Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Scharf, George (1820-1895)
SCHARF, Sir GEORGE (1820–1895), director of the National Portrait Gallery, elder son of George Scharf [q. v.], by Elizabeth Hicks, his wife, was born at 3 St. Martin's Lane, London, on 16 Dec. 1820. He was educated at University College school, and, after studying under his father and obtaining medals from the Society of Arts, entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1838. In 1839 he published ‘Recollections of Scenic Effects,’ a set of etchings illustrating Macready's Shakespearean and classical revivals at Covent Garden Theatre. In 1840 Scharf was engaged by Sir Charles Fellows to accompany him on his second journey to Asia Minor, and on the way spent some time in Italy; three years later he again visited Asia Minor in the capacity of draughtsman to the government expedition. The drawings he then made of views and antiquities of Lyca, Caria, and Lydia, are now in the British Museum; a selection from them, with text by Sir C. Fellows, was published in 1847. After his return to England, Scharf painted a few oil pictures, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and one of his compositions, ‘Non Angli sed Angeli,’ was engraved in a set of outlines of incidents in English history for the Art Union of London in 1847; but he chiefly devoted himself to the illustration of books, especially such as afforded scope for his knowledge of art and archæology. Of these the most important were Murray's ‘Prayer Book,’ Macaulay's ‘Lays of Ancient Rome,’ 1847; Milman's ‘Horace,’ 1849; Kugler's ‘Handbook of Italian Painting,’ 1851; Mrs. Bray's ‘Life of Stothard,’ 1851; Layard's works on Nineveh; Keats's ‘Poems,’ 1854; Dr. W. Smith's Classical Dictionaries; Schmitz's ‘History of Greece,’ 1856; and Mrs. Speir's ‘Indian Life,’ 1856. When the Crystal Palace was erected at Sydenham, Scharf took part in the arrangement of the Greek, Roman, and Pompeian courts, and wrote the official descriptions of them which were issued on the opening of the building in 1854. He assisted Charles Kean in his celebrated revivals of Shakespearean plays at the Princess's Theatre, between 1851 and 1857, supplying him with correct classical costumes and scenery. At this period he was an active and successful lecturer, and for several years superintended the art classes at Queen's College, Harley Street. In 1855 he was a candidate for the keepership of the National Gallery, and received much influential support; but the claims of Ralph Nicholson Wornum [q. v.] prevailed. In the same year, when the great Manchester Exhibition of 1857 was projected, Scharf's services were secured as art secretary, and the splendid series of pictures by the old masters there shown was collected and arranged by him. He published a handbook to this gallery; and for J. B. Waring's handsome record of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Art Treasures of the United Kingdom,’ wrote the section on sculpture.
In 1857, on the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery, Scharf was appointed the first secretary, and after the close of the Manchester Exhibition gave himself up to the care and development of that institution, the present value and importance of which are chiefly due to his ability and unwearied devotion. When the gallery was first opened to the public in January 1859, it consisted of fifty-seven pictures, arranged on the first floor of No. 29 Great George Street, Westminster; during Scharf's curatorship the number of portraits was increased to nearly a thousand, constituting a collection which is of quite unrivalled historic interest, and, considering the limited means at the disposal of the trustees, of remarkable artistic merit. The duties of his office led Scharf to make a profound study of portraiture, a subject upon which he became the recognised authority, and which he did much to elucidate in the valuable essays he published from time to time. Gifted with a keen eye for the analysis of features and costume, great shrewdness and diligence in archæological research, and a remarkably retentive memory, he was able to correct the false titles which had attached themselves to many important pictures, and to identify others of which the names had been lost. He devoted much study to the interesting question of the likeness of Mary Queen of Scots, and effectually separated the comparatively few genuine representations of her from the host of impositions; in 1888 he addressed a series of learned letters on the subject to the ‘Times’ newspaper, and later undertook to deal with it in an exhaustive work, but this had made little progress at the time of his death.
In the acquisition of knowledge of his special subject, Scharf travelled much about England, visiting the great historic houses, where he was always a welcome and honoured guest; he drew up elaborate catalogues of the collections of pictures at Blenheim, Knowsley, and Woburn Abbey, which were privately printed for their owners. It was his practice to make careful drawings and notes of every portrait of interest that came under his eye, whether at home or on his travels, and the large collection of his note-books, official and private, now preserved at the National Portrait Gallery, is of the highest value. Scharf was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852, and became one of its most active members, frequently serving on the council and the executive committee, and reading papers at the meetings; of these seventeen were printed in ‘Archæologia,’ of which the most important were: ‘Observations on a Picture in Gloucester Cathedral, and other Representations of the Last Judgment,’ 1856; ‘On the Portraits of Arthur, Prince of Wales,’ 1861; ‘On a Portrait of the Duchess of Milan at Windsor Castle,’ 1863; ‘On a Picture representing the three Children of Philip, King of Castile,’ 1869; and ‘On a Portrait of the Empress Leonora,’ 1870. His many other essays include: ‘Characteristics of Greek Art,’ prefixed to Wordsworth's ‘Greece,’ 1859; ‘On the Principal Portraits of Shakespeare,’ 1864 (reprinted from ‘Notes and Queries’); ‘The Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Blackfriars, being a new interpretation of the Sherborne Castle Picture engraved by Vertue as a Royal Visit to Hunsdon House in 1571,’ 1866 (reprinted from the ‘Archæological Journal’); ‘Observations on the Westminster Abbey Portrait and other Representations of King Richard II,’ 1867 (reprinted from the ‘Fine Arts Quarterly Review’); ‘An Historical Account of the Pictures belonging to the Crown,’ published in the volume of the Archæological Institute, entitled ‘Old London,’ 1867; and ‘Description of the Wilton House Diptych, containing a Contemporary Portrait of King Richard II,’ issued by the Arundel Society, 1882. He published in the ‘Fine Arts Quarterly Review’ an excellent descriptive catalogue of the pictures belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, which was reprinted in 1865.
In 1858 Scharf was elected a corresponding member of the Archæological Institute of Rome. In 1866 and 1868, when the series of exhibitions of national portraits was being held at South Kensington, he delivered courses of lectures on the subject at the Royal Institution. In 1882, on the completion of his twenty-fifth year of service as keeper and secretary of the Portrait Gallery, he was accorded the additional title of director; in that year also he was elected a life governor of University College. In 1885 he received the companionship of the Bath. In 1892, when he had passed the age prescribed for compulsory retirement in the civil service, a special arrangement was made whereby his services were retained for a further period, in the hope that he might be able to superintend the final establishment of the gallery (which had been removed from Great George Street to South Kensington in 1870, and thence to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1885), in the handsome building then being erected for its reception, through the liberality of Mr. W. H. Alexander, in St. Martin's Place; but this he did not live to see. A complication of distressing ailments, which had already begun to grow upon him, compelled him to relinquish his post early in 1895; he was then made a K.C.B., and appointed a trustee of the gallery he had so ably served, but these honours he enjoyed for a few weeks only. He died, unmarried, on 19 April 1895, at 8 Ashley Place, Westminster, where he had resided for nearly twenty-five years, and was buried with his parents in the Brompton cemetery. A portrait of him, privately subscribed for, was painted by Mr. W. W. Ouless, R.A., in 1885, and presented to the trustees of the Portrait Gallery, to be hung in their board-room; after his death it was incorporated with the collection which he had himself formed, and with which his name must ever be associated. Scharf went much into society, and throughout life enjoyed the esteem and affection of a wide circle of friends. He bequeathed his collection of note-books and many annotated volumes to the National Portrait Gallery, and his correspondence and antiquarian drawings to the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries.
[Men and Women of the Time, 1891; Athenæum, 27 April 1895; Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd ser. xv. 377; Times newspaper, 20 April 1895; personal knowledge.]