William Agnew was an art dealer in his father's firm of art dealers and print publishers, Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd. He had a brother, Thomas and a son, Morland.
William Agnew's father, who became a partner in the Manchester firm of Vittore Zanetti in 1817 and sole proprietor in 1835, specialised in genre and modern-life subjects by artists such as William Mulready, William Collins, William Powell Frith, Edwin Landseer and John Phillip, which he sold for high prices to wealthy middle class northern businessmen. He helped to found the Salford Museum in 1850, opened a branch of his art dealing firm in London in 1860 and retired in 1861, leaving his sons William and Thomas in charge.
The son, William Agnew, became the most influential art dealer of his time, paying large sums of money for the works of established British artists like William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones, and encouraging younger artists such as Fred Walker to establish their careers. Agnew also helped to form the collections of important figures such as Sir Charles Tennant and E. C. Guinness, being one of the first to recognise the growing taste in the 1870s for old master works and for the art of the eighteenth century, works that were informing JW's art of the period.
William Agnew became a successful print publisher, producing portrait mezzotints, commemorative engravings, chromolithographs and reproductions of popular Royal Academy pictures, for example, Luke Fildes’s The Doctor (exh. RA 1891; London, Tate Britain). He became a director of Punch in 1872.
In 1895 he retired and the London branch of the firm was taken over by his son Morland and nephew Lockett. Many of JW's paintings passed through the hands of his son during JW's own lifetime including At the Piano (YMSM 24), Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (YMSM 33), Sketch for 'La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine' (YMSM 49), Symphony in White, No. 3 (YMSM 61) and Note in Red and Violet: Nets (YMSM 269) in 1899, Trouville (YMSM 70) in 1901, Blue and Silver: Trouville (YMSM 66), Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Gardens (YMSM 166) and Nocturne: Trafalgar Square - Snow (YMSM 173) in 1902, and Cremorne Gardens, No. 2 (YMSM 164) and Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice (YMSM 213) in 1903.
Art Journal, vol. 7, 1 October 1861, p. 319; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Agnew, G., Agnew’s, 1817–1967, London, 1967; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; A Dealer’s Record: Agnew’s, 1967–81, London, 1981; Maas, Jeremy, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984; Sir Geoffrey Agnew, 1908–1986: Dealer and Connoisseur, London, 1988; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 Garnett, Oliver, 'Thomas Agnew and Sons', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 11 July 2002).