In December 1993 Blake was invited to become artist in residence at the National Gallery, London. The purpose of the residency was to make a new body of work in relation to the Gallery’s collection, and Blake was largely selected because of his tendency to appropriate the works of past artists in his own practice.
On one of his first afternoons at the Gallery he walked around each of the sixty six rooms in numerical order. Some were dismissed immediately but others gave him ideas for new paintings straight away. The first painting he started was based on Pietro Longhi’s Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice of around 1751. Blake had been working on his ‘Venice Beach’ paintings and decided he could simply relocate the painting there. He also began finishing a series of Madonna and Child paintings that he was already working on using paintings of the same subject in the collection and relocating them to equally unlikely contexts.
Ever an admirer of his art-historical precedents, Blake used the opportunity to step into the stylistic shoes of the Old Masters whose paintings surrounded him on a daily basis. Blake completed an impressive number of still life paintings in the style of their original, copying their styles with his remarkable artistry.
Characteristically working in his studio from reproductions rather than out in the Gallery, Blake originally imagined producing ten new works to include in the exhibition that would mark the end of his residency. Such was the impact of the Gallery’s collection upon him he ultimately began work on over fifty.