Subeditors are the vital team in newspaper offices who shape, sharpen and often rescue the reporters’ copy. For more than three decades from 1962 – in news and features, and then as editor-in-chief of Guardian and Observer syndication, serving subscribers all over the world night after night – Donald Wintersgill, who has died aged 82, was a fine, professional sub in that engine room of diligence and detail.
But there was a daytime Donald, too, one who turned bubbling enthusiasms into expertise. In the 1970s – when fine art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were at their height – he was chosen as the Guardian’s salerooms correspondent, patrolling for stories and becoming an acknowledged authority in his own right. His knowledge-fuelled books including The Book of English Antiques 1700-1830 (1975, republished as The Guardian Book of Antiques) and Scottish Antiques (1977).
Retirement in 1997 gave him the opportunity to spread his interests even more widely. He taught journalism seminars in many countries for the Thomson Foundation (typically, having been entranced by Ashanti gold weights while teaching in Nigeria, he built up a big collection of his own). At the Civil Service College he helped train bureaucrats for broadcast interviews and select committee appearances. He relished the friends and contacts he made in London’s clubland.
Donald’s Scottish roots tugged him in other directions, too. He was fascinated by Scotland’s tradition of student-elected university rectors and began to research and publish a series of books on the rectorial history of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews. Still more surprisingly, he became a skilled silversmith – and cast much-admired pieces now in a number of collections, including Glasgow University’s Rectorial Mace. His contributions to his old university were recognised by his election as an honorary fellow.
If other journalists sometimes found Donald, on first acquaintance, a trifle austere, then Wingle Abbey (2011), his spoof of a National Trust handbook, showed a completely different side – as did his lifelong passion for home brewing beer and wine. He had an uncanny gift for great good humour.
Donald was born in Glasgow, the son of Dorothy (nee Wingrove), who played the church organ, and Donald Wintersgill, a landscape gardener with his own business. From Kelvinside academy he went to Glasgow University. There he gained both arts and law degrees and edited the university magazine before choosing a career in journalism, and an initial job on the Scottish Daily Express. He relished recording the brogue-infused bark of the Express’s chief sub, when one hapless journalist used the word “lady”. “We know she’s a woman, but we don’t know she’s a lady.”
Donald’s life, one lived to the full, shows that, of course, the subs who tend the news machine are as full of talent and variety as any on the writing side.
He is survived by his wife, Mary (nee O’Dwyer), whom he married in 1970, two sons, Owen and Patrick, and a granddaughter, Nina.