John Stephens

Bookseller and historian of ideas


John Gareth Stephens, antiquarian bookseller, bibliographer and historian of philosophy and religion: born London 21 July 1948; married 1989 Ann Gate; died Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire 29 March 2006.

John Stephens was a member of a dying breed, the scholar bookseller. His expertise lay in 18th-century history of religion and of philosophy, and, in between issuing catalogues of academic libraries from Waterfield's, the Oxford bookshop where he worked for 28 years, first as cataloguer and later as proprietor, he pursued the bibliography of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley. He was also co-editor of the invaluable The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, and an adept contributor to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

He was born, in 1948, and brought up in London, the only child of Welsh parents, from Clydach in west Glamorgan. His first language to the age of five was Welsh. (He subsequently lost his fluency, but recovered it at Cambridge.) From his background he may have inherited a love of singing - although as a listener not a participant. He was an accomplished pianist, but played for private pleasure, never in public. He would build up a substantial library of CDs and could speak authoritatively about discography, notably of Otto Klemperer, who was a particular hero.

From primary school in Ashford he gained a scholarship to the City of London School, going up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to read History, with an emphasis in Part Two on the history of philosophy. (He continued his studies at postgraduate level, being awarded an MLitt in 1978.) He represented Sidney Sussex as the History of Ideas expert in the winning team in University Challenge in 1971, but did not fare so well when a University Challenge Reunited was held in 2002. He confessed, with typical self-amusement, to having performed abysmally.

On leaving Cambridge, Stephens joined the John Rylands Library in Manchester as a Sconul (Standing Conference of National and University Libraries) trainee in rare-book librarianship. He then had a short period of service with the Inland Revenue before joining, in 1977, Robin Waterfield's newly opened antiquarian bookshop near Oxford station in Park End Street.

He had begun collecting books himself at the age of 10 and his enthusiasm was infectious. Many a collection may have begun with a purchase from Waterfield's. He became a director of the firm in 1979, the year before Robin Waterfield retired, and in 1988 its owner. A decade later the shop moved to its present location in the High Street, between Queen's and Magdalen. The shop had one other vital role in Stephens's life for it was there that he met his future wife, Ann Gate, who joined Waterfield's in the same year as he did.

With so many libraries within easy access, Oxford was the perfect location for Stephens, even more so as he disliked travel and disdained electronic sources of information. He contributed 10 entries to the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, mainly of dissenting ministers and churchmen. He had a more than adequate preparation for that task, notably in co-editing The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers (with John W. Yolton and John Valdimir Price, 1999), for which he wrote over 70 entries. These ranged from major figures such as Price and Priestley, on whom he had already published several articles, to ones so neglected that he must have been the first to read their works since the 18th century.

The result of Stephens's work and of the dictionary generally is a considerable expansion of our knowledge of philosophical preoccupations and debate, and a much clearer location of the major figures within the thought of the time.

Stephens's writing was almost tailor-made for the short biographical form, for he concentrated a great deal into few words. He had an eye for the pithy quotation and could convey layers of meaning in an apt turn of phrase, as when he described the behaviour of the Protestant Dissenters after their failure to free themselves from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles in the early 1770s: their committee, he noted drily, "lapsed acrimoniously into inactivity".

In many ways John Stephens was himself an 18th-century man - with a wide range of knowledge and interests, and an ear for gossip. One could envisage him engaging in after-dinner chat about who had been most recently elevated, who was accumulating the most benefices, who patronised whom, who was related to whom and, of course, who was misbehaving.

Appropriately, his first contribution to scholarship on the philosopher and polymath Richard Price, on whom he became an authority, was an article on when Price first met David Hume, in which he speculated on what they might have discussed at their meeting. Through his interest in Price he came to know Price's editor D.O. Thomas and they became friends and regular correspondents. Stephens became a useful editorial adviser and contributor to the journal Enlightenment and Dissent, co-founded by Thomas in 1982. He also joined Thomas and P.A.L. Jones in completing A Bibliography of the Works of Richard Price (1993).

The numerous editions of Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776) constitute something of a bibliographical nightmare, but together they cracked the sequence of their publication - of 32 editions in all. Stephens played a key role in tracing the institutional locations of Price's works, and wherever possible he examined the editions he had traced.

He followed this with researching the bibliography of the theologian and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestley, a mammoth task that he had almost completed before his death. As a bibliographer he was supreme, deploying his knowledge of intellectual history to great effect. More than that, he had an almost uncanny ability to spot any alterations or interleaved additions in new editions of major works.

All these virtues were on show in his final work, a genuine labour of love published in February - the catalogue of the library of his old friend D.O. Thomas, who died last year.

Martin Fitzpatrick

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