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Bull, George Anthony (1929–2001), journalist and translator, was born into a working-class Roman Catholic family at 5 Alfred Street, Bow, London, on 23 August 1929, the son of George Thomas Bull, a tramway inspector for the London Passenger Transport Board, and his wife, Bridget Philomena, née Nugent. His father died while Bull was still young, and his mother, of Irish extraction, became the economic mainstay of the household. Bull was educated at Wimbledon College, a Jesuit school. He started to learn Italian during his national service with the Royal Fusiliers (1947–9), and went on to read modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he chose the Italian Renaissance as his special subject. On graduating in 1952 he embarked on a successful career in journalism at the Financial Times as a reporter (1952–6) and then as foreign news editor (1956–9). On 2 March 1957, at the church of the English Martyrs, Wandsworth, he married Doreen Marjorie (Dido) Griffin (b. 1935), nurse, and daughter of Charles Ernest Griffin, dockyard electrician; they had two sons and two daughters.

After a year with McGraw-Hill World News, Bull joined The Director, the monthly magazine of the Institute of Directors, where he served between 1960 and 1984 as deputy editor, then editor, and later editor-in-chief; under his leadership The Director not only voiced the concerns of British business but also took a lively view of cultural and international developments. He wrote business books, starting with an account of company takeovers, Bid for Power (1958), co-authored with Tony Vice. The compendious Director's Handbook (1969; 2nd edn, 1977) dealt with the powers and responsibilities of company directors, whom he saw as an undervalued national resource.

Bull's parallel literary career as a translator of Italian Renaissance texts for Penguin Classics began with Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography (1956), commissioned by E. V. Rieu while Bull was still an undergraduate. Cellini was followed by Machiavelli's Prince (1961), Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1967), Selected Letters of Aretino (1976), and selections from Vasari's Lives of the Artists, which appeared in two volumes (1965–1987). In his own judicious self-assessment, his version of Castiglione's Courtier ‘retains the rhythms and sonorities of the original while making it read smoothly in contemporary and polished English’ (‘Castiglione’, in Classe, 1.235). That is a fair assessment of his overall achievements in translation. His best-selling version of The Prince, regularly reprinted, attained classic status. The Penguin translations were accompanied by engaging and informative introductions and notes. Starting from the putative reactions of an intelligent modern reader, he would add historical perspectives and useful character assessments. Although these paratextual elements were informed by wide research, they were presented in a conversational tone.

Related to Bull's Italian translations, and revealing some of the wide background reading that underpinned them, was a series of original books including The Renaissance (1968), Venice: the Most Triumphant City (1980), and Michelangelo: a Biography (1995). His committed membership of the Catholic church, combined with his experience in current affairs reportage, informed Vatican Politics at the Second Vatican Council, 1962–5 (1966), while Inside the Vatican (1982) was a sharp though affectionate dissection of that institution. Faithful to the church, he could be funny about its leading exponents, characterizing John XXIII as ‘the accelerator’ and Paul VI as ‘the brake’ (Vatican Politics at the Second Vatican Council, 2). Pope John Paul II was described as ‘thick-set, like a rugger forward. The expressions on his face are as changeable as English weather, but it is a strong face’ (Inside the Vatican, 69).

In some of his original writings Bull's appetite for comprehensive detail, including the humdrum realities that surround great projects, could sometimes appear excessive, but his amused tolerance of human frailties, and his journalist's eye for the human angle, compensated for any longueurs. His account of Michelangelo's life, supported by copious quotations from archival documents, gave the artist's life in practical detail, charting shifts in patronage, family difficulties, and business setbacks including broken contracts and uncompleted projects. He had the gift of combining objectivity with personal warmth and a sense of enjoyment; his celebratory book on Venice, commissioned by the Folio Society, revealed between the lines his addiction to book collecting. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982, and served as honorary treasurer of the society from 1992 to 1998.

Bull was an accomplished organization man whose committee memberships, directorships, and trusteeships took in several major Catholic publications and educational institutions. Between 1971 and 1974 he chaired the international commission on justice and peace of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales. He was active in associations for the promotion of cultural and business links, notably between Britain and Japan. Several of these bodies were his own creations. One company, Hugo Publications, produced five journals and magazines, including Insight Japan, Insight Europe, and International Minds, the latter seeking to bring the insights of psychology to bear upon international affairs. He was appointed OBE in 1990, and in 1999 received both the papal honour of knight commander of St Gregory and the Japanese order of the Sacred Treasure. He was a prominent member of the Garrick, Savile, and Beefsteak clubs in London, where he resided at 19 Hugh Street, Pimlico.

Despite heart trouble, Bull continued with a vast range of activities and projects including nine company directorships, and was working on a new Dante biography and a play, while also planning a novel, at the time of his death, which occurred at St Thomas's Hospital, London, on 6 April 2001, following a heart attack. Obituaries stressed his impulsive generosity and talent for friendship even more than his remarkable career. The terms ‘polymath’ and ‘Renaissance man’ were used with justification, but the dominant impression was of a man moving with ease through many spheres. He was survived by his wife, Doreen, and their four children.

Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin


O. Classe, ed., Encyclopedia of literary translation into English (2000) · The Times (9 April 2001) · Financial Times (9 April 2001) · The Guardian (10 April 2001) · The Independent (10 April 2001); (11 April 2001) · The Director [Special 60th Birthday Edition] (Oct 2007) · www.hugopublications.com, accessed on 26 March 2012 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£655,679: probate, 20 Nov 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales