Born in Oxfordshire, he was the illegitimate son of Ozias Humphry by Delly Wickens, daughter of an Oxford shopkeeper, called Upcott from the maiden name of Humphry's mother. His father bequeathed to him his miniatures, pictures, drawings, and engravings, as well as correspondence with many leading figures.
Upcott was initially a bookseller, at first an assistant of Robert Harding Evans of Pall Mall, and then of John Wright of Piccadilly. While at Wright's shop he attracted the attention of John Ireland, William Gifford, and the writers of the Anti-Jacobin who met there, and he witnessed the scuffle there between Gifford and John Wolcot, helping to eject Wolcot.
When Richard Porson was made librarian of the London Institution, Upcott was appointed as his assistant (23 April 1806), and he continued in the same position under William Maltby. On 30 May 1834 he resigned his office.
Upcott spent the rest of his days at 102 Upper Street, Islington. The house in his time was called "Autograph Cottage"; among many autographs collected by Upcott was that of William Blake, in 1826, with whom he was on good terms, as his father had been, and made some significant introductions to Blake (Henry Crabb Robinson and Dawson Turner). In imitation of the plan adopted by William Oldys, he fitted up a room with shelves and a hundred receptacles into which he dropped cuttings on different subjects. The Guildhall Library originated in a suggestion by him, and in 1828 he superintended the arrangement of the books in it.
Upcott died, unmarried, at Islington on 23 September 1845.
The walls in Upcott's rooms, whether at the London Institution or at home in Islington, were covered with paintings, drawings, and prints, most of them by Thomas Gainsborough or Humphry; all the drawers, shelves, boxes, and cupboards were crammed with his collections. In 1833, while still at the London Institution, he was robbed of the whole of his collection of gold and silver coins and some other curiosities; £500 was voted to him.
Upcott's library, books, manuscripts, prints, and drawings were sold by Sotheby at Evans's auction-rooms, 106 New Bond Street (15 June 1846 and following days), and are said to have realised £4,125 17s. 6d. He owned about 32,000 letters, illustrated by three thousand portraits, many of which were engraved in Charles John Smith's Historical and Literary Curiosities. Many of the autograph letters were bought for the nation, and now form Additional MSS. 15841 to 15957 at the British Museum. The sketch-books of Ozias Humphry (Addit. MSS. 15958–69) were purchased by Thomas Rodd at the sale, but were at once resold to the British Museum.
The main parts of Upcott's collections which were not acquired by the British Museum consisted of the correspondence of Ralph Thoresby (which was edited by Joseph Hunter) and of Emanuel da Costa. A large series of autograph letters from Upcott's stores was purchased by Captain Montagu Montagu, R.N., and left by him at his death in 1863 to the Bodleian Library. Many of Humphry's works passed at Upcott's death to his friend, Charles Hampden Turner.
In 1836 Upcott privately printed a brief catalogue of his letters, manuscripts, and state papers, in the hope that they might be bought for some public institution. One of his major finds was the original manuscript of Thomas Chatterton's extravaganza Amphitryon, which he chanced upon in the shop of a city cheesemonger. It was purchased by the British Museum in 1841.
Upcott published in 1818, in three volumes, a Bibliographical Account of the Principal Works relating to English Topography. It was later largely superseded by the British Topography (1881) of John P. Anderson, who refers in his preface to Upcott's "excellent catalogue". Upcott revised for the press the first edition of John Evelyn's Diary, brought out by William Bray in 1818, and for the edition of 1827 he collated the copy with the original manuscript at Wotton and made corrections. In 1825 he further edited Evelyn's Miscellaneous Writings. He reprinted in 1814 Andrew Borde's Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, and in 1819 Edmund Carter's History of the County of Cambridge.
Robert Southey was indebted to Upcott for the transcript of Thomas Malory's King Arthur (1817), and Upcott corrected it for the press. He took an active part in the publication of the Garrick Correspondence, and in the preparation of the Catalogue of the London Institution; and assisted in compiling the Biographical Dictionary of 1816.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1899). . Dictionary of National Biography. 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- G. E. Bentley Jr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (2003), p. 48, p. 330 and p. 360.
- These volumes, 116 in number, comprise 15841–54, albums mostly of foreign princes and scholars; 15856, papers of John Nicholas; 15857–8 and 15948–51, Browne and Evelyn papers; 15859–64, Thomas Burton's diary (edited by J. T. Rutt); 15865, Curtius letters, 1643–7; 15866–90, Dayrolles correspondence; 15891, letters received by Sir Christopher Hatton; 15892–8, Hyde correspondence (edited by Samuel Weller Singer); 15913, ‘The Snuff-Box,’ a poem by William Shenstone; 15918–19, catalogue raisonné of auction catalogues, 1676–1824; 15920, catalogue of his own books; 15921–9, collections on topography of Great Britain in continuation of his printed volumes; 15930–2, Oxfordshire collections; 15936, Worsley letters, 1714–22; 15937–46, letters of foreign princes and English statesmen; 15947, Prior's papers while at Paris; 15952–15954, papers on the French army in Italy, 1799–1813; 15855 and 15955–7, Anson papers.