Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carpenter, William Hookham

CARPENTER, WILLIAM HOOKHAM (1792–1866), keeper of prints in the British Museum, the only son of Mr. James Carpenter, a bookseller and publisher of some note established in Old Bond Street, was born in Bruton Street, London, on 2 March 1792. He was apprenticed to his father's business, and was engaged in it until 1817, when he married Miss Margaret Sarah Geddes [see Carpenter, Margaret Sarah] (second daughter of Captain Alexander Geddes of Alderbury, Wiltshire), who obtained distinction as a portrait-painter. He now set up in business for himself in Lower Brook Street, and published, among other books, Spence's 'Anecdotes,' edited by Singer, and the first portion of Burnet's 'Practical Hints on Painting;' but not succeeding, he again joined his father. Carpenter had considerable talent for drawing, and a taste for art, which was fostered by his intimacy with Andrew Geddes, A.R,A., an accomplished etcher, and which had been first awakened by his own early associations. His father had a large collection of paintings, and dealt largely in publications on art, while he also was acquainted with many artists and engravers, to whom he gave commissions for illustrating books. From the time when Carpenter gave up his own business till 1845 he seems to have had a good deal of spare time, much of which he spent in studying the prints and drawings of the great masters in the British Museum. For a short time he held the post of secretary to the Artists' Benevolent Fund. In 1844 he published 'Pictorial Notices, consisting of a memoir of Sir A. Van Dyck, with a descriptive catalogue of the etchings executed by him, and a variety of interesting particulars relating to other artists patronised by Charles I,' London, 1844, 4to (a French translation of this work by L. Hymans was published at Antwerp, 1844, 4to). In 1845 he was appointed keeper of the department of prints and drawing in the Britisn Museum. Carpenter held this post till his death, and during his twenty-one years' tenure of office very greatly increased the interest and value of the collections under his care. He got together a number of objects illustrating the history of engraving, especially the early niellated silver plates and sulphur casts. Of the latter he procured for the museum no less than sixteen only twenty-five are at present known to be anywhere existing. Besides filling many lacunae in the general collection of engravings and etchings, he brought together a large series of etchings by modern painters, both English and foreign, and greatly increased the series of engraved English portraits. He made many important additions to the then existing collection of drawings, especially works by the great masters. He also formed an important collection of drawings by deceased British artists. Among his acquisitions may be mentioned: The Coningham collection of early Italian engravings, obtained in 1845; selections of Rembrandt's etchings from the collections of Lord Aylesford and Baron Verstolk, and some valuable Dutch drawings procured from the latter collection in 1847; various fine drawings by the old masters, many of which had belonged to Sir Thomas Lawrence, procured at Messrs. Woodburn's sale; some drawings of Michelangelo, obtained from the Buonarroti family; and a volume of drawings by Jacopo Bellini, purchased in 1855 at Venice. In 1864 Carpenter had been sent to Venice by the trustees of the British Museum to report upon the last-named volume. His attention to his duties was unremitting, and in the last month of his life he was watching with interest the progress of some public sales at which he had given commissions. He died at the British Museum on 12 July 1866, aged 74.

Carpenter's knowledge of prints and drawings gained him a wide reputation in Europe. In 1847 he was elected a member of the Academy of Fine Arts at Amsterdam, and in 1852 a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, on the council of which he served in 1857-8. He was also a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from the time of its formation in 1856. In connection with the work of his department, he published 'A Guide to Drawings and Prints exhibited to the Public in the King's Library' [at the British Museum], of which there were editions in 1858, 1859 and 1862, 8vo.

[Gent. Mag. (4th ser, 1888). ii. 410, 411; Men of the Time (6th ed.), 1865; Proceedings of the Soc. of Antiq. (2nd ser.), iii. 480 (President's Address, 30 April 1867); Statutes and Rules of the British Museum, 1871; Cat. of Nat. Portrait Gallery.]

W. W.