The Publisher to the Regency began as a ‘piratical intruder upon the profession of a bookseller.’ * In spite of this early criticism, the efforts of John Bell (1745-1831) during the Georgian Age made possible the widespread dissemination of art and literature during the Regency.
As a twenty-something bookseller in the Strand, Bell started printing the Morning Post, a popular Whig publication, in concert with two reverend parsonical banditti (!) While the paper acquired the distinction of spreading “fake news,” (quoting NYR Daily) it answered increased demand for printed material, fueled by the growth of a literate population eager to read.
Bell realized he had tapped into an opportunity for mass press and began to publish English works that were affordable for the ordinary citizen to purchase. His series on Shakespeare and British Theatre, joined later by Poets of Great Britain from Chaucer to Churchill, were highly successful. This was in part due to the use of smaller fonts, which did away with hanging characters and the elongated S, and progressively improving printing methods.
Alarmed, established publishers attacked his papers and his character in their publication.
Bell relished his new-found notoriety and put it to work at other endeavors. He opened a lending library called the British Library and published another newspaper, the English Chronicle, featuring sports news, mostly from the boxing ring. By 1788, he had become Bookseller to the Prince of Wales, enjoying the honor of hosting HRH at his residence. Publication of La Belle Assemblée or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies, sealed his reputation.
However, he continued to be plagued with lawsuits filed against him by jealous rivals.
It was revenue from La Belle Assemblée that sustained him, through the clever use of beautiful engravings in color and paid advertising. One of the services advertised was the Westminster Central Mart, an office he owned which served as a central information board for domestic servants as well as a repository for the references such persons needed for employment. A nominal fee was charged to register with the Mart, and prospective employers could meet there with prospective employees for interviews. It could not have made much money for Bell, for the operation required a good deal of clerical effort to keep things sorted. Some have speculated that the whole thing was got up as an occupation for a needy acquaintance.
This “Puck” of booksellers was in the distribution of information for more than just money.
He died at the ripe age of 86, and his obituary recalled not only his fine publications twinned with artistic style, but his encouragement and support to those around him: innovative typographers, striking employees bailed out of jail, and sponsorship of young, starving poets.
We are indebted to one of the latter, Leigh Hunt, for providing us with the following contrasts of a man who made reading to the masses possible:
“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 many.”
— Leigh Hunt in his Autobiography (1903 edition)
*this and other excellent anecdotes are from the publisher’s biography: John Bell, 1745-1831: A Memoir, by Stanley Morison (1930) and an impressive catalog of art featured in his publications: John Bell, Patron of British Theatrical Portraiture: a Catalog of the Theatrical Portraits in His Editions of Bell’s Shakespeare and Bell’s British Theatre, by Burnim and Highfill (1998)