William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea

c.1819–20

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Tempera and gold on mahogany
Dimensions
Support: 214 x 162 mm
frame: 382 x 324 x 50 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
Reference
N05889

Display caption

John Varley – an artist, astrologer and close friend of Blake – reported in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1882) that Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.

Gallery label, May 2011

Catalogue entry

N05889 The Ghost of a Flea c.1819–20

N 05889 / B 750
Tempera heightened with gold on mahogany 214×162 (8 7/16×6 3/8)
Signed ‘WBlake Fresco’ b.r.
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
PROVENANCE John Varley; his son Albert Varley, sold February 1878 to William Bell Scott, sold Sotheby's 14 July 1892 (235) £10.5.0., bt Quaritch, by whom offered rough list 127 August 1892 £18, and sold 1892 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art Edinburgh 1886 (Pictures and Works of Art 1444, as ‘A Vampire’); Carfax 1906 (22); Century of Art Grafton Galleries 1911 (59, as' ‘A Vampire’); Tate Gallery 1913 (69); BFAC 1927 (57); Tate Gallery 1947 (48); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (17); Romantic Movement Tate Gallery 1959 (24); Tate Gallery 1978 (283, repr.)
LITERATURE Smith Nollekens and his Times 1828, 11, pp.471–2, 480–1 (reprinted in Bentley 1969, pp.467, 472); Varley Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy 1828, p.55 (reprinted Bentley 1969, p.373, and Butlin 1969, p.11); Allan Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 11, 2nd ed. 1830, pp.169–70 (reprinted Bentley 1969, pp.497–8, and Butlin 1969, p.16); Rossetti 1880, p.222 no.109; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.494 no.19, repr. facing p.274; G.K. Chesterton, William Blake, 1910, p.153; Frye 1947, pp.123–4; Preston 1952, pp.77–82 no.21, pl.21; Keynes in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, LXIV, 1960, pp.568–72, repr. facing p.566; Burke 1964, pp.122–3 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.281–4); Bentley Blake Records, 1969, pp.264, 352–3, 372–3, 467, 472, 497–8; Butlin 1969, pp.15–16, 28, pl.5; Keynes Blake Studies 1971, pp.131–2, 134, pl.31; Todd 1971, pp.113–7, repr.; Klonsky 1977, p.125, repr.; Butlin 1981, pp.524–5 no.750, colour pl.966. Also repr.: Eugenie de Keyser, The Romantic West 1789–1850, 1965, p.105 in colour; Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.29 in colour

A label on the back, written by William Bell Scott, states that the panel was bought from John Varley's son Albert in February 1878. This is confirmed by an inscription by Scott of the same date, written inside the back cover of the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook (see T01334-T01334, N05184), saying that, ‘I have since getting this book [in 1870], bought the painting of the “Ghost” of the Flea, from Mr Varley of Oakley St. Chelsea, son of John Varley’.

Another label, written in the same hand, supplies a copy of an inscription by John Varley on an earlier label, now nearly illegible. The original seems to have read, ‘The Vision of the Spirit which inhabits the body of a Flea & which appeared to the Late Mr. Blake, the designer of the Vignettes for Blair's Grave & the Book of Job. The Vision first appeared to him in my presence & afterwards till he had finished this picture. A flea he said drew blood on this..., [the rest is illegible on both labels] J Varley’. In his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy of 1828 Varley describes how, after Blake had drawn the head of the flea (N05184), it ‘afforded him a view of his whole figure; an engraving of which I shall give in this work.’ The engraving, which was never published, was presumably to have been based on the full-length drawing of the flea on page 94 of the Blake-Varley sketchbook. This shows the flea standing more erect than in the tempera, touching his tongue with the forefinger of his left hand (Butlin 1981, no.692 94, sold at Christie's 15 June 1971 (in 141, repr.) bought by Martin Breslauer and sold in 1977 to a British private collection; also repr. Butlin 1969).

When Alan Cunningham visited Varley in connection with the chapter on Blake for his Lives, published in 1830, he was shown the tempera, which Varley suggested was the product of a second visitation. ‘“I'll tell you all about it sir”’, reports Cunningham. ‘“I called upon him one evening and found Blake more than usually excited. He told me he had seen a wonderful thing - the ghost of a flea! ‘And did you make a drawing of him?’ I inquired. ‘No indeed’ said he, ‘I wish I had, but I shall, if he appears again!’ He looked earnestly into a corner of the room, and then said, ‘here he is - reach me my things - I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hands to hold blood and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green;’ - as he described him so he drew him.”’ Varley's account, though an accurate description of the painting, may be a fanciful one; Blake could well have worked up the painting from the drawing. Another locale for the execution of one of the versions of ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ is suggested by Walter Thornbury in his British Artists from Hogarth to Turner, 1861, 1, p.28: ‘the house of the father of my old friend, Leigh, the artist’ (Samuel Leigh, father of James Mathews Leigh, where ‘Blake was a frequent visitor’), but this seems unlikely both for the two drawings in the sketchbook, which seem to have been done at Varley's (see N05184), and for the tempera, according to Varley painted at Blake's own house.

The technique of this tempera is closer to the temperas of c.1800–10 than to Blake's late, very different temperas of c.1821–6 (see T04134, N03007, N05893, N05894, N01164 and N03006,N01110, N03551 as opposed to T02387, N05888, N03340).


Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990

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