Bristol writer returns to his roots

After 25 titles in 28 years, prolific chronicler of local history retires to focus on his first love, painting

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 4/14/17

Bristol's Richard Simpson says he's an impressionist — a departure for a man who has written 25 books faithfully recording local historical happenings from "Independence Day: How the Day Is …

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Bristol writer returns to his roots

After 25 titles in 28 years, prolific chronicler of local history retires to focus on his first love, painting

Posted

Bristol's Richard Simpson says he's an impressionist — a departure for a man who has written 25 books faithfully recording local historical happenings from "Independence Day: How the Day Is Celebrated in Bristol, Rhode Island" (his first title, in 1989), to his most recent title, "Goat Island and the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station". In all, Simpson has written 11 books about Bristol, 5 about the America's Cup, 3 about the military, 3 about Tiverton and Little Compton, and one each about Portsmouth, Newport, and Narragansett Bay.

And while he is taking some minor liberties with the series of landscapes he's currently working on, ("This grassy knoll isn't working for me") of the old Mill Gut bridge at Colt State Park, they are still accurate renderings, absolutely unmistakable to anyone familiar with the iconic bridge.

A native Rhode Islander and LaSalle graduate, Simpson went to the School of Practical Art in Boston (now the Boston Art Institute) where he was strongly influenced by his favorite teacher, the late Philip Burnham Hicken, a Boston-based educator and landscape painter.

A passion for radio — and an opportunity to work on a local radio program with singer Bob LaChance, pulled Simpson in yet another direction. He didn't know what he wanted to do. So he did it all.

He took his graphic design degree to Kaiser Aluminum, Raytheon, and the U.S. Navy, where he painted murals and billboards and designed and built parade floats.

Along with his late wife Irene, whom he married in 1958, he worked as an antiques dealer doing business as Bristol Art Exchange. And after spending 29 years working for the federal government, he "retired" in 1996 and began writing in earnest — books as well as articles, primarily for Antiques and Collecting Magazine, for which he served as a contributing editor and published some 85 pieces over the years.

Simpson has been living in his Bristol home for half a century, and touring the rooms is a lot like touring the varied interests of this 82 year old Rennaissance man, seamlessly moving from one art form to the next. One room holds his files and his old postcard collection, the pictorial inspiration for his many books; He has sent his his own clippings of his personal achievements to his brother. "He's the family historian," Simpson says, without a hint of irony.

Another room is a working artist's studio, with paints, easels, and dozens of completed works lining the walls. Still another room is where Simpson has a work in progress up on his computer's screen: an original short story that he has adapted for radio and will be featuring on his weekly Wednesday morning radio show at Roger Williams University. He still enjoys writing fiction from time to time, something he's done since he was young. "Terrible little stories," he calls his early work, and laughs telling how he shared a slightly "blue" story with a teacher at LaSalle who appreciated art in all its forms — only to hear that the other members of the faculty assumed it had been confiscated, and the author properly disciplined.

Simpson admits to always having at least three major projects in the works, which explains both his creative output and the fact that, though he says he is done writing about local history, we have not seen the last of him yet. He has two additional projects that have been delivered to the publisher but not released: "Once Upon a Time in Bristol," and "Bristol at Work."

These days, "Simpson at work" is the story of a man indulging his love of painting. But as long as he continues to draw his inspiration from this community, it's likely that his work will continue to express his passion for local history. Only his medium will change.

Richard Simpson

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.