A trained engraver, William Kellett Baker sold lithographic - often unauthorised prints of works by well known colonial artists including William Henry Fernyhough. As a publisher and printer who also imported and sold books, Baker established a reading room and library above his printing office in 1844, offering access to his collection of international periodicals for the annual sum of 10 shillin
engraver, printer, publisher and clerk, was born in Dublin, Ireland. He reached Sydney early in 1835 as an assisted emigrant and announced in February that he was starting business as an engraver, offering both lithographic and copperplate printing. Lack of business led to the acceptance of the position of clerk to the deputy inspector-general of hospitals. He resigned in 1845 after breaking his leg and being laid up for 12 months, but remained clerk to the medical board.
While officially employed at the hospital, Baker returned to publishing part-time. He became noted as a copperplate engraver and was commended in the Australian of 9 March 1841 for a presentation plate he engraved for the departing attorney-general, John Plunkett, being reported as 'well known to be a first rate engraver and therefore we need hardly say the inscriptions &c. are admirably executed and does the artist great credit’. On its formal presentation Baker received 'a valuable present’ from the attorney-general in return despite his social position as a tradesman (as was patronisingly noted).
In October 1840 Baker purchased E.D. Barlow 's lithographic apparatus and this enabled him to enter the market for views and portraits. Probably included were the plates or rights of use for several Barlow productions, although he did make unauthorised copies of Barlow’s work: disagreement over claims to a lithographic drawing of the Mayor’s Fancy Ball led to litigation in 1844. Also in October 1840, Baker published a series called Twelve Profile Portraits of the Aborigines . Despite being signed I.W.R. most were copied from William Henry Fernyhough 's original 1836 edition; others were very similar to Charles Rodius 's 1834 portraits.
A 'Cheap edition for the People’ of C.J. Lever’s Charles O’Malley: An Irish Dragoon (illustrated 6d, unillustrated 4d) was issued by Baker in 50 weekly numbers in 1842-43. These may have been partly illustrated by local artists since the Australian of 21 April 1842 understood that the lithographs were not to be confined to those of the original edition but extended to other scenes 'as may afford scope for the artists’ fancy’. Other works from Baker’s office include Fort Macquarie , Sydney Cove, N.S. Wales (c.1851) and Garden Island and the Domain from Lindsay , the last being 'Dedicated to Sir T.L. Mitchell [q.v.] by his obedient servant Mr. Baker’, Mitchell being the owner of this Darling Point house in 1841-45.
Like John Carmichael , Baker engraved scenes for advertisements. An example is his depiction of the Australian Brewery in Low’s Directory for 1844. Other productions included the Australian Atlas , charts, almanacs and the Australian Medical Journal (1846). Perhaps his most significant contribution was the illustrated journal Heads of the People (1847-48). Baker wrote his own biography in the 24th issue (25 March 1848) and illustrated it with his portrait. Sidelines at his business premises, 101 King Street East, included importing and selling books and prints and running a stationery warehouse. He established a general reading room above the printing office in 1844 and advertised a circulating library. This held newspapers and periodicals from Britain and Ireland as well as New South Wales. The subscription was 10s per annum after a 5s entrance fee.
In 1847 Baker lent seven paintings by such prominent local artists as Frederick Garling and Joseph Fowles (and the obscure W. Rider ) to the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia. He was a subscriber to George French Angas 's South Australia Illustrated . He also wrote undistinguished verse, the Sydney Morning Herald of 24 January 1849 publishing his pious tribute to his Irish uncle.
The last official listing of William Baker in Sydney is in an 1851 directory, then he moved to Victoria. Melthorpe remembered him as 'one of the best natured, most lively and genial of men’ and provided the derivation of Baker’s nickname, 'Go a head’: 'It arose from his preaching the Gospel of Go-a-headism to the then drowsy, moping and insouciant body politic of Sydney’. The nickname reappeared on the Victorian goldfields in October 1853, noted by William Howitt when visiting White Hills, near Bendigo: 'There is a lending library close to the camp with this emblazonment in great letters all along its side – “Baker’s gold-diggers’ Go-a-head Library and Registration Office for New Chums”. It must be American.’
Baker retained links with New South Wales and was stated to be the proprietor of the Hibernian Printing Office in Sydney when his corpse was discovered near Mount Vincent in the Maitland district in January 1857. Death by 'apoplexy’ on 16 January was certified by Dr Wilton, and the news conveyed to his widow, Jane. She was represented at his funeral in East Maitland by their 19-year-old son, eldest of their seven surviving children. An appeal for the widow and young family was placed in Bell’s Life in Sydney on 31 January 1859, which commented that during 25 years in Australia Baker had been 'a very persevering and industrious man; and a slight tinge of eccentricity, with a love for taking part in the formation of numerous friendly societies, have made him widely known and respected’. Jane Baker later erected a tombstone over his grave in St Peter’s Old Burial Ground, East Maitland, 'in remembrance of his many private virtues and in gratitude to his brother masons of Maitland by whom he was kindly interred’.