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Sir George Scharf

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir George Scharf

by Walter William Ouless
oil on canvas, 1885
36 3/8 in. x 28 1/4 in. (923 mm x 716 mm) overall
Given by a number of friends, 1886
Primary Collection
NPG 985

Sitterback to top

  • Sir George Scharf (1820-1895), Artist and art historian; first Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Sitter in 79 portraits, Artist associated with 585 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Walter William Ouless (1848-1933), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 40 portraits, Sitter in 11 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait of the Gallery’s first Director Sir George Scharf was commissioned by a group of his friends and supporters in 1884. It shows him in the act of sketching, with notebook open and pencil poised. Over the course of his long career Scharf, a talented draughtsman, filled more than 150 sketchbooks with careful drawings of British historical portraits encountered in public and private collections around the country, as well as with daily incidents of Victorian life. In fact, whilst providing an early sitting for the portraitist William Walter Ouless in January 1885, he made various sketches of the artist as the latter worked to capture Scharf’s own likeness.
116 personal friends and prominent public individuals donated towards the portrait. These comprised members of the aristocracy, museum officials, artists, antiquaries, scholars and others. The picture was formally presented to the NPG’s Board of Trustees in March 1886, in recognition of Scharf’s services to the Gallery and to portraiture research. In accepting the donation, the Chairman of the Gallery’s Trustees Charles Stewart Hardinge acknowledged ‘the great value which the Institution has derived from Mr Scharf’s untiring labours, as well as the special & rare knowledge which he brings to bear on all questions connected with the History of Art in this Country’.
The portrait hung for many years in the Boardroom of the Gallery’s administration offices at 20 Great George Street, Westminster, but was not part of the Gallery’s collection. Following Scharf’s death in April 1895, the Trustees decided to waive the normal Ten-Year-Rule, which stated that the Gallery could not acquire portraits until ten years after the sitter’s death. In their meeting of 27 June 1895, it was agreed unanimously that: ‘the portrait of Sir George Scharf should now be incorporated in the general collection, as a mark of honour and respect to their deceased friend and colleague’.

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Events of 1885back to top

Current affairs

Redistribution Act; continues Gladstone's extensive package of electoral reform, although his Liberal government is later defeated when the Irish Nationalists, seeking support for Home Rule, side with the Conservatives over a budget measure. The Marquess of Salisbury is invited to form a 'caretaker' government.

Art and science

The Dictionary of National Biography is first published quarterly, under the editorship of Leslie Stephen, and sub-editorship of Sidney Lee. Volume 63 completed the work in 1900. Setting new standards in life writing, the DNB exemplified the form of the brief biography, formalising a style and approach to writing lives, based on Stephen's guiding principles of selection and presentation in 'business-like form'.


The death of the famous General Charles Gordon sparks outrage in Britain. Sent to the Sudan to evacuate Egyptian forces from Khartoum, threatened by Sudanese rebels under Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, Khartoum quickly came under siege, and Gordon is killed and beheaded two days before the relief force arrived. The British public proclaimed Gordon a martyr, and attacked government, particularly Gladstone, for not relieving British forces earlier.

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