William Smith (1808–1876), printseller, was born on 11 July 1808 in Lisle Street, Leicester Square, London, the son of William Smith, also a printseller. The younger William Smith and his brother George went up to Cambridge University but left prematurely in 1835 when their father's death drew them to the family business. In 1836 Smith purchased a collection of prints and drawings from the cloth manufacturer John Sheepshanks which included many important Dutch and Flemish prints. He sold these to the British Museum for £5000, a considerably smaller sum than that offered by individuals in Holland. This was the department of prints and drawings' first substantial purchase. It was also the first of a series of large transactions between the British Museum and private collectors where Smith acted as intermediary. In 1841 Smith helped the museum to acquire many valuable prints from the collection of the Bond Street bookseller Joseph Harding. In 1844–5 he assisted the purchase of engravings by early German and Italian artists from the collection of William Coningham. In 1847 he presented works from the collections of Lord Aylesford and Samuel Woodburn and some very rare etchings by Rembrandt, procured with difficulty from the estate of Baron Verstolk van Soelen in Amsterdam. This was followed in 1848 by works from the collection of William Beckford. He also made donations of his own to the museum. Together these acquisitions transformed the collection of the department of prints and drawings.
By 1848 Smith was rich enough to retire from the printselling business. He then devoted himself to public works and to furthering his knowledge of art. He had been elected a member of the Royal Institution in 1845. In 1852 he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and in 1856 founding member and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. In 1858 he was elected its deputy chairman. An oil portrait of Smith by Margaret Sarah Carpenter dated 1856 remains in the Gallery (NPG 1692). In 1861 Smith joined the Royal Horticultural Society, organizing its stand at the International Exhibition of 1862. He championed the National Exhibition of Works of Art held in Leeds in 1868 and was also engaged in the management of the Art Union of London. He was a keen collector of watercolours and acquired many examples by eighteenth-century British artists. In 1871 he invited the Victoria and Albert Museum to select eighty-six of these. Others he presented to the National Gallery of Ireland.
Smith lived at 9 Southwick Street, Cambridge Square, Bayswater, London. He died suddenly in Notting Hill High Street on the way home from a friend's funeral on 6 September 1876 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery, London, on 13 September. He was remembered by his contemporaries as a generous and conscientious man who had contributed greatly to the British Museum and other institutions. The National Portrait Gallery's Annual Report for 1877 characterised him thus, 'He had, with one exception, been present at every meeting held by theTrustees. On all subjects connected with art, and more particularly on those bearing upon portraiture, the Trustees derived the greatest advantage from his knowledge and experience. His time and energies were constantly and without reservation devoted to the interests of the Gallery. He was also a liberal donor to the collection.' Smith bequeathed his letters, manuscripts, annotated exhibition catalogues, and further watercolours to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Additional correspondence is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Biographical information for this description has been sourced from E. I. Carlyle, 'Smith, William (1808–1876)', rev. Mary Guyatt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25933, accessed 16 July 2013].