J. Bowyer Bell

Artist/critic cum writer on terrorism
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The Independent Online

John Bowyer Bell, conflict historian, painter and art critic: born New York 15 November 1931; married 1962 Charlotte Rockey (died 1981; four daughters), 1985 Nora Browne; died New York 23 August 2003.

What could be more appropriate for a specialist in espionage, deception and "deep cover" than to have himself two separate lives? For, if in the New York art world J. Bowyer Bell was a respected veteran painter and prolific critic, any encounter was accompanied by a whispered aside, "Did you know he's a leading expert on terrorism?"

Likewise, in the academic milieu of warfare studies, where Bell was renowned for his long list of publications, he remained a figure of intrigue as a practising artist. Bell's area of expertise might have been "The Three I's: Ireland, Israel and Italy" but he always remained a committed artist whilst gaining an enviable reputation as a critic.

He was born in New York, in 1931, but his parents moved to Alabama and it was from there he attended Washington & Lee University in Virginia, majoring in history but taking art classes that radically changed his life. "I discovered I had total visual memory - the equivalent of perfect pitch in a singer." His first solo show took place in the college library in his senior year. Bell also made regular trips to New York to meet other artists, and having spent time with his hero Franz Kline, who hardly had enough to live on, Bell decided to commit to academia.

Graduating in 1953, Bell started work at Duke on the Spanish Civil War but having won a Fulbright moved to Italy, discovering the rich world of Roman bohemia, mixing with writers and artists including Cy Twombly, a contemporary at W&L. As well as drinking, talking and painting Bell travelled Europe interviewing Spanish veterans. Bell lent Twombly his studio and came back to find a note: ". . . like very much your new things on wall. See you later at the gallery, Cy." Bell always kept this memento framed, unlike drawings also left behind which Twombly refused to sign and insisted be trashed.

On returning to America Bell taught at Trinity prep school in Manhattan whilst sampling the city to the full, drinking at the Cedar Tavern with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jack Kerouac or Frank Stella. But in 1962 Bell had married Charlotte Rockey, an Egyptologist, and settled down in a large, rambling apartment on West 89th Street with four daughters.

Bell had exhibitions of his collages and paintings, not least at the Allan Stone Gallery, a hotbed of late Abstract Expressionism, and started collecting works from colleagues, sculptures by John Chamberlain or Tom Doyle, paintings by Nick Krushenick or a San Quentin Death Row prisoner he had befriended. The long, winding corridors of his apartment were thick with framed works, including his own paintings, not to mention groaning shelves of books and journals.

For Bell had decided to "write [his] way back into academia" and from his first books in the 1960s, Besieged (1966) and The Long War: Israel and the Arabs since 1946 (1969), he kept up a steady stream of publication.

Perhaps his most famous work, The Secret Army: the IRA 1916-1970 (1970), came from his fortuitous discovery of Ireland, a summer holiday that turned into a lifelong passion, and his realisation that nobody had written a detailed, objective history of this organisation. When Bell was working on the book many hero figures of the earlier IRA were still available for interview and he became closely involved with a range of activists. The book was published, with good timing, in 1970 and has been in print ever since (the latest edition appearing as The IRA, 1968-2000: analysis of a secret army in 2000), making Bell a leading spokesman on the subject.

In 1996 Bell met with the "Continuity Army Council of the IRA" at a secret rural location and his encounter made headlines in Ireland and abroad. Indeed he was often suspected of Republican bias; as Anthony McIntyre wrote, "Bowyer Bell's long familiarity with Irish Republicanism once prompted the caustic comment that there are none more vindictive than a reformed gunman." But as a professional historian Bell was wiser and warier than that, his views on the Irish Question phrased within judicious prose:

The English, more than most, have long benefited, deservedly, from a national stereotype that stresses fair play, restraint, moderation, the love of law . . . those in positions of considerable responsibility in the British establishment have long shown an innocent arrogance about Irish affairs. Many, a great many, and not simply on the back benches, found long-held bias about the Paddies, their feckless behaviour, their collusion with mad-dog gunmen, comforting and so more than ample foundation for policy.

Bell visited Ireland every year and liked to jest that he had been studying the IRA for more years than most volunteers had been members. Since 1979 he also held annual exhibitions of his painting at the Taylor Gallery in Dublin. After the death of his first wife, he married Nora Browne from Kerry, whom he first met making his 1972 documentary on the IRA, The Secret Army. He became something of a celebrity in Ireland, being a key speaker in 1994 at the West Belfast Festival, and his books were held in reverence, not least by harder-line Republican elements. In the words of the Sinn Fein Vice-President Des Long, "He was the first historian to link the modern IRA with the Republican struggle from 1916."

But Bell was also an expert on the Italian Mafia and its many links with international terrorism and published extensively on the Middle East. For these works Bell travelled and researched ceaselessly, becoming accustomed to being kidnapped in Yemen, held hostage in Jordan, booted out of Kenya and shot at in Lebanon:

A great deal of time must be passed in the lobbies of small provincial hotels waiting for someone to drive you to someone else who is not inclined to be very forthcoming. Now and then things go wrong.

With typical good timing Bell's last book, Murders on the Nile: the World Trade Center and global terror, published this year, had been started in 2000 with a grant from MIT and was finished just in time for the WTC attack, making its analysis of historic fundamentalism notably topical. As well as more than 20 books Bell published countless essays and articles. These bear such intriguing titles as "The Thompson Submachine Gun In Ireland, 1921" published in The Irish Sword in 1967, the periodicals of publication ranging from the Journal of Small Wars and Insurgencies and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism to the Terrorism, Violence and Insurgency Report. His seminal work on the "Dragonworld" of covert communications appeared in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. In 1974 he even wrote a key work on the war in Cyprus along with the "Insight Team" of the Sunday Times.

Bell held a dazzling range of positions and posts, his most consistent employers being the Council for Foreign Relations and Columbia University, where he was Research Associate in the Institute of War and Peace Studies.

Meanwhile, having already received more than seven Guggenheim Fellowships for research (and declined a Rockefeller Humanities Award), he won a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship for his paintings. These exhibitions such as "Zion Works" took place regularly in Manhattan galleries such as Kim Foster and Janos Gat as well as art centres in Hungary and Ireland.

In the 1990s Bell launched a third career as art critic for the journal Review, articles that gained him increasing renown as critic and demonstrated his impeccable prose style. Bell was also commissioned to write a string of catalogue essays for galleries and museum retrospectives.

A central theme of "Bo" Bell's historical writing was that the most important thing is not the act of terrorism itself but how democratic societies react to violence intended specifically to defeat such values. As Bell memorably reasoned: "If you want an open society, you have to put up with the chaos."

Adrian Dannatt