Works by James Henry Blake (1845-1941) on display at the Ernst Mayr Library
A new exhibit of drawings and watercolors by J.H. Blake, is now on display in the lobby of the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Join us for a reception in honor of the exhibit on July 25, 2013 from 2:30-4:30pm. The exhibit was developed by Robert Young, Special Collections Librarian. Notes on Blake’s life and work follow below.
Best known as the Hassler Expedition’s young zoological artist from Provincetown, Blake entered business in early life with his stepfather before deciding to enroll at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1864 to study natural history under Louis Agassiz. That was a tumultuous time for the Museum of Comparative Zoology founder, as his early student assistants, including F.W. Putnam, S.H. Scudder, A.S. Packard, A. Hyatt, A.E. Verrill and A.S. Bickmore, had just left the museum after the professor refused to grant them permanent appointments due to various conflicts.
Blake was hired as an MCZ student assistant three years later to help Agassiz organize the Thayer Expedition collections, sorting the multitude of laboratory jars of Brazilian fishes, and was in fact paid out of the funds supplied by Nathaniel Thayer. In 1868, he was working in the MCZ Conchology Department, drawing the characteristic features of the soft parts of fresh-water mollusks.
By 1871 Blake, who married Lucinda Smith Critchett that summer, had begun arranging the mollusk collections when Agassiz elected to take him on the “Deep-Sea Dredging Expedition,” as he initially called the Hassler trek, to make use of his artistic skills. Blake also supervised the fishing operations, with the expedition taking home about 30,000 fish specimens.
Blake’s 152-page scrapbook, one of the Ernst Mayr Library’s most prized holdings, is filled with clippings and manuscript leaves chronicling details of the Hassler Expedition. In later years, Blake was very protective of the history of the voyage on which his career had essentially begun and on occasion mailed off letters of correction when newspaper stories mangled its facts.
In September 1872, after Agassiz’s Hassler party returned to Cambridge overland from San Francisco, Blake resumed his duties systematically organizing the MCZ’s “alcoholic mollusca.” Three years later, Thayer’s funding for Blake’s salary would run out, and he left the MCZ.
With nine years of training under Louis Agassiz, Blake had no difficulty resuming his career outside of Harvard, serving as artist for the Vineyard Sound Survey of the U.S. Fish Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Mississippi Geological Survey. In addition to illustrating many natural history publications, such as his drawings of fish collected during Alexander Agassiz’s 1891 Albatross Expedition to the Pacific in the MCZ Memoirs (v. 24, 1899) and his West Indies echinoderm drawings in the Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication (no. 281, 1919), he gave lectures throughout the country and helped found the Boston Malacological Club.
Blake never lost his affection for the MCZ and Louis Agassiz, telling lecture audiences that during classes he always took the closest desk to the professor. As the last surviving Agassiz assistant (and outlived as an Agassiz student only by Edward A. Birge, president of the University of Wisconsin), he bequeathed much of his artwork and personal collections, including numerous photographs, drawings, clippings and books about whales–his lifelong passion–to the museum.
Blake passed away in 1941 at age ninety-six in Somerville, MA and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, also the final resting place of the professor who took him to sea.