Bell, John (c.1793–1861), antiquary, collector, and landscape painter, was the second son of John Bell, gentleman landowner, of Camelon, near Falkirk, Scotland. It is unclear when he settled in Ireland, but he was contributing articles to local newspapers in Newry, Co. Down, by 1813. His earliest recorded articles show that he had a sound knowledge of the topography of southern Ulster, so it seems likely that he moved to the province during his youth. He probably had family contacts in Ireland, as the surname Bell was then already very common in parts of Ulster and Scotland. From 1813 he was a frequent contributor to the Newry Telegraph and from 1815 also wrote for a new publication, the Newry Magazine. Both newspapers were edited by the antiquary James Stuart (qv) who wrote the Historical memoirs of the city of Armagh (1819). Bell's profession at this time was that of landscape painter and tutor. The five engraved plates printed in Stuart's work were taken from original drawings by Bell. Though Stuart wrote all the text of his history, he does pay tribute to Bell's fieldwork in, for example, recording the Dane's Cast (a complex series of earthworks in Co. Down and Co. Armagh) and the investigation of numerous cairns. Throughout his life Bell contributed many articles and notes on artefacts and folklore to academic journals and newspapers. His main passion was collecting and he spent much time travelling across Ulster on foot searching the cabins of the peasantry for artefacts such as bronze bells, swords, and spearheads. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1844) and a member of the RIA (1849). In 1852 his collection formed a large part of an archaeological exhibition in Belfast organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The catalogue shows that he owned more than 250 stone axes, 200 bronze axes, and twenty-two swords, as well as fragments of early Christian bells and crosiers.
Though Bell did not find the time to draw together his considerable knowledge into a scholarly monograph, he made an important contribution to the study of burial monuments in Ireland and encouraged a more professional approach to the recording of finds. He was one of the first antiquaries to disprove the notion that cairns were ‘druidic altars’. Rather than rely on classical texts, like most contemporary antiquaries, he examined human remains and grave-goods and deduced that cairns were erected to commemorate ‘ancient chieftains’. His engraving and description of the ‘horned’ or ‘court’-type cairn at Annacloghmullin, Co. Armagh, is particularly important as he makes intelligent connections with similar cairns at Ballymacdermott, Co. Armagh, and Ballybriest, Co. Londonderry. These megalithic chamber-grave monuments are of a type virtually confined to Ulster and north Connacht. It was not until the 1930s that other archaeologists started to look at the importance of regionalism in the study of the prehistoric world. Bell was also very advanced in including a ground plan of Annacloghmullin in his engraving, showing the four chambers and elliptical entrance (this site has since been almost completely destroyed). He also adopted a professional approach in drawing objects by recording them from different angles. His engraved 1812 drawing of the high cross in Armagh city, for example, is the earliest detailed surviving record of this monument (which has since been badly defaced). During the 1830s the ordnance survey incorporated many of his drawings into its maps, and it was noted that Bell was responsible for ‘some very curious and original disquisitions on the subject of Irish cairns and cromlechs’ (Ordnance survey memoirs, xvii, 130). The population boom in Ireland during the early nineteenth century created a huge disturbance to archaeological deposits and Bell noted that ‘a greater number of bronze weapons and likewise spearheads of pure copper, have been discovered in Ireland than in any other country’ (Journal of the British Archaeological Association, i, 253). There was much competition among collectors to acquire Irish antiquities, but Bell probably had more local knowledge about the whereabouts of the finds in Ulster than anyone else. In his one surviving notebook he records that ‘Mr Mullen of Lurgan has a tin shop, he has six brass celts [axes]’ (Bell notebook, Glasgow University). Bell was also interested in folklore and when acquiring objects from farm labourers – who were often very reluctant to part with them – he would record whether the fairies had imbued an object with curative or evil properties. He also collected information on sweat-houses, block-wheeled carts, brogues, harps, and Ulster phrases.
From 1813 to his death he lived in various towns in Ulster, including Newry, Dungannon, Dundalk, and Armagh, but his geographical focus always remained in south Armagh. His principal income seems to have derived from teaching and painting. In 1839 he is recorded as the drawing master at the Royal School, Dungannon. Though he was described by contemporaries as a ‘landscape painter’ rather than as a historian, none of Bell's finished paintings have been identified. The engravings of his views of the archiepiscopal palace and college at Armagh for Stuart's book in 1819 indicate that he was trained in a very conventional eighteenth-century topographical style. He died unmarried on 21 January 1861 and was buried in Dungannon. His estate was apparently worth £3,000. The bulk of his collection of about 1,400 objects was purchased after his death for £500 by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. In addition Bell may also have given objects to various collections in Dublin and Glasgow during his lifetime.