Sir William Boxall was the son of an Oxford taxation official.
Boxall entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1819, worked in London 1823-33, and then in 1833 travelled to Italy in order to make a study of the great masters. From his return to London in 1836 until the 1860s he built up a formidable reputation as a painter of society, literary and artistic figures, eg. Wordsworth, David Cox, John Gibson (1864), Walter Savage Landor and the Prince Consort (1859). He also painted a number of works on historical and literary themes, particularly from Milton and Shakespeare. His works were often criticised for a lack of finish. He was elected ARA in 1851 and RA in 1863.
In 1865 he succeeded Sir Charles Eastlake as Director of the National Gallery in London, having been suggested for the post by Gladstone. He held this post until 1874. In 1871 he was knighted.
Boxall was friendly with John Ruskin, Edwin Landseer and, more controversially, James McNeill Whistler. Commissioned by George Washington Whistler, he painted the young Whistler's portrait in 1849 during the family's brief visit to London on their way from America to Moscow (Royal Academy, 1849, cat. no. 48). It is now in The Hunterian,University of Glasgow.
He was one of the first to befriend Whistler when he settled in Britain in 1859. Boxall had proposed Whistler as a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1866, and when Whistler had a quarrel with the Club in 1867, Boxall was one of those Whistler appealed to in his defence. When Whistler sent Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101 to the RA in 1872 and it was nearly refused by the hanging committee, until, it is said, Boxall threatened to resign from the Council if Whistler's portrait was rejected.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Liversidge, M. J. H., 'John Ruskin and William Boxall', Apollo, vol. 85, 1967, pp. 39-44; M. Levey, 'A Little-Known Director: Sir William Boxall', Apollo, vol. 101, 1975, pp. 354-59; Liversidge, M. J. H., 'Sir William Boxall', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy; 'Boxall, William, Sir', Dictionary of art historians, online.