A Brief Biography of Nathaniel Sparks, R.E. 1880-1956
"Nathaniel Sparks Senior" 1906
|The second son of Nathaniel Sparks Snr, violin restorer, Nat, aged 10, won a scholarship to The Bristol College of Art and Science coming under the tutelage of R Bush, ARE (Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers1). In 1900, at the age of 20, a further scholarship brought him to the RCA (Royal College of Art) in London where Frank Short, President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers, was Head of the Engraving School.|
During this period as a student he practised his skills and must have produced many etchings. Sadly, only a few remain. However, whilst studying he was commissioned by the famous J McN Whistler to pull (print) his Venice Set and in 1905 he received a Diploma in Decorative Painting from the RA and was made an ARE, following in the footsteps of his Bristol tutor.
"Portrait of a Man" Self-portrait 1929
"The Shadow & The Shade" 1928
|The next year saw the first of a long line of annual exhibits at both the RA and the RSPE (Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers) and it is interesting to note that Queen Mary purchased at least two of his prints: The Shadow and the Shade and, in 1915, Westminster Abbey seen through the Fountain'.2|
|In 1909, he was elected a Fellow of the RSPE and won a Gold Medal for Outstanding Artwork. His success seemed assured. However the First World War intervened and in 1915 he found himself making gauges for the munitions factories, working a punishing 100 hours per week, engraving the fine calibration required for accurate machining.||
"The Impercipient" 1923
"Hogarth's Sister" 1921
|With the armistice came a return to a very different civilian world of
mass unemployment where the rise of photography had led to a decline in the demand for the
engravers' skills. Nathaniel never recovered from this break in his career and, although
he subsequently produced many fine prints and beautiful watercolours, he faded quietly
into old age and obscurity.
Perhaps the final blow was when his printing press was blown up by a German bomb in 1940.
He died, lonely and without the recognition he deserved, in Somerton, Somerset in 1956.
1 The RSPE, or RE, was renamed the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in 1992 .
2 This was the fountain to Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, a champion of the slaves, which stood in those days opposite the North side of the Abbey. It is now in the gardens opposite the river at the West End of the Abbey.
A Provenance of the Nathaniel Sparks Gallery
by Celia Barclay
In 1909 Alys Gear, a childhood neighbour of Nathaniel, also won a scholarship which took her to the Royal College of Music in London to train as a singer. In 1914 she married Maurice Cockin and subsequently had two children, Battle and Celia, this provenances author.
"Alys Cockin" 1925
Celia takes up the story:
"I remember Nat as an ungainly, quirky little man in a threadbare coat who transformed from frog to prince whenever a pencil or burin [an engravers tool] came to hand. Even at the tender age of 8, I bowed to his genius.
Battle, my elder brother, would have been Nats heir but was killed by a snipers bullet two weeks after his arrival in Sicily in 1943, so his estate went to our father, Maurice, through whom it came to me. Included were not only his prints, plates, watercolours and oils but family letters and memorabilia from both the Sparks and Hardy families. Nat was second cousin to Thomas Hardy OM and many of the Hardy artefacts had come to him through Kate Hardy, Thomass younger sister.
"Captain Cockin" 1935
Between 1961 and now I have cared for and collated this diverse collection, putting on an exhibition in Dorchester Museum, holding private sales and auctions and publishing a book entitled Nathaniel Sparks, Memoirs of Thomas Hardys Cousin, The Engraver. I have hoped that by so doing I might gain Nat the recognition that he so yearned for in his latter years. Now in the twilight of my life, I have passed the baton to my son, Toby Barclay, who has long admired and cherished Nats work."
A complete collection of Nats London Set is deposited at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and many of his plates are stored in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.