Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1808-1876)

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SMITH, WILLIAM (1808–1876), print-seller, son of a London print-seller, was born on 11 July 1808 in Lisle Street, Leicester Square. He proceeded to Cambridge University, but on the death of his father in 1835 he and his brother George succeeded to the business, and he was obliged to abandon his studies there. In 1836 he purchased the collection of engravings formed by John Sheepshanks [q. v.] The Dutch and Flemish portions, which were considered to be the most perfect in Europe, he sold to the British Museum for 5,000l., although he received larger offers from Holland. This was the first of a series of large transactions in which Smith rendered eminent services to the print-room. Among the collections which reached the Museum through his exertions were those of ‘Mr. Harding of Finchley’ (a very fine all-round collection) in 1841, of Coningham (engravings by early German and Italian artists) in 1844 and 1845, selections from the Aylesford and Woodburn collections in 1847, and some etchings of the utmost rarity by Rembrandt, procured at Baron Verstolk's sale at Amsterdam in 1847.

In 1848 Smith and his brother retired from business. From that time his labours ‘were wholly honorary and patriotic.’ He took a prominent part in establishing the National Portrait Gallery, being appointed an original trustee, and chosen deputy chairman in 1858. He was also actively engaged in the management of the Art Union of London. At one time he interested himself in acquiring an historical series of watercolour drawings by British artists, but, learning that the managers of South Kensington Museum were forming a similar collection, he allowed them, in his lifetime, to select what they pleased, and presented the remainder to the National Gallery of Ireland.

He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852.

Smith died on 6 Sept. 1876, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. His collections, which included many rare catalogues of galleries and exhibitions, with copious manuscript notes, he bequeathed to the library of the South Kensington Museum.

[Times, 16 Sept. 1876; Athenæum, 1876, ii. 377; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vi. 259; Men of the Time, 9th ed. p. 910.]

E. I. C.