Stark was born in Norwich, the youngest son of Michael Stark (1748–1831), a Scottish-born dyer, and showed a talent for art from an early age. He was educated at Norwich School where he became friends with John Berney Crome. He was then apprenticed to John Berney's father, the landscape artist John Crome, for three years from 1811.
His painting A view on King Street river, Norwich was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1811, and in the same year he exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists, of which he was elected a member in 1812. In 1814, following the end of his apprenticeship, he moved to London. He exhibited at the British Institution between 1814–8, winning a prize of £50 in 1818. In 1817 he became a student at the Royal Academy Schools.
After only two years of study, ill health forced Stark to return to Norwich. There he devoted himself to painting the scenery around the city and executed a series of paintings of Norfolk rivers which were eventually engraved and published in 1834. In 1821 he married Elizabeth Younge Dinmore (d. 1834/5).
In 1830, he again settled in London, taking up residence in Chelsea, and exhibited at the British Institution, the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists. In 1839, he moved to Windsor, where he painted many pictures of the scenery along the Thames, but moved back to London in 1849 to further his son's artistic education. His only son, Arthur James Stark (1831–1902), born in Chelsea, became a landscapes and animal painter. He drew the cattle on a few of his father's pictures.
Stark died at Mornington Place, Camden Town, London, in March 1859.
Between 1831 and 1859 most of his pictures were shown at the Royal Academy, though he still continued to exhibit occasionally in other galleries. He undertook in 1827 the publication of a work on The Scenery of the Rivers of Norfolk, which was completed seven years later; the illustrations he prepared for it have much topographical and artistic interest and show well the better qualities of his work.
In his pictures the influence of Crome is plainly perceptible, and there is evidence also of his study of the Dutch landscape-painters; but he had little of Crome's largeness and power and his works charm rather by their gentle truth and quietness of manner than by their robustness of view or by their decisiveness of execution.
Stark worked in oils, watercolour, pencil and chalk. Much of his work is kept at the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Norwich.