Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1793-1872) was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, the second of six children of Alexander Geddes (1763-1843), a retired army officer, and his wife, Harriet Easton (1762-1842). Carpenter was largely self-taught but did receive some painting tuition from Thomas Guest in Salisbury around 1805 and copied older masters in the earl of Radnor's collection at Longford Castle. In 1813 Lord Radnor helped her financially to move to London where she won three major medals at the Society of Arts. From 1814 she exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and British Institution and was one of a circle of aspiring young painters including her future brother-in-law William Collins. Around 1815 she was almost certainly a pupil of Sir Thomas Lawrence and was seen later by many as his natural successor.
In October 1817 she married William Hookham Carpenter (1792-1866). Together they had eight children, five surviving to adulthood with three becoming painters. Carpenter was ambitious and determined to pursue her career but also bore a strong sense of duty towards her family responsibilities. Following her marriage she lived in London for the rest of her life, in Marylebone at first and then from 1852-1866 at the British Museum where her husband was keeper of prints and drawings. For most of her career she earned more than her husband. The latter part of life saw her work reduce but she continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1866.
She mainly practiced in oils though did undertake portraits in chalks and rarely watercolours. Some were engraved. She also painted genre subjects, with 63 being exhibited at the British Institution. She was influenced by Reynolds and Lawrence but her style had a more straightforward reality and energy, with a warmth of character. Carpenter produced 1100 pictures, 263 being exhibited in her lifetime with 156 shown at the Royal Academy. Amongst her notable sitters were Byron's daughter Ada, countess of Lovelace, Richard Bonnington and John Gibson. She also received over 100 commissions to paint leaving portraits of boys at Eton.
Carpenter was the most successful English female painter of her time and received regular critical acclaim. She died at her home at 22 Upper Gloucester Place, Marylebone on 13 November 1872 aged 79 and was buried beside her husband in Highgate cemetery.
This biographical description is largely based on Richard J. Smith, 'Carpenter , Margaret Sarah (1793–1872)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4732, accessed 24 Oct 2017]