Sir George Scharf

Past display archive
17 December 2005 - 18 June 2006

Room 16

Free

To sketch the history of Sir George Scharf's career in service to the Trustees would be to sketch the complete history of the National Portrait Gallery itself, so entirely was he identified with every page in that history, every purchase or acquisition made by the Trustees and every step, which led from the modest housing of a few portraits in 29 Great George Street, to the present palatial edifice of St Martin's Place. (38th Annual Report of the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, 1895)

The appointment, in 1857, of George Scharf (1820-1895) as Secretary of the newly founded National Portrait Gallery, was an inspired choice. The son of a Bavarian artist, Scharf pursued a peripatetic career as a draughtsman of antiquities, drawing master to young ladies, lecturer on art and designer for the theatre before joining the Gallery. With a 'brisk and genial personality' ('Celebrities at Home', The World, 1892) and an obsessive habit of sketching and recording in minute detail everything that caught his eye, his interests ranged broadly across the classical world, theatre, art, costume and history.

His career at the Gallery spanned almost forty years and during this time he devoted himself to building a national collection of portraits and laying the foundations of the institution we know today. As the man who, perhaps more than anyone else, was responsible for the success of the Gallery in its early years and for realising the ambitions of its founding fathers, it is fitting that Scharf should be celebrated with a display in our 150th Anniversary year. Through a selection of early photographs and his own meticulous pencil drawings, this display looks at the long career and reveals something of the personality of this most extraordinary man.

Charged with administering the collection and identifying portraits for acquisition, Scharf visited country houses all over Britain to catalogue and sketch paintings, identify portraits and search out pictures for the Gallery to acquire. Over the course of his career he made many hundreds of tracings and filled over 230 pocket sketchbooks with literally thousands of drawings of the portraits he came across. His efforts were so successful that by the time he retired the Gallery had grown from just a handful to over 2000 portraits. Scharf's practice of recording and cross-referencing each picture he encountered remains the guiding principle behind the core work of the Heinz Archive & Library to this day.

His other great achievement was securing a permanent home for the National Portrait Gallery. When it was founded in 1856 the Gallery was assigned temporary apartments in an 18th century town house in Westminster. However, from the very beginning conditions were cramped and clearly unsatisfactory for the display of pictures. Scharf campaigned tirelessly for suitable accommodation and the collection was moved first to South Kensington, where the fire risks eventually precipitated a second and less popular move to Bethnal Green. In 1889 a wealthy philanthropist generously offered a large sum of money for a new building and the government agreed to provide a suitable site. A plot of land behind the National Gallery was identified and work began almost immediately. Tragically, Scharf did not live to see the new building completed. He remained in post beyond official retirement age to supervise the move to St. Martin's Place, but in early 1895 he was forced to retire by ill-health and died soon afterwards.



Sir George Scharf, by Nadar (Gaspard Felix Tournachon), 21 August 1867 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Scharf
by Nadar (Gaspard Felix Tournachon)
21 August 1867
NPG Ax29987


External view of the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery at South Kensington by Sir George Scharf, 29 May 1880

External view of the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery at South Kensington
by Sir George Scharf, 29 May 1880

Sir George Scharf and the Staff of the National Portrait Gallery by an unknown photographer, probably 1885

Sir George Scharf and the Staff of the National Portrait Gallery
by an unknown photographer, probably 1885