Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Alken familylocked

(per. 1745–1894)
  • Timothy Clayton
  •  and Anita McConnell

Alken family (per. 1745–1894), engravers and painters, may have originated in Denmark, perhaps from the village of Alken in north Jutland. According to family tradition they moved to England to escape the political disturbances during the reign of King Christian VII. However, the first representative to reach England was Sefferin [Sefferein] Alken (1717–1782), who is known to have been in London by 1744, two years before Christian VII came to the throne, and in 1746 took as apprentice Richard Lawrence. Sefferin's skill as a carver in wood and stone led to his employment by architects and designers at several of the great houses: in 1744 he was at Stourhead, Wiltshire; he worked for the Hoare family, bankers and landowners; he was called to St Margaret's Church, Westminster, and to Greenwich Hospital chapel; he worked for Sir William Chambers at Somerset House and Marlborough House, in London, and was responsible for chimneys at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Between 1761 and 1770 he undertook much of the specialist carver's work designed by Robert Adam for George William, sixth earl of Coventry, at Croome Court, Somerset, and at the earl's London residence, where he created the most ornate portions of the furniture designed by John Cobb and supplied by other cabinet makers.

Sefferin married first Eleanor (d. 1752), with whom he may have had a son, also Sefferin ( d. 1778), a clerk on the sloop Pegasus. He married second Anne, whose children were Mary (b. 1754), Anne (b. 1755), Samuel Alken (1756–1815), Oliver (b. 1759), and Martin (b. 1761). He died early in 1782; his will, proved on 8 May 1782, named his wife as executor and sole inheritor of his estate.

Samuel Alken was born on 22 October 1756 at 3 Dufours Place, near Golden Square, Westminster, and trained as an architect. His earliest publication was A New Book of Ornaments (1779), but after his marriage in 1780 to Lydia Woodley he seems to have lived by watercolours, aquatints, and etchings, although he may have had another occupation as a drawing-master or craftsman. In 1784 he published a set of sporting landscapes after Samuel Howitt and later issued a series of excellent aquatints after caricature drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, such as the university scene O tempora, o mores (1787), and Studious Gluttons (1788). In 1789 he added the aquatint to Rowlandson's etchings of a set of shooting scenes designed by George Morland. The chief beauty of many sporting scenes was the landscape, and Alken became a respected master. His aquatint landscape was combined with Bartolozzi's stippled figures in a large portrait of the duke of Newcastle, Return from Shooting, after Francis Wheatley (1792). During the 1790s he aquatinted a large number of plates for sets and books of picturesque views in the lakes, Wales, Ireland, Switzerland, and other places. These included some of his own compositions and a set of aquatints of drawings by the great popularizer of picturesque scenery William Gilpin, published in 1794. In 1801 he aquatinted a view near Exeter after the satirical poet and amateur painter John Wolcot (Peter Pindar). It seems likely that he also mixed socially with the convivial set whose drawings he reproduced. By 1796 he had moved to 2 Francis Street, near Bedford Square.

Besides two daughters who died young, Samuel and Lydia Alken had three sons, Henry Thomas Alken (1785–1851), Sefferein John Alken (1796–1873), and Samuel Alken (1784–1824?), who were all sporting artists. Another son, George Alken (d. 1862?), a designer and lithographer of sporting prints, drowned near Woolwich, possibly in 1862. Sefferein John, latterly resident at Newington, Lambeth, habitually signed his work ‘S. Alken’, so that it is easily confused with that of his father and brother. Sporting designs dating from after the elder Samuel's death in November 1815 are evidently by one or other of the sons. They differed from the father in that they painted in oils and specialized in sport rather than landscape, but a considerable number of their paintings and designs were published.

Henry Thomas Alken, born on 12 October 1785 at 3 Dufours Place, was the dominant sporting artist of the early nineteenth century. After receiving his first lessons from his father, the boy was sent at an early age to J. T. Barber, a painter of miniatures. He exhibited twice at the Royal Academy, in each case miniatures of ladies (painted in 1801 and 1802), and showed an early liking for depicting animals, especially dogs and horses. Henry married on 14 October 1809 Maria Gordon (d. 1841) of Ipswich, Suffolk, and for a while lived in that town, where their children Sefferein (1821–1873), Samuel Henry Gordon Alken (1810–1894), Lydia Anne, Elizabeth, and Ellen were born. Henry's first sporting prints were published in 1813, and he demonstrated his expertise in the book The Beauties and Defects in the Figure of the Horse Comparatively Delineated (1816). From then on he delivered a long series of designs to the leading sporting printsellers—S. and J. Fuller, Thomas McLean, and Rudolph Ackermann among others. He issued many sets of prints in wrappers and provided illustrations to a series of books, employing the pseudonym Ben Tally Ho for his mildly satirical sallies, and often collaborating with his friend the sporting journalist Charles James Apperley (1779–1843), known as Nimrod. Alken was very well informed about horses and riding, and he appeared to be an insider among the wealthy young set who gathered at Melton Mowbray to hunt and drink and (on at least one occasion literally) paint the town red. His familiarity with sporting lore gave rise to the story (put forward in the Dictionary of National Biography) that he might have been a hunt servant to the duke of Beaufort. Henry maintained a connection with Ipswich, evident in A Cockney's Shooting Season in Suffolk (1822) and The First Steeple-Chase on Record (1839), which recorded a nocturnal romp by cavalry officers stationed at Ipswich in 1803 and became the single most popular set of sporting prints. The Beaufort Hunt (1833) and The Quorn Hunt (1835) were his most distinguished hunting sets. He was also a prolific designer, etcher, and lithographer of scenes relating to racing, shooting, coaching, and other sports, and in 1820 he issued a series entitled National Sports of Great Britain. He wrote several books on aspects of engraving, including The Art and Practice of Engraving (1849). Alken never used his second name, leading to confusion with his son Samuel Henry Gordon, who also signed designs and paintings ‘H. Alken’. Indeed, H. Alken may have been less a person than a family industry, and precise authorship of the resulting prolific output remains difficult to disentangle. The better sporting paintings have usually been attributed to Henry Thomas.

Out and about from his residence in Spring Place, Kentish Town, Henry Alken appeared:

quaintly countrified, oddly old fashioned … His hat was ugly, low-crowned and broad-brimmed; his frock of Kendal green was dotted with large gilt buttons; and his gaiters and kickseys of brown cloth were in accord with a rustic waistcoat cut low, having ample pockets out of date but convenient for carrying sketch-books. His shoes were thick and solid, and he preferred a walking staff to a walking stick.

Sparrow, 12

In later life he drifted into ill health, consumption, and poverty. After his wife died, in 1841, he was cared for by an unmarried daughter and lived at Ivy Cottage, Highgate, where he died in the early summer of 1851. His funeral expenses were met by his daughter Lydia, who had married the animal painter and engraver J. C. Zitter.

Samuel Henry Gordon, born in Ipswich, also returned to London, where he worked as an artist and specialized in painting animals; he executed many of the horses depicted in George Sala's 60 foot long panorama of the funeral procession of the duke of Wellington in 1852. At the time of the 1881 census he was unmarried and living at 62 High Street, Shadwell. He died in a workhouse in 1894.


  • W. S. Sparrow, Henry Alken (1827)
  • A. Noakes, The world of Henry Alken (1952)
  • W. Gilbey, Animal painters of England, 3 vols. (1900–11), vol. 1, pp. 1–28, 331–2
  • D. Snelgrove, British sporting and animal prints, 1658–1874 (1978)
  • J. Egerton and D. Snelgrove, The Paul Mellon collection: British sporting and animal drawings, c.1500–1850 (1978)
  • J. Egerton, The Paul Mellon collection: British sporting and animal paintings, 1655–1867 (1978)
  • F. Siltzer, The story of British sporting prints (1929)
  • J. R. Abbey, Scenery of Great Britain and Ireland, 1770–1860 (1952)
  • J. R. Abbey, Life in England, 1770–1860 (1953)
  • J. R. Abbey, Travel, 1770–1860, 2 vols. (1956)
  • F. G. Stephens and M. D. George, eds., Catalogue of political and personal satires preserved … in the British Museum, 5–11 (1935–54)
  • C. Lane, Sporting aquatints and their engravers, 2 vols. (1978)
  • parish register, St James, Piccadilly, City Westm. AC [baptism, burial; Samuel Alken, b. 1815]
  • City Westm. AC, parish register [baptism; Sefferein John Alken]
  • A. Coleridge, ‘English furniture supplied for Croome Court: Robert Adam and the sixth earl of Coventry’, Apollo (Feb 2000), 8–19
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1090, sig. 210 [Sefferin Alken, d. 1782]
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1048, sig. 474 [Sefferin Alken, d. 1778]
City of Westminster Archives Centre, London
F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London