Annie Eliza Blake – Pioneer in artistic flower photography

Annie Eliza Blake - Pioneer in artistic flower photography

Ann Eliza Chase was born at Westminster in 1848, the only child of Eliza and Norman Henry Chase. Her mother was just 23 years of age when she died soon after giving birth to Ann. Her father died two years later at the age of 32. Left orphaned, Ann went to live with her grandparents, John and Eliza Reason, who raised her. They were living in Love Lane, Wandsworth, with their two daughters Ann, Martha, and son John. Her grandfather was a carpenter by trade. In years to come, friends and family called her Annie.

At the age of 19, Annie was married at Bury St. Edmunds to William Blake. He was born 8th August 1846 at Surbiton, Surrey. William had studied photography and became very accomplished in his art.   It was said of him that he was a strong willed and had the confidence to do what he believed in was right, even though other people may not agree or approve. For all that, he was kind hearted and fond of a joke.

In the same year as their daughter Annie was born in 1869, the family moved to Bedford in order for William to take up the post of branch manager for Cundell and Downes of New Bond Street, who were photographers to the Queen. Their studio was in Harpur Street, opposite the Bedford Modern School. During his time with Cundell and Downes William had photographed the Prince of Wales. In 1870, he opened and managed their business at 32 High Street, under the name of George Downes.

In August 1871, William left George Downes and set up his own firm of Blake and Edgar at Midland Road.  A descendent of William and Annie said that at no time was there a partner by the name of Edgar. The name came from the other half of the once famous London department store Swan and Edgar of Regents Street and Piccadilly Circus. They thought that by adding the name Edgar, it would sound grand.

By 1897, Blake and Edgar were a huge success in the town. The Blakes felt they needed to branch out and moved to 38 High Street. Soon after, they acquired the premises next door at No 40 – these two premises were ample space for a studio and a shop. The shop sold a variety of goods such as jewellery, artists’ materials, stationery and photograph frames.

They moved from their home in Commercial Road to live above the business with their eight children, Annie (born 1869), Willie Norman (1870), Minnie Florence (1874), Edith Mabel (1878), Ernest Edgar (1879), Florence (1881), Ada Dora (1885), and Gladys Marguerite (1891), their son Sidney died in infancy (1875-1876).

As their sons and daughters grew up, they assisted their father whilst gaining valuable experience. William’s most valued help in the firm was his wife Annie. She was skilled at retouching photographs. It was delicate work, and in order for her to get the best results, it was vital for her to have an eye for detail such as art and composition.

Annie pioneered artistic flower photography and was one of the leading photographers in England. In 1898, the Royal Society exhibited seven of her works at the International Exhibition, Crystal Palace. One year later, the Royal Photographic Society’s Annual Exhibition Catalogue listed four of her works. She was the only woman awarded a Bronze medal in the 1900 Paris exhibition of flower studies. In the same year she won a Silver medal for her photographic exhibit at Durham.

Although William had photographed the Prince of Wales, his one wish was to take a photograph of him as King. His chance came in 1909 when Edward VII was on a visit to Wrest Park. He said later that as he was about to take the photo the King had said, ‘Just a minute, not without Caesar’, (his dog). When the king died a year later, William was the press photographer to the New York Tribune at the funeral. He would often speak of the sad sight of the King’s favourite dog Caesar following his master to the grave.

On the night of Friday 3rd May 1912, a fire had broken out in the pattern room in the Queens Engineering Works (Messrs. Allen’s). The fire claimed the life of William Buck a 35-year-old labourer when a falling arc-standard lamp stuck him on the head. William had gone there to take photographs of the fire. As he was making his way home, he fell ill. Apparently, the shock of the fire and the fact that he suffered from diabetes caused his sudden relapse. He was taken into the Liberal Club to allow him to rest for a while, and later went back to his home. Since that night he rarely left his house and he would sit in a chair for most of the time. Occasionally he could be seen sitting at the window overlooking the High Street and waving to his old friends who were passing by.

William died on Sunday June 30th 1912. The funeral service took place at the Cemetery Chapel where a large crowd had gathered in spite of the rain. The Rev. W. H. Davies conducted the service and after the service. He was laid to rest just a short distance from the park boundary. Grave Ref: C.1

Annie died at her home in the High Street, aged 81, on Boxing Day 1928. On the day of the funeral, shopkeepers along the High Street lowered their blinds as a mark of respect. The Rev. Paul Wyatt who was an old friend of the family took the service at the Cemetery Chapel. After the service, Annie’s remains were interred with those of William and their baby son Sidney.

Below the cross are inscribed the words.

The Bedfordshire Times & Independent, Friday 28 December 1928 wrote ‘In middle life Mrs Blake was one of the foremost of pictorial photographic workers in Great Britain. She won many gold and silver medallions at exhibitions in Great Britain, and her works were exhibited by The Royal Photographic Society at the International Expositions held at Paris and St. Louis. At the latter (known as ‘The World’s Fair’) and at the Paris Exhibition her work was awarded the Grand Prix.’


Bedford Mercury 5th July 1912
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 1912, 1928 & 1929
Royal Photographic Society