He was born at Newington Green, then just to the north of London, son of the minister of the Unitarian church there. Although called to the Bar, Gilchrist took up literary and art criticism as his main pursuits. He settled at Guildford in 1853, where he wrote Life of William Etty, R.A.. In 1856 he became a next-door neighbour of his supporter Thomas Carlyle at Chelsea and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle, both of them notable writers. Gilchrist had all but finished his Life of William Blake when he contracted scarlet fever from one of his children and died.
His wife Anne was his intellectual peer. She helped to complete her husband's magnum opus, and survived him by 24 years. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William also contributed to the completion of the book.
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- The Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist, edited by Ruthven Todd. London [England] : Dent, 1942. xi, 420 p. : ill. ; 18 cm. Everyman's library. Biography ; Based on 2nd ed. of 1880. Includes bibliography and index. (1880 edition reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-108-01369-7)
- The Life of William Blake, edited and with an introduction by W. Graham Robinson. ISBN 0-486-40005-0 (Dover).