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The Work of Francis Simpson

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January 2013

At the January meeting of the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society, Alan Freke spoke about the life and work of local technical artist Francis Simpson.

Simpson's personal archive was discovered when his daughter died, and her house in Windmill Hill, Bristol, was being cleared. Mr Freke, as a local historian and classic motorcycle enthusiast, became involved in the rescue of what remained of Simpson's papers. Although some had been lost, what has survived is enough to afford a fascinating insight into the life and work of a master of his craft.

Francis Simpson was born in 1885 and first learnt the skill of technical drawing working in an architect's office in Bristol. He was a keen motorcyclist and pursued his hobby through the Bristol Motor Cycle Club, participating in – and helping to organise – time trials. Over the course of his career he managed to combine his accomplishment as a technical draughtsman with his passion for motorbikes by working for various motorcycle manufacturers and publications. In 1919 he began work for the marketing department of the Douglas motorcycle firm, based in Kingswood: one of his assignments was to provide coverage of the firm's performance in the Isle of Man TT race, where he was engaged in producing drawings of the bikes.

In 1921 he left Douglas and joined Illife & Sons, working on The Motor Cycle magazine as a staff artist, producing accurate renderings of motorcycles (often in cross-section), their engines, and even individual parts. Owing to the limitations of contemporary printing methods, a drawing would print far more clearly than a photograph – hence the extensive use which was made of the work of technical artists. His drawings were also used by manufacturers in their marketing brochures, parts catalogues, and so on.

In 1932, with the country in the grip of a recession, he was laid off by Illife & Sons and went freelance, working in particular for Matchless, before being hired in September 1935 by Aero & Airways Monthly. Unfortunately, the magazine ceased publication in December of that year but Simpson had seemingly managed in his short time there to make some important contacts in the aeronautical industry and was soon producing drawing for Imperial Airways and the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

He seems to have ceased work as a technical artist in the late 1930s, but the preservation of his personal papers affords an insight into the automotive and aeronautical industries of the 1920s and 30s, as well as art deco marketing material at its best. His papers have now been deposited in the Bristol Archive, where they are available to the public.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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