Felicity Bryan, who has died of cancer aged 74, was the founder in 1988 of the distinguished literary agency Felicity Bryan Associates. She was liked and respected in equal measures in the world in which she had worked since 1972, when she joined Curtis Brown.
Becoming a literary agent was a chance move, an early third act seemingly unrelated to what had gone before, yet for which her prior careers, as art historian and journalist, were the perfect preparation. Her fellow agent Andrew Nurnberg observed: “Ultimately, you need to discover and burnish quality, which Felicity did. She had this extraordinary ability to find authors. She was smart as a whip and straight as a die.”
Bryan had an intense curiosity about every aspect of life and a gift for friendship which resulted in a bulging contacts book – which included such names as Francis Crick, James Naughtie, Lucy Worsley, Roy Strong, Mary Berry, Carlos Acosta, Diarmaid MacCulloch and Edmund de Waal.
Her personal passions were art, opera, dance and gardening, on which she wrote two books: The Town Gardener’s Companion (1981), based on columns she wrote as gardening correspondent of the London Evening Standard, and A Garden for Children (with Elisabeth Luard, 1986). However, she ranged widely, an intellectual who wore her erudition lightly and found her metier in Oxford, where she set up her fledgling agency when marriage and motherhood rendered her commute to London tiresome.
In those days, few agents struck out on their own, certainly not women and doing so outside London went against the grain. But FBA prospered, making stars of many who might otherwise have remained cloistered beneath the city’s dreaming spires.
Bryan did not want to be “provincial” – indeed, was determined to be truly international, spending time in far-flung markets. Within a few years, she had made her mark: Rosamunde Pilcher, who had followed Bryan from Curtis Brown, broke out of her romantic fiction niche with The Shell Seekers, knocking The Bonfire of the Vanities from its perch atop the US bestsellers.
Karen Armstrong, a new signing, provided Bryan with her first international non-fiction bestseller, A History of God (1994). And Iain Pears, a local art historian and journalist, sold in a score of languages with his novel An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997).
“I think with my nose,” Bryan liked to say. Critically and commercially, FBA was set fair and, in 2001, Catherine Clarke joined from Oxford University Press, her representation of AC Grayling and Michael Wood, and the children’s authors Meg Rosoff and David Almond, opening a new chapter.
Bryan was born in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, the second of three daughters of Paul Bryan, a war hero who served for three decades as a Tory MP, and his wife, Betty (nee Hoyle). The girls were educated at Benenden school in Kent, “naughty, rebellious” Felicity joining when her sister, Elizabeth, was deputy head girl.
Their childhood was overshadowed by their mother’s bipolar disorder, which also affected Felicity’s daughter Alice, who took her own life aged 22. Bryan became a trustee of Equilibrium: The Bipolar Foundation. The sisters were all achievers: Elizabeth a paediatrician, founded the Multiple Births Foundation. Bernadette was among the first women to be ordained. Both died young, sharing the BRCA gene that can increase the chance of developing cancer. The cancer that killed Felicity was her fourth.
Bryan was open about fate’s cruelties but never self-pitying. “On to the next disaster,” she would joke, as she planned practically for the long-term future of FBA.
Unsurprisingly, she was not given to introspection, preferring to be busy and living for those she had lost, powered by five hours’ sleep a night. She adored publishing parties and had time for everyone, giving people her undivided attention. “She would always find some spark, something you had in common,” Clarke observed. The publisher Andrew Franklin talks of “a genuine original and a very tough businesswoman who had enormous amounts of fun”.
Bryan graduated as an art historian from the Courtauld Institute in London and began her career as an assistant on Burlington Magazine. It felt “limiting” to her, so she wrote to several Washington correspondents asking if they might need extra help in election year.
Joe Rogaly of the Financial Times offered her $100 a week plus extra for anything written in her own time if she could be in DC in two weeks. She arrived in a city still smoking following the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 and stayed an exhilarating and life-changing two years, building up a portfolio of serious journalism and making lasting friendships.
Among them was the Washington Post reporter Larry Stern, in whose memory she founded the Laurence Stern fellowship with the Post’s Ben Bradlee and the Observer’s Godfrey Hodgson. Over 40 years, fellows have included Cathy Newman, Gary Younge and Jonathan Freedland. This month, it was renamed the Stern-Bryan fellowship in her honour.
Loving the US, Bryan was torn when in 1970 she was offered a full-time position in London on the Economist. She accepted the offer, splurging $1,500 on a round-the-world ticket and sending a final FT dispatch from Laos. She wrote prodigiously for the magazine’s British and American Surveys, invented the Arts Briefs, and joined Women in Media to help encourage more women into the man’s world of serious journalism.
When Graham Watson of Curtis Brown rang, she assumed it was to offer thoughts about Welsh industry for the piece she was writing, but it was an invitation to drinks at the Ritz to discuss his proposal that she inject new lifeblood into the fusty agency. This she did, launching a publishing revolution in the process by persuading the Royal Horticultural Society to partner with Dorling Kindersley to create a series of gardening titles. Hardy perennials now widely imitated, they have sold millions. She established Berry as an author with Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook (sales now two million-plus) and reinvented Strong as he stepped down from the V&A, proposing The Story of Britain, still popular more than 20 years on.
Personally and professionally, Bryan was a born matchmaker who, said Nurnberg, “never had to pitch a book – it was all down to her irrepressible enthusiasm and personal presentation”.
Armstrong recalls that “Felicity never gave up”, despite her proposal for A History of God arousing “absolutely no interest with any publisher … And somehow her serene and breezy confidence gave me the courage, inspiration - and imperative – to work and write in quite a different way.”
Bryan was appointed MBE this year and announced her retirement earlier this month.
She is survived by her second husband, the economist Alex Duncan, whom she married in 1981, and two sons, Maxim and Benjamin. Her first marriage, to Alasdair Clayre, ended in divorce.
• Felicity Anne Bryan, literary agent, born 16 October 1945; died 21 June 2020