking into partnership Frank W Knight and Henley Cornford.
Simpson became ill in the winter of 1932 and died in March 1933. H P Cart de Lafontaine described him as a man of 'unusual organising ability… To those who had penetrated the reserve which was often mistaken for aloofness, he was a delightful companion, with a subtle and penetrating mind, a kind heart and a sense of humour… He was one of the few British architects of our time to appreciate the value of keeping in touch with the ideas, aims and work of men in other lands.'