Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bicknell, Elhanan

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BICKNELL, ELHANAN (1788–1861), patron of art, was born 21 Dec. 1788, in Blackman Street, London, being the son of William Bicknell, serge manufacturer there, and of Elizabeth Bicknell, previously a Miss Randall, of Sevenoaks, Kent. Elhanan Bicknell's father had been partly educated at Wesley's school at Kingswood, Bristol, and always entertained John Wesley in Blackman Street when he came to preach at Snow's Fields. Another divine among the most cherished friends of Elhanan's parents at Winchester at this time, after whom he was named, was Elhanan Winchester, author of 'Universal Restoration' (Christian Reformer, xviii. 56). William Bicknell bought the copyright of this work in the year of his son Elhanan's birth, and on finding that his bargain was profitable, he generously surrendered it to the author in 1789, with a characteristic letter (ibid.)

Elhanan Bicknell was educated by his father, who, having established a school at Ponder's End in 1789, when Elhanan was an infant, removed it to Tooting common in 1804; and there among Elhanan's schoolfellows, was Thomas Wilde, afterwards Lord Chancellor Truro. In 1808 Elhanan was sent to Cause, near Shrewsbury, to learn farming; but at the end of a year this project was abandoned. He returned to London and joined a firm at Newington Butts, engaged in the sperm whale fishery, into which, for over half century, he threw all his active energies and financial aptitude. About 1835 he foresaw how the repeal of the navigation laws, then in agitation, would injure his individual trade, yet he magnanimously supported the movement, together with the abolition of all protection; and when the inevitable crippling of his undertakings and his income came, he cheerfully accepted it. In 1838, having occupied his residence at Herne Hill, Surrey, since 1819, Bicknell commenced there his magnificent collection of pictures, all of the modern British school. In the course of twelve years, 1838-50, he became the posessor of masterpieces of Gainsborough, Turner, Roberts, Landseer, Stanfield, Webster, Collins, Etty, Callcott, &c. (Waagen, Treasures of Art, ii. 359; Art Journal, 1862, p. 45); and, in default of a gallery, these splendid works, with many pieces of sculpture, such as Baily's 'Eve,' enriched all the principal apartments of his house, and were always hospitably open to the inspection of art connoisseurs. Bicknell, moreover, became acquainted with artists themselves, as well as with their works; he was munificent in his payments, and generously entertained them. Bicknell had bought many of Turner's best works before Mr. Ruskin's advocacy had made their beauties known. He had a strong desire to leave his collection to the nation; but for family reasons his pictures, which numbered 122 at his death, were eventually sold at Christie's auction rooms, realising a sum little short of 80,000l. (Times, 27 April 1863). The Marquis of Hertford bought about one-third for his own gallery.

In politics and in theology Elhanan Bicknell was an ardent and advanced liberal. He supported unitarianism consistently and warmly, was a principal contributor to the building of the unitarian chapel at Brixton, and gave 1,000l. to the British and foreign Unitarian Association (Inquirer, 7 Dec. 1861, p. 895). His remarkable business powers, which were recognised on all sides, led to his being invited to become a partner in the great firm of Maudslay, the eminent engineer, but this offer was declined. In 1859 his health began to fail, and he retired from business. He passed the rest of his time at Herne Hill, where he died 27 Nov. 1861, aged 72 (Inquirer, 30 Nov. 1861). He was buried at Norwood.

In 1829 Bicknell married Lucinda Browne, a sister of Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). He left a large family by this and a previous marriage, and several of his sons (one of whom married the only child of David Roberts, R.A.), in succeeding to his fortune, have made names for themselves in the various departments of art patronage, travel, and reform, in which he himself took constant delight.

Waagen's Treasures of Art in great Britain, i. 36, ii. 349; Christian Reformer, viii. 55 et seq.; Inquirer, 1861, p. 895; Art Journal, 1862, p. 45; Athenæum, 7 Dec. 1861; Times, 27 April 1863; private information.]

J. H.