Agnew, Sir William, first baronet 1825-1910, art dealer, was born at Salford on 20 Oct. 1825. The family derive from the Sheuhan branch of Agnew of Lochnaw. William's grandfather, John Agnew (1751-94) of Culhorn, migrated to Liverpool. His father, Thomas Agnew (1794-1871), who in boyhood studied drawing and modelling there, became a partner in 1816 of Vittore Zanetti, a dealer in clocks and opticians' wares, of Market Street Lane, Manchester. The firm soon took up picture dealing. The elder Agnew was from 1835 sole proprietor of the concern, to which he added a print-selling and print-publishing branch. He served as mayor of Salford 1850-1. His portrait by J. P. Knight, R.A., is in the Peel Park Museum, Salford, to which he gave many pictures (cf. The Intellectual Repository, 1871, pp. 253-4; Art Journal, 1861, p. 319; The Dawn, 24 April 1884; Axon's Annals of Manchester, 1886, p. 327). He was a fervent Swedenborgian (Bayley's New Church Worthies, 1881). He married, on 17 Feb. 1823, Jane, daughter and coheir of William Lockett (d. 1856), first mayor of Salford; by her he had five sons, of whom William was the eldest, and four daughters.
Educated at the Rev. J. H. Smithson's Swedenborgian school, Salford, William and his younger brother Thomas (1827-1883), who adhered through life to their father's Swedenborgian faith, early joined their father's business, which rapidly developed under their control. They were partners from 1850, when the firm took the style of Thomas Agnew & Sons. Establishing branches in London (first at Waterloo Place and from 1876 at Old Bond Street), as well as in Liverpool, they had the chief share in the formation during the middle period of the century of the great art collections in the north of England and the Midlands—the Mendel, Gillott, and many others. Among the collections, chiefly of old masters, which they helped to form between 1870 and 1890, were those of Sir Charles Tennant and Lord Iveagh. From 1860 onwards they purchased largely at Christie's (see Redford's Art Sales, ii. passim), where William Agnew usually represented the firm. They dealt in works by old masters, or early English and modern artists, as well as in water-colour drawings. Agnew bought the collection en bloc of Marlborough Gems at 35,000 guineas in June 1875 for Mr. Bromilow of Bitteswell Hall (where it remained until dispersed at Christie's 26-29 June 1899). On 6 May 1876 he purchased at the Wynn Ellis sale for 10,100 guineas the Gainsborough portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire which, on the night of 26 May, was cut out of its frame and stolen from Agnew's Old Bond Street gallery; it was not recovered until March 1901, when it was bought by Mr. J. P. Morgan (see Catalogue Raisonné of Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan's Pictures, by T. H. Ward and W. Roberts, 1907, sv. Gainsborough). From 1867 onwards the firm held an annual exhibition of drawings at their London gallery.
Agnew came into business relations with the leading artists, which often developed into personal friendships. He was an early friend of Fred Walker (Marks, Life and Letters of Walker, 1896, passim), with whom he visited Paris in May 1866; from Walker he purchased many pictures, notably Spring, Vagrants, and The Harbour of Refuge; the last he presented to the National Gallery of British Art in 1893 (Catalogue, ed. 1910, p. 378; cf. The Times, 9 Feb. 1911). He was a promoter of the fund for making purchases for the nation at the Fountaine sale in 1884, and of the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester, 1887, when he was chairman of the fine art section. He was on the royal commissions of the Melbourne Centenary Exhibition, 1888, and of the Paris Exhibition of 1900; and was long president of the Printsellers' Association. He presented in 1883 Reynolds's portrait of Malone, and in 1890 Ballantyne's portrait of Landseer to the National Portrait Gallery, and in 1903 Reynolds's Mrs. Hartley and child to the National Gallery.
In 1870 Agnew undertook new business responsibilities. His sister Laura was wife of William Bradbury of the London printing firm of Bradbury & Evans (the proprietors of Punch). On F. M. Evans's death in 1870 Agnew and his two brothers, Thomas and John Henry, joined their brother-in-law, and the firm became Bradbury & Agnew; William Agnew became chairman in 1890, when the firm was turned into a limited company. He took a keen interest in Punch, was on terms of intimacy with members of the staff, and, as long as his health permitted, regularly attended the weekly dinner.
In politics a strong liberal, and a faithful follower of Gladstone, whom he came to know intimately, Agnew was elected M.P. for S.E. Lancashire, 1880-5, and for the Stretford division of Lancashire 1885-6. In 1885 he spoke in the House of Commons in support of the vote of 83,520l. for the purchase of the Ansidei Madonna by Raphael, and the portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck from the Duke of Marlborough for the National Gallery (The Times, 6 March 1885, report reprinted in Redford's Art Sales, i. 397; and Pall Mall Gazette, 23 July 1886). He supported Gladstone's home rule bill in the spring of 1886 and was defeated at the general election in the summer; he unsuccessfully contested the Prestwich division in 1892. Deeply identifying himself with the organisation of his party, he was one of the founders of the National Liberal Club, London, and was president of the Manchester Reform Club (where his portrait appears in the gallery of past presidents), which he also assisted to start. His interest in philanthropical and other enterprises, especially at Manchester, was wide and practical. He was also a patron of music. At one time he was fond of travelling and of yachting, and was a member of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club.
Agnew, who was created a baronet on 2 Sept. 1895 on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery, died at his London residence, Great Stanhope Street, on 31 Oct. 1910. His body was cremated at Golder's Green. The gross value of the personal and real estate was sworn at 1,353,592l. (for will, see The Times, 18 Feb. 1911). He married, on 25 March 1851, Mary, eldest daughter of George Pixton Kenworthy of Manchester and Peel Hall, Lancashire (she died in 1892). He had four sons and two daughters, his eldest son, George, succeeding him in the baronetcy.
A portrait by Frank Holl (1883) and a marble bust by E. Onslow Ford (1899), together with a painting of him in infancy with his mother by J. W. Reynolds, jr., belong to his eldest son. A portrait by Sir H. von Herkomer is the property of his second son, Mr. C. Morland Agnew; and a chalk drawing by G. F. Watts that of his fourth son, Mr. Philip Agnew. Agnew figures in A Picture Sale at Christie's, in The Graphic 10 Sept. 1887 (reproduced in Redford's Art Sales, ii., facing p. xxix), in T. W. Wilson's A Sale at Christie's (Mag. of Art, May 1888, p. 229), and in The Old Masters Exhibition, 1888, by H. Jermyn Brooks (reproduced in Sphere, 23 Oct. 1909).
Manchester Guardian, The Times, and Daily Telegraph 1 Nov. 1910 (with portrait)
Punch, 9 Nov. 1910 (with in memoriam verses by the Editor and notice by Sir Henry Lucy)
Lucy's Sixty Years in the Wilderness, 1909
M. H. Spielmann's Hist. of Punch, 1895 (with portraits), p. 39
Mitchell's Newspaper Press Directory, 1911 (with portrait)
Manchester Faces and Places, 10 July 1890 (with portrait)
Heywood's Authentic Series of Press Biographies
information from Sir George W. Agnew and Mr. C. Morland Agnew.
Contributor: W. R. [William Roberts]