John Bell: Quietly persuasive OUP editor

John Bell enjoyed a long career as a senior editor at the Oxford University Press, in both London and Oxford. Well known as an editor of general as well as academic books, he was charming and quietly persuasive, and had many friends both literary and artistic.

A Yorkshireman who loved his Cotswolds roots, he was educated at Hymers College, Hull, and at Oriel College, Oxford, where his degree in English was interrupted by army service in the Second World War. In 1948 he joined the London office of the OUP, then at Amen House near the Old Bailey, and by 1949 headed its children's books department. In 1954 he married Pamela Whitlock, co-author of The Far-Distant Oxus (1937), whom he met when she submitted All Day Long, an anthology of children's poetry, to OUP.

After OUP won the Carnegie medal for the third year in succession in 1956, Bell won acclaim in The Bookseller for prizing "quality above quantity", and books which combined "gaiety of form with integrity of content". Among his authors and illustrators were Edward Ardizzone, Eleanor Farjeon, Harold Jones, Kathleen Lines, William Mayne, Barbara Leonie Picard, Ian Serraillier, Rosemary Sutcliff, Elfrida Vipont and Ronald Welch.

In 1966 Bell moved with OUP to Ely House in Mayfair, where he had as a colleague (Sir) John Brown, or "Bruno", a prominent, indeed sometimes formidable, figure in the British publishing world. They complemented each other well, with John Bell keeping to diligent editorial routines while Bruno also represented the Press at a high professional level. It was a useful combination for running the metropolitan enterprise that was technically a branch office of the Oxford headquarters, and their partnership, doubtless with some plain speaking on both sides, evolved well.

Bell liked to engage with his authors, and within the greater corporation he was able to convey the intimacy of a smaller firm. These personal contacts could be very productive, too. Under Bell's aegis Christopher Fry, a leading post-war playwright somewhat sidelined by the 1970s, found a welcome home for his quietly tuned memoir Can You Find Me: a family history (1978).

One of John Bell's responsibilities was the Wilfred Owen estate. He collaborated with Owen's brother Harold in editing the Collected Letters (1967). Harold Owen, who had been sent away to sea as a teenager, had also been at work on a vast family memoir. It was Bell who discerned in this mountain of hand-written text the makings of several real books. The three volumes of Journey from Obscurity came out to much critical acclaim between 1963 and 1965.

Through his wife Pamela, Bell became a close friend of Arthur Ransome, who had insisted that Jonathan Cape should publish The Far-Distant Oxus in 1937, despite the youth of its teenage authors. After Ransome's death in 1967, John and Pamela Bell became two of his three literary executors. Over 30 years, Bell's experience, sensitivity and acumen helped successive new executors to guide the fortunes of Swallows and Amazons and its 11 sequels.

Bell enjoyed seeking out designers and illustrators, becoming more involved in the appearance of the final product than most editors manage to find time for. Matching text and illustrator suited him well, with very pleasing results – a 1964 edition of John Clare's Shepherd's Calendar with wood engravings by David Gentleman was a typical success. In 1968 OUP produced the five Old Testament volumes of the Oxford Illustrated Bible, "with drawings by contemporary artists".

Reorganisation of the entire UK operation of the Oxford University Press happened quickly during the mid-1970s. The London branch was repatriated to the head office. Bell, already domiciled with Pamela and their five daughters at Radnage, in the Chilterns, moved to Oxford ahead of the rest of Ely House and became Deputy Head of the General Publishing Division. Here he shared the editorial management with the overworked Dan Davin, senior publisher in Oxford. It cannot have been easy for either of them, but Bell's optimism and courtesy ensured that the change was effective. The Oxford-produced books were different, Clarendon editions and monographs, but most of the publishing procedures were similar, and John Bell found himself another set of friends.

The Oxford period was not to last long. In March 1982 he decided to retire early from OUP, after 34 years. His wife was seriously ill, and he needed the time to be with her. After her death in June 1982 he moved to Wootton by Woodstock, and, in 2003, to London.

Bell kept in touch with many of his old friends in the world of books, not least through the Double Crown Club, the society of devotees of the arts of the book. He had an enviable talent for light verse. The club treasures his "Mutiny on the Bembo", described by an expert as "easily the best ever typographic poem".

Alan Bell and Christina Hardyment

John Frederick Bell, editor and publisher: born Hull, Yorkshire 14 February 1922; married 1954 Pamela Whitlock (died 1982; five daughters); died London 21 January 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement