Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, John (1745-1831)

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BELL, JOHN (1745–1831), publisher, has been called by Charles Knight 'the mischievous spirit, the very Puck of booksellers. John Bell had defied the power of a combination of some forty publishing firms, who called themselves 'the trade,' and issued books on the joint-stock principle, in order to secure a monopoly of the best publications. In 1777 these gentlemen met at the Chapter Coffee-house, Paternoster Row, and resolved to bring out a collection of the works of English poets, afterwards known as 'Johnson's Poets,' of which the first edition appeared in 1779, and the second in 1790.

Bell, who was agent for the brothers Martin, owners of the Apollo Press in Edinburgh, brought out, in London 1782, their edition of the 'British Poets,' the early volumes of which, issued in 1777, had stimulated the London trade to their undertaking of 1779. Bell's work was in one hundred and nine volumes, 18mo, and bore the general title of 'Bell's edition: The Poets of Great Britain complete from Chaucer to Churchill.' Each volume was illustrated by a frontispiece, an engraved title or a portrait after the designs of Stodhardt, Mortimer, and other artists of the day. Martin and Bell were debarred by an exclusive copyright from inserting in their collection Young, Mallet, Akenside, and Gray, which appeared in the London trade edition, together with Dorset, Stepney, Walsh, Duke, and Sprat, rhymesters whom Bell had cast aside. The attractiveness of this pocket edition nevertheless was indubitable, and Mr. Bell's enterprise and good taste were generally acknowledged. He published a similar edition of 'Shakespeare' and 'The British Theatre.'

He is distinguished among printers as being the first to discard the long s (s) from his fount of type. He was one of the original proprietors of the 'Fashionable World,' of the 'Oracle,' and of the 'Morning Post' (1772). He established a Sunday newspaper, 'Bell's Weekly Messenger,' much esteemed for its country politics and accounts of country markets. 'La Belle Assemblée,' an illustrated monthly publication, was another of his successful projects. In Leigh Hunt's 'Autobiography' (i. 276) is a description of Bell's appearance, ending thus: 'He had no acquirements, perhaps not even grammar; but his taste in putting forth a publication, and getting the best artists to adorn it, was new in those times, and may be admired in any.

Bell was, in fact, the pioneer in that kind of publication so much in vogue in later days, by which the multitude is taught to feel an interest in the best literature by means of prints and illustrations executed by good artists. He died at Fulham in 1831, in the eighty-sixth year of his age.

[Timperley's Dictionary of Printers, p. 916; Knight's Shadows of the Old Booksellers, p. 250, 246, 276; Leigh Hunt's Autobiography, i. 276.]

R. H.