Audio transcript

The Ghost of a Flea was made in London in 1819-20, by the writer, painter and print-maker, William Blake. It’s one of a series of what his friend, the artist John Varley, called his ’visionary heads’, which, Varley claimed, came to him in a dream-like state:

‘There he comes!’
Blake had said of the flea-ghost,
‘his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green.’

Blake had met Varley – an amateur astrologer as well as an artist – the previous year, in 1818, and the two had soon become good friends. According to Varley’s account they worked at night at his house, and he would encourage Blake to draw the figures that peopled his visions. ‘Draw me.... Moses!’ Varley would cry, and Blake would think, and then draw the historical character as if he had a real sitter in front of him.

Blake claimed that while he was sketching the flea, it had explained to him that fleas were inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men. These men were confined to the bodies of small insects because if they were the size of horses, they would drink so much blood that most of the country would be consumed.

You can see the flea’s thirst for blood in its darting tongue, and the cup that it carries to collect it.

Blake was also thinking of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who he admired, when he made this picture. It’s made in his version of fresco, painted on mahogany and highlighted with gold, which has cracked and dulled with age. The flea’s wide shoulders and bulging muscles are also taken from Michelangelo’s preferred body type.

In his prolific career Blake made an important contribution to ideas of Englishness. It is from his poem, Jerusalem, that the phrase: ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ comes, as well as the evocative description of the ‘dark, satanic mills’ of the industrial north.