John Bell: Quietly persuasive OUP editor

Wednesday 30 January 2008 01:00

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.

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