Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alexander, William (1767-1816)
ALEXANDER, WILLIAM (1767–1816), artist, and first keeper of prints and drawings in the British Museum, was born at Maidstone 10 April 1767. He became a student at the Royal Academy in 1784, and in 1792 proceeded with Lord Macartney's embassy to China as junior draughtsman. All the drawings illustrative of the expedition were made by him, in consequence, as it is stated, of the incompetence of his nominal superior. Some of them were published as illustrations of Sir George Staunton's account of the embassy in 1797; in 1798 Alexander himself published ‘Views of the Headlands, Islands, &c., taken during the voyage to China,’ and he also illustrated Barrow's ‘Travels in China,’ 1804, and ‘Voyage to Cochin China,’ 1806. In 1805 he published a volume of engravings illustrative of the Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum taken from the French expeditionary force; and in the same year appeared ‘The Costume of China, illustrated in forty-eight coloured engravings,’ accompanied by explanatory letterpress. He also completed the drawings from Daniell's sketches which accompanied Vancouver's ‘Voyage to the North Pacific,’ and published in 1813 ‘Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Austrians.’ In 1802 he had become professor of drawing at the military college at Great Marlow; and in 1808, some serious losses having shown the necessity for a more vigilant care of the prints and drawings in the British Museum, he was appointed their keeper, with the style and rank of assistant keeper of the antiquities department. His most important work at the museum was executing the drawings and superintending the engraving of the ancient marbles and terra-cottas comprised in the first four volumes of the great collection published by the trustees in 1810 and subsequent years. He died of brain-fever on 23 July 1816. Alexander was a first-rate draughtsman and excellent engraver; as a man he was amiable, charitable, and unassuming. He meditated a work on the ancient historical crosses of England, for which he had made extensive collections. A lithographed facsimile of his narrative of a journey to Beresford Hall in Derbyshire, the seat of Cotton the angler, was published by Russell Smith in 1841.
[Gent. Mag. lxxxvi. pt. ii. pp. 279–80, 369–371; Russell's History of Maidstone, pp. 397–8; Pikington's Dictionary of Painters.]