Born in Bristol in 1880, Nathaniel Sparks was the first cousin, once removed, to Thomas Hardy, O.M., the novelist and poet. Educated at home by his school teacher mother he showed early artistic promise and won a scholarship to study at Bristol, followed in 1900 by a further scholarship to the Royal College of Art for engraving under Sir Frank Short. His abilities as a printmaker flourished rapidly, culminating in 1909 with the award of the gold medal and election as a full member of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1910. Except for the two war years, 1917 and 1918, Nathaniel Sparks had an unbroken record of exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1909 to 1937. Whilst still a student, he was commissioned by Whistler to help in the printing of his Venice etchings.
Nathaniel Sparks’ life was, however, tinged with sadness throughout. He was extremely self-conscious about his unfortunate looks, especially hating his huge nose. A small, retiring, and very vulnerable man, he was turned down for active service in the First World War on medical grounds, spending four unhappy and uncongenial years doing precision work in a munitions factory.
After 1918 Nathaniel Sparks sought to supplement his meagre income by turning to watercolours, though he still continued to etch until his printing press was destroyed by a German bomb in 1940. He retired to the country to care for his relative, Katherine Hardy, the novelist’s younger sister. Nathaniel Sparks never married and after his death his family died out - his entire estate was passed to the family of an old friend.
A prolific artist and printmaker Nathaniel Sparks produced at least 170 known etchings, mostly of topographical views and it is for his splendid etchings of London that Nathaniel Sparks is now best known.; however, his poignant self-portraits and his few symbolic etchings remain the greatest of all his printed works.