Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/King, Charles William

KING, CHARLES WILLIAM (1818–1888), author of works on engraved gems, was born on 5 Sept. 1818 at Newport, Monmouthshire, where his father was engaged as a shipping agent in the iron trade. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar, in October 1836, and was elected scholar of his college in 1839, and fellow in 1842. He graduated in 1840 as sixth in class I. of the classical tripos. About 1842 King went to Italy, and there spent several years studying the Italian language and literature and in collecting antique gems, which he procured at moderate prices, especially in Rome and Florence. King afterwards increased his collection by many gems purchased of Eastwood, the London dealer, and acquired specimens at the sale in London of several important cabinets, such as the Mertens-Schaafhausen (Praun), the Hertz, and the Uzielli. The collection, formed between 1845 and 1877, ultimately consisted of 331 engraved stones, more than two-thirds of which were Greek and Roman, the remainder being Sassanian, Gnostic, and Oriental. About 1878, when his eyesight was seriously failing, King sold his collection, and it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York, to which it was presented in October 1881 by Mr. John Taylor Johnston, the president of that institution. A catalogue has been printed, without change, from King's own manuscript (dated 28 Feb. 1878), with the title, ‘The Johnston Collection of Engraved Gems’ (Metrop. Mus., New York, Handbook No. 9). Three Greek marbles which belonged to King are described by Michaelis in his ‘Ancient Marbles in Great Britain,’ pp. 271–2.

After King's return from Italy his life was chiefly spent at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was in holy orders, but had no cure. About 1866 he was one of her majesty's inspectors of schools (Clergy List, 1866). At Cambridge King passed a very retired existence, engaged in the composition of various works, but taking no part in the educational life of the place. The few friends who knew him well found him a kind-hearted man and a delightful companion, full of curious knowledge and quaint humour (Aldis Wright in Athenæum). He was widely read in the Greek and Roman classics, without having, however, a minute philological knowledge. He had specially studied Pausanias and Pliny's ‘Historia.’ His short-sightedness always rendered reading difficult for him, though he had ‘a microscopic power of discernment’ for objects such as gems. His writings on ancient gems are original, and evince the experience of the practical collector. In England they have stimulated an interest in glyptography, though they are often marred by defects due to insufficient numismatic and archæological training. King died in London, after a brief illness, of a bronchial cold, on 25 March 1888. There is a portrait of him, in a travelling costume, by George Mason, one of his friends when in Rome.

King's principal publications are:

  1. ‘Antique Gems,’ London, 1860, 8vo.
  2. ‘The Gnostics and their Remains,’ London, 1864, 8vo; 2nd edit. London, 1887, 8vo (for a controversy as to misprints and alterations in this edition see Athenæum, January–June 1888, pp. 441, 468, 499, 535, 662, 696).
  3. ‘The Natural History … of Precious Stones and Gems and of the Precious Metals,’ London, 1865, 8vo; also a 2nd edit. in 2 vols., published as ‘The Natural History of Gems, or Decorative Stones,’ Cambridge, 1867, 8vo, and ‘The Natural History of Precious Stones and of the Precious Metals,’ Cambridge, 1867, 8vo.
  4. ‘The Handbook of Engraved Gems,’ London, 1866, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1885, 8vo.
  5. ‘Horatii Opera,’ illustrated by antique gems selected by C. W. K., 1869, 8vo.
  6. ‘Antique Gems and Rings,’ vol. i. text, vol. ii. illustrations, London, 1872, 8vo.
  7. ‘Early Christian Numismatic and other Antiquarian Tracts,’ London, 1873, 8vo.
  8. ‘Plutarch's Morals.’ Translated by C. W. K., 1882 (Bohn's Classical Library).
  9. ‘Julian the Emperor … Theosophical Works,’ &c. Translated by C. W. K., 1888 (Bohn's Classical Library).

[W. Aldis Wright in Athenæum for 7 April 1888, p. 441; Athenæum for 31 March 1888, p. 412; Academy for 7 April 1888, p. 247; Cat. of Johnston Coll.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

W. W.