Painter. Scarborough was born on March 7, 1812, in Dover, Tennessee, into a family that had emigrated from England two generations previously. His earliest studies were in art and medicine, first in Nashville and then with Horace Harding in Cincinnati, an emerging art center. Portraiture was the dominant art form at the time, and Scarborough developed a proficiency in rendering sober likenesses of statesmen, planters, and merchants.
Scarborough moved to South Carolina, arriving in 1836 in Charleston, where he would have faced competition with well-established painters. He spent the early years of his career as an itinerant, advertising in local newspapers and often staying with his clients while he painted their portraits. For example, in 1836 he was in Cheraw; three years later, in 1839, he moved to Darlington, where he remained until 1846, when he made Columbia his permanent home. He spent summers at Caesars Head and made regular trips to New York to purchase art supplies. In 1857 he made a grand tour to Europe, visiting Paris, Rome, and Naples, and he even climbed Mount Vesuvius. In Florence he frequented the studio of the noted expatriate sculptor Hiram Powers and the picture galleries of the Uffizi and Pitti palaces, where he commented on the “excellent paintings.”
After his return he aspired to establish an art gallery in Columbia. As an antebellum portraitist Scarborough achieved considerable success, and at his heyday he charged $125 per portrait. The majority of his portraits were oils on canvas, although he produced miniatures, small portraits done in watercolor on ivory. He also painted a few landscapes, including views of the falls of the Reedy River in Greenville and Geiger’s Pond near Columbia. His portraits followed the artistic conventions of the day, with individuals shown facing the viewer and placed against plain backgrounds. Men wear dark suits, while women are often depicted with bonnets and dresses trimmed with lace. His roster of clients included many statesmen: John C. Calhoun, Governors Thomas Bennett and James H. Hammond, and Governor and Mrs. William Henry Gist. He also painted noted residents of Columbia: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Taylor, Dr. Robert W. Gibbes, and William C. Preston.
Scarborough married twice. On October 8, 1833, he married Sarah Ann Grimes, who died in 1835. Three years later, on November 28, 1838, he married Miranda Eliza Miller. The marriages produced four children. During the Civil War, Scarborough suffered serious financial reversals because of the decline in art patronage and his significant investments in Confederate enterprises. Examples of his work are found at the South Carolina State Museum, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the Greenville County Museum of Art, and the South Carolina State House. Scarborough died in Columbia on August 16, 1871, and was buried in Trinity Episcopal Churchyard, Columbia. His remains were later relocated to a cemetery near Ridge Spring. See plate 20.
Hennig, Helen Kohn. William Harrison Scarborough: Portraitist and Miniaturist. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1937.