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As an example of rational thought, Newton was an important figure for Lavater. Arguing for the veracity of physiognomy, Lavater stated that greatness was ‘visible in every well drawn outline’ of the scientist’s head. Reiterating a pervasive racial stereotype, he asked ‘Could the mind of Newton have invented the theory of light, residing in the head of a Negro’.

Blake, however, was critical of reductive scientific thought. In this picture, the straight lines and sharp angles of Newton’s profile suggest that he cannot see beyond the rules of his compass. Behind him, the colourful, textured rock may be seen to represent the creative world, to which he is blind.

March 2011