Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gardiner, William Nelson

GARDINER, WILLIAM NELSON (1766–1814), engraver and bookseller, born at Dublin on 11 June 1766, was son of John Gardiner, ‘crier and factotum’ to Judge Scott, and Margaret Nelson, his wife, a pastrycook. He had an early taste for drawing. He was educated at Mr. Sisson Darling's academy, and later was, with his father, attached to the suite of Sir James Nugent of Donore, Westmeath. Showing some proficiency in various accomplishments, he was helped to pursue his artistic studies and to study for three years at the Dublin Academy, where he obtained a silver medal. He then came to London to try his fortune, and was at first employed by a Mr. Jones, a maker of profile shadow-portraits. Gardiner also supported himself by portrait-painting, but gave it up for the stage, both as scene-painter and actor. According to his own account, he attained some success in this line, but it did not last long, and he was eventually reduced to work for a Mrs. Beetham, who also made profile shadow-portraits. Being fortunate enough to make acquaintance with Captain Francis Grose [q. v.], the antiquary, he was placed by him with R. Godfrey, the engraver of the ‘Antiquarian Repertory.’ He acquired some considerable skill as an engraver in the chalk or stipple manner. Having taken an original engraving of his own to Messrs. Sylvester & Edward Harding, the publishers in Fleet Street, he was employed by them in engraving plates for their publications in company with Bartolozzi and others. For them he worked on their 'Shakespeare Illustrated,' 'The (Economy of Human Life,' 'The Biographical Mirror,' 'The Memoirs of Count de Grammont,' Lady Diana Beauclerk's illustrations of Dryden's 'Fables' and other works. His style was similar to that of Bartolozzi, and Gardiner claimed some of the plates bearing Bartolozzi's name as his own work. He subsequently worked for Bartolozzi. He occasionally painted, and in 1787, 1792, and 1793 exhibited pictures at the Royal Academy. He quitted his profession as an engraver, in which he might have succeeded, and returned to Dublin, where he did little more than spend all the money that he had earned. He returned to England with the intention of entering the church, and was entered at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Finding that as an Irishman he had no chance there of a fellowship, he removed to Benet (i.e. Corpus Christi) College, and took his degree in 1797 as sixth senior optime. He remained at Cambridge for some time in the hopes of obtaining a fellowship, but, being unsuccessful, he relinquished all idea of taking holy orders and returned to London, where he obtained employment in copying portraits for his former patron, E. Harding. Subsequently he set up as a bookseller and publisher in Pall Mall. From his eccentricities of dress, behaviour, and conversation, he became a well-known figure at sales, and his shop was often visited by people out of curiosity. He avowed his political views as a whig with great freedom. The Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin [q. v.] introduced him in his 'Bibliomania' under the character of 'Mustapha,' and an engraved portrait of him exists in that character. Gardiner resented this keenly, and retaliated with stinging sarcasm in his published catalogues. Dibdin, in his 'Bibliographical Decameron,' refers again to this controversy. Gardiner did not meet with great success in his new profession, and became very dirty and slovenly in his habits, being a great snuff-taker. On 8 May 1814 he put an end to his own life, a deliberate act, in consequence, as he described it, of unbearable misery. He left a brief autobiography, printed in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for June 1814. He married a Miss Seckerson.

[Gent. Mag. 1814, lxxxiv. pt. i. 622; Dodd's MS. Hist. of English Engravers (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 33400); Dibdin's works cited above; Pasquin's Artists of Ireland; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists.]

L. C.