Sir Henry ('King') Cole was a civil servant, industrial designer and museum director. He was the son of Captain Henry Robert Cole (1780-1863) and Lætitia Dormer(1792-1867 or 1868). His third brother Charles was a schoolmate of Francis Seymour Haden, who became the Cole family doctor. On 28 December 1833 he married Marian Fairman, third daughter of William Andrew Bond of Ashford, Kent.
They had nine children: Downer Peacock (b. 1837), Letitia Marian (b. 1838), Henrietta Lindsay (b. 1839), Mary Charlotte (b. 1841, m. George C. T. Barclay), Henry Hardy (1843-1916), Alan Summerley (1846-1934), Isabella Langdale (b. 1850, m. Frank Rede Fowke), Rose Owen (b. 1852) and Charles Buller (1854-1901).
Major Henry Hardy Cole later designed the National Training School for Music (now the Royal College of Organists), London, and was the Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey in the north-west provinces of India. Alan Summerly Cole became a textile expert and museum official.
From the age of 15, Cole studied watercolour painting under David Cox and perspective drawing under Charles Wild. In 1823 he began work for the Public Record Office and his complaints about inefficiency led to the reform of the Records Commission, of which he became Assistant Keeper in 1838. In 1846 he designed the successful Felix Summerly Tea Service, produced by Minton, which led to the establishment of Felix Summerly's Art Manufactures in 1847. He also studied engraving, and in later life learned etching, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1866.
Cole's purpose was to promote public taste and improve industrial design through the marketing of small goods which had been commissioned from well-known artists. The same principles were disseminated in his Journal of Design and Manufactures (1849-1852) and his reports on the Government Schools of Design.
In 1850 Cole became organizer of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Prince Albert's chief adviser. This led to his appointment in 1852 as General Superintendent of the new Department of Practical Art which developed into the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington Museum in 1856, (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899). He remained at the museum until his retirement in 1873, during which time he took an interest in many other schemes of social and educational reform. Cole was made a Companion of the Order of Bath after the Great Exhibition and was knighted in 1875.
Whistler met the Cole family at a party given by the Dilkes. In 1872 Cole obtained for Whistler a commission to design two mosaics to complete the sequence of thirty-five portraits of artists already installed in arcaded niches around the upper level of Godfrey Sykes' South Court in the Museum. Cole even provided Whistler with a studio, but the designs were never completed (see Panels at South Kensington Museum m0457).
In 1876 Whistler painted a large full length portrait of Cole (Portrait of Sir Henry Cole y180) which was probably destroyed at the time of his bankruptcy. In the winter of 1881-82 Whistler started another portrait of Cole (Portrait of Sir Henry Cole y233) but it was left incomplete at Cole's death and has also disappeared. On hearing of Cole's death the night before, Whistler wrote to one of his daughters, 'I feel that I also have lost a very dear and kind friend in Sir Henry' (#09018).
Bonython, Elizabeth, King Cole: A Picture Portrait of Sir Henry Cole, London, 1985; Cole, A. S. and H. L. (eds), Fifty Years of Public Work of Sir Henry Cole, 2 vols., London, 1884 ; The Relations and Connections of Sir George Bartley, K.C.B., and Lady Bartley, privately printed, Belfast, 1908; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 .
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp. University of Glasgow, 2003.