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Mr John Charles Bell

Prosperous jute merchant, jute and flax auctioneer, and art collector and dealer. Committee member of Victoria Art Galleries from 1877 and noted patron of Scottish artists of the period.

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Personal details and history

Full name

John Charles Bell

Date of birth

1817[1], or 1818[2]

Place of birth




Marital status


Name of spouse

Jane Keay Sandeman[3]



Home address

Ferry-Port-on-Craig, Fife[4]
4 James Place, Broughty Ferry, 1856-1868[5]
1 Hunter Place, Monifieth Road, Broughty Ferry, 1869-1879.[6]
4 Douglas Terrace, West Ferry, 1880-1897.[7][3]

Age at death:


Place of death:

4 Douglas Terrace, West Ferry, parish of Dundee[3]

Date of death:



Barnhill Cemetery[8]

Affiliations, clubs, offices and related subscribers

Religious affiliation

Member of St Mary's Episcopal Church, Broughty Ferry[2]

Political affiliation

"Moderate" Conservative[2]

Clubs / societies

“The annual meeting of the members of the Forfarshire Permanent Property Investment Society was held yesterday evening in Lamb's Hotel —Councillor Rattray in the chair. ...A special meeting of the Society was afterwards held, when Mr John Charles Bell, auctioneer, was unanimously elected Trustee, in room of Bailie Back, who has left the district.”[9] Membership since the establishment (1877) of the Victoria Art Galleries Committee[10]

Public offices

Justice of the Peace[2]

Related subscribers

Career and worklife


Auctioneer,[11] commission merchant,[12] and agent.[13]


Self-employed owner

Place of work

7 Cowgate, Dundee.[11]

Work address

5 Commercial Street, Dundee.[14]
125 Seagate, Dundee.[15]
25 Cowgate, Dundee.[16]
7 Cowgate, Dundee.[11]

Career to date:

Successful jute merchant, who added auctioning of jute and flax to his business. He developed a great interest in art and built up a substantial collection by Scottish artists, many of which he later sold for a considerable profit.[2]

More information


“JOHN CHARLES BELL respectfully begs to intimate, that, in compliance with the wishes of numerous Friends, he has now added to his Agency connexions, the business of AUCTIONEER, and trusts from his knowledge of general trade, and by constant attention to the interests of his Employers, to meet with a share of Public support. Office, 125 Seagate, Opposite Sugar House Wynd, Dundee, January 14, 1850.”[15]

Obituary: J.C. Bell

“…started business as a jute merchant in the city (Dundee), and to this department of his mercantile dealings he afterwards added the business of auctioneer, confining himself to the selling of flax and jute. In both spheres he was very successful, and in his capacity as an auctioneer he soon came to be recognised as the principal representative for the flax and jute trade.  In his day there were far more auction sales in the city than there are at present (1897), particularly on account of the damage done to flax on transit from Russia to this country.  At that time all the flax came in sailing vessels, and in almost every vessel there was more or less damage, the material being thus invariably sold by auction.[2]

During the time that he was in business Mr Bell was a constant frequenter of the Exchange, and in connection, with his business relations he was held in the highest respect.  After an honourable career he retired from business twenty years ago. It is, however, as an art student that Mr Bell will be best remembered. Not only was he one of the most ardent collectors of the best pictures, but he did much to foster a love for art, and took a leading part in the management of all the Dundee Fine Art Exhibitions.  

Almost fifty years have elapsed since Mr Bell bought his first fine picture.  About that time the trade of Dundee was expanding, and many were then able to devote more attention to spending their wealth on art.  Mr Bell was one of the first who gave attention to the subject, and in his case his zeal for becoming the possessor of an art collection was modified by a good discriminating knowledge.  As a matter of fact, he had learned by experience.  About 1860 when the great outburst of Scottish artistic genius took place, Mr Bell had a comparatively important collection.  At that time Robert Scott Lauder was at the head of the Life School of the Royal Scottish Academy, and he had as pupils Orchardson, Pettie, McTaggart, Peter Graham, Hugh Cameron, McWhirter, Lockhart, Hutcheson, and others. Mr Bell was one of the first in Scotland to realise the, significance of the new manifestation, and he soon became one of its most liberal patrons, and a warm friend of the members.  From the fact that he took such a warm interest in the new movement and the encouragement which he extended to the artists, never attempting to cheapen the price which they sought to obtain for their work, the latter strove to give him the very cream of their talent, and it was in this way that Mr Bell’s grand collection was formed, for, as a matter of fact, he in his day had really brought together three collections.  

Mr Bell’s first collection was dispersed in Edinburgh in 1878, and the sale created extraordinary interest in art circles.  For one thing, it contained many of the choicest examples, and the result of the sale was eminently successful, the amount realised being £7500 (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £6,000,000).  Indeed, it is questionable if this amount has ever before or since been obtained at an art sale in Scotland.  Amongst the pictures sold were specimens of Erskine Nicoll, Fraser, and McTaggart, and the prices obtained for them caused quite a sensation as much as from £200 to £400 (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £160,000 to £320,000) being realised for single specimens, although some years before they could have been obtained at from £40 to £50 (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £32,000 to £40,000).  Mr Bell continued to collect after this, and in 1890 he decided upon a second sale, which realised as much as £3500 (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £2,800,000).  

Until the time of his death Mr Bell was an art connoisseur, and his latest collection contained valuable specimens of J. L. Wingate, W. D. McKay, John A. Reid, David Farquharson, and others.  It may be mentioned that Mr Bell, amongst his other gifts, had the real distinctive power of detecting merit in young artists.  

Mr Bell had no desire for municipal honours, and, as a matter of fact, he took no part in public affairs.  In his younger days he took a very warm interest in volunteers, and indeed was for many years an officer in one of the local regiments.  He was a Justice of Peace for Forfarshire for many years, and in this capacity, he was one of those who gave much of his time to the discharge of the duties.  

In politics he was a moderate Conservative, and he was a member of St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Broughty Ferry.  Although 80 years of age, his stalwart, upright form and jaunty bearing seemed to promise still many years of life, but a few months ago his friends noticed a change in his appearance. He was able to come to Dundee daily until the middle of July, when he was confined to the house. Since then he gradually became weaker, and had been confined to bed for several weeks. Death was due to a complication of diseases incidental to old age.  Deceased was predeceased by his wife two or three years ago.”[2]

After his Death:

The Dundee Free Library Committee met yesterday – Lord Provost McGrady in the chair.  …A letter was read from Messrs J. and J. Miller, W.S., solicitors, Perth, intimating the bequest by the late Mr John Charles Bell of his portrait by George Paul Chalmers, R.S.A.  The Lord Provost, in proposing that the bequest be cordially accepted, moved that the committee record in their minutes their warm appreciation of the bequest and their sense of the loss the Art Department of the Albert Institute had sustained by the death of Mr Bell. For nearly half a century Mr Bell had enthusiastically and effectively assisted in the diffusion of a knowledge of art among the citizens, and had done this so pleasantly and considerately as to endear him to all with whom he was associated. His likeness now bequeathed was esteemed by those entitled to judge as one of the few portraits of the very highest class painted in our time, and it was a most valuable acquisition to the civic art collection, both as being that of so worthy and outstanding a citizen, and, as an example of the art of the distinguished Academician who painted it — George Paul Chalmers, himself also a Forfarshire man. The Lord Provost’s motion was carried by acclamation, and the Clerk was instructed to send a copy of it to Miss Ferguson, Mr Bell’s niece.  The portrait will be hung in the Gallery after the legal formalities connected with its handing over are concluded.”[17]

In January 2018, within the McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, and during the “Revealing Characters” Exhibition, the aforementioned portrait  hung alongside an earlier portrait of John Charles Bell, again by George Paul Chalmers, R.S.A.

Empire Exhibition 1938, Glasgow

“…Dundee Galleries are to be represented at the Empire Exhibition by portraits of H. B. Fergusson and J. C. Bell; portrait of a lady, by David Foggie; and “Drowsy Cronies,” Robert Alexander.”[18]

Sale of his house:  4 Douglas Terrace, Broughty Ferry

“BROUGHTY FERRY.  For Sale, by Public Roup, within Lamb’s Hotel, Dundee, on WEDNESDAY, 6th October 1897, at One o’clock. That Desirable DWELLING-HOUSE, No. 4 DOUGLAS TERRACE, West Ferry, recently occupied by the late Mr John Charles Bell, containing 3 Public-Rooms and 5 Bedrooms. Entry Martinmas 1897.  Feu-Duty. £3 3s 7d.  Upset Price, £900 (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £720,000).  Apply to Messrs J. & J. Miller, W.S., Perth, who have the Titles and Articles of Roup, and who will give Cards to see the Premises, or to Messrs Johnstone Simpson, Solicitors, 87 Commercial Street, Dundee.”[19]

Value of Personal Estate (which does not include the value of his house)

J.C. Bell left a personal estate of £2016 1s 7d[10] (nominal value at 2018: Relative to income – £1,612,800).  It was divided into three equal portions, and went to:-

Eleanor Bell  (sister); Madeline Ann Bell or Robertson  (sister); Patrick Stewart Sandeman  (brother-in-law).[10]


  1. Northumberland and Durham Baptisms - Berwick-upon-Tweed, 1817. FindMyPast website.
  2. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 26 August 1897 p.5. British Newspaper Archive website.
  3. Statutory Registers. Dundee. Death. 25 August 1897. 282/4  845. ScotlandsPeople website.
  4. Dundee Directory, 1846-47. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  5. Dundee Directories 1856-1868. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee and Dundee Valuation Roll, 1865.  VR008800018. ScotlandsPeople website.
  6. Dundee Directories 1869-1879.Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  7. Dundee Directory 1880-81, p.533. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  8. Dundee Courier, 27 August 1897, p.8. British Newspaper Archive website.
  9. Dundee Courier and Argus, 9 July 1863. British Newspaper Archive website.
  10. Wills and Testaments. Dundee Sheriff Court.  SC45/31/50 pp.203-205. ScotlandsPeople website.
  11. Dundee Directory, 1867-68, p.99. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  12. Dundee Directory, 1858-59. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  13. Dundee Directories 1846-1870. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  14. Dundee Directory, 1846-47. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  15. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 15 January 1850. British Newspaper Archive website.
  16. Dundee Directory, 1850, p.vii. Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee.
  17. Dundee Courier, 10 September 1897 p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  18. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 4 April 1928, p.6. British Newspaper Archive website.
  19. Dundee Advertiser, 1 October 1897. British Newspaper Archive website.


The staff of Local History, Central Library Dundee.

The information above about John Charles Bell has been collated from a range of digital and hard copy sources. To the best of our knowledge it is correct but if you are relying on any information from our website for the purpose of your own research we would advise you to follow up the sources to your own satisfaction. If you are aware of an inaccuracy in our text please do not hesitate to notify us through our Contact page.