Jean Bell, wise and artistic poet behind the bright red make-up
Wake at Lion and Unicorn hears how 'everyone knew' former nanny
06 October, 2017 — By Tom Foot
JEAN Bell, who has died aged 63, has been described by her husband as both “naïve” and a “battle-hardened, wise woman” who knew “absolutely everyone” in Kentish Town.
A familiar face around NW5 – not least for her bright red make-up – she was celebrated for her sense of humour, artistic creativity and dignity. At her wake at the Lion and Unicorn, in Gaisford Street, in the road where she lived, friends reflected that, despite their fond affections, so much of her life had remained a mystery to them. Jean was born in 1954 in Cape Town, South Africa, to anti-apartheid socialist parents, Cosmo and Flo.
Her father was a professor of literature who wrote powerful poems, some of which were read out at her funeral. The service heard how the family was made “stateless” when Jean was 10 years old and they came to Camden. Jean went to Parliament Hill School, and later studied textiles at Kingsway Princeton College, now Westminster Kingsway.
When her parents moved away to America she worked briefly in Germany, as a nanny, before returning to Camden and taking odd jobs including at the Oasis shop in Covent Garden and also as a waitress at the Africa Centre in the West End.
Richard Bell, Jean’s husband of 30 years, in his funeral speech, told how “the world came alive emotionally” for him when they first met in April 1987.
He said: “So began a mysterious but edifying alliance with and sometimes against each other, in mutual puzzlement, on the long and winding road to and through a marriage. For most of that time, though, Jean seemed to live under a curfew, confined to her flat and the local neighbourhood and yet, at the same time, she seemed to know everybody in Kentish Town, and was extraordinarily gregarious, talking to people in cafés and keeping old acquaintances alive in a way that I admired, in my less robust and glorious condition.”
He spoke about her “uncanny knack” of picking out books, pictures, music and art, and how that helped her express her heart, mind and soul, adding: “I loved Jean, and I still do. It’s hard to imagine the afterlife, but it’s harder still to imagine Jean, or anybody else, not existing at all. The world would not have been the same without her, and my world would have been a lot less good.”
The funeral heard how the couple would go regularly to the Columbia Road Flower Market and in 2005 and 2006 Jean was praised for her balcony arrangements in the annual Camden in Bloom competition.
Her parents died within a few months of each other in November 2016 and March 2017.