Ottley, William Young 1771-1836, writer on art and amateur artist, born near Thatcham, Berkshire, on 6 Aug. 1771, was the son of an officer in the guards. He became a pupil of George Cuit or Cuitt the elder [qv.], and studied in the Royal Academy schools. In 1791 he went to Italy, and stayed there ten years, studying art and collecting pictures, drawings, and engravings. On his return he became a leading authority on matters of taste, and assisted collectors in the purchase of works of art and the formation of picture galleries. His own fine collection of drawings by old Italian masters he sold to Sir Thomas Lawrence [qv.] for 8,000l. It formed the principal part of the magnificent collection of that artist, the dispersion of which, at his death, was a cause for national regret. But Ottley is chiefly known as a writer on art, and by the series of finely illustrated works which he published. He began in 1805 with the first part of The Italian School of Design, a series of etchings by himself, after drawings by the old masters. The second part was published in 1813 and the third in 1823, when the whole work was issued in one volume. In 1816 he published an Inquiry into the Origin and Early History of Engraving on Copper and Wood, which was followed by four folio volumes of engravings of The Stafford Gallery. In 1826 came A Series of Plates after the Early Florentine Artists. Two volumes followed in 1826-8 of facsimiles, by himself, of prints and etchings by masters of the Italian and other schools. In 1831 he published Notices of Engravers and their Works; the commencement of a dictionary of artists, which he decided not to continue; and in 1863, after his death, appeared An Inquiry into the Invention of Printing, which may be regarded as a companion to his work on the origin of engraving. Besides these works, he published in 1801 a catalogue of Italian pictures, which he had acquired during his stay in Italy from the Colonna, Borghese, and Corsini Palaces; A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in the National Gallery, 1826; and Observations on a MS. in the British Museum, a controversy concerning Cicero's translation of an astronomical poem by Aratus.
In 1833 Ottley appeared for the first and last time as an exhibitor at the Royal Academy. His contribution was a spirited but unfinished drawing of The Battle of the Angels; and in the same year he was appointed keeper of prints in the British Museum, a post he retained till his death on 26 May 1836. Some vigorous pencil and tinted drawings, dated 1804, show mastery of drawing and imagination. Similar drawings are in the British Museum.
Although Ottley's writings did not reach a very high standard, and are now superseded, they were of much service in spreading knowledge and stimulating inquiry, and have furnished material for later writers. In the British Museum are catalogues of two sales of his pictures, in 1811 and 1837.
Bryan's Dict. ed. Graves and Armstrong
Contributor: C. M. [William Cosmo Monkhouse]