William Blake

The Head of the Ghost of a Flea. Verso: A Profile and a Reduced Drawing of Milton’s First Wife


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite on paper. Verso: graphite on paper
Support: 189 × 153 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

Display caption

When they were introduced in 1818, the astronomer and artist John Varley was struck by Blake’s visionary capacity. As a mutual friend put it, Varley ‘readily devoured all the marvellous in Blakes most extravagent utterances’ [sic]. Varley encouraged Blake to draw the figures that appeared to him, resulting in a series of so-called ‘visionary heads’. This unusual example was then used by Varley as an illustration of ‘Gemini’ in his Zodiacal Physiognomy (see the reproduction on the plinth by this showcase). Blake later developed the sketch to produce a finished tempera, hanging nearby.

Gallery label, March 2011

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Catalogue entry

N05184 [from] Drawings from the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook c.1819 [T01334-T01335; complete]

The Tate Gallery owns three pages from the smaller Blake-Varley Sketchbook, first used by John Varley for landscape sketches and then by Blake for recording the visions he saw at Varley's house in 1819, the date inscribed on a number of the pages from the Sketchbook including T01334. The Sketchbook seems originally to have contained sixty-six leaves, sixteen of which are now lost. After a number of pages, including N05184, had been removed, the Sketchbook probably passed to Varley's friend the musician William Christian Selle, whose daughter married H. Buxton Forman, who definitely gave it to William Bell Scott in 1870. It remained at Penkhill Castle, the home of Scott's friend Miss Alice Boyd, until it was rediscovered there in 1967 by Mr M.D.E. Clayton-Stamm. It was subsequently broken up and reproduced in facsimile (Martin Butlin, The Blake-Varley Sketchbook of 1819, 1969; the Sketchbook is also fully described and catalogued, but not reproduced, in Butlin 1981, pp.495–506 no.692) and sold page by page at Christie's on 15 June 1971 (141–172, most of the Blakes repr.). On 21 March 1989 a second, larger Blake-Varley sketchbook was sold at Christie's (184, repr. in separate catalogue); this sketchbook had belonged to William Mulready, Varley's brother-in-law, and it was sold with his collection at Christie's 28–30 April 1864 (86).

N05184 The Head of the Ghost of a Flea c.1819 (recto)
A Profile and a Reduced Drawing of Milton's First Wife c.1819 (verso)

N 05184 / B 692 97–8
Pencil on paper 189×153 (7 7/16×6)
Inscribed by Varley on recto ‘Original [? - now practically invisible] W. Blake’ b.l., and on verso with colour-notes on the drawing of Milton's First Wife, ‘Gn velvet’, ‘Bk’ and ‘Eyes Bn’
Watermarked ‘1806’
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE John Linnell, sold Christie's 15 March 1918 (in 164 with nos.65, 66 and 67) £54.12.0 bt Miss Carthew
EXHIBITED Tate Gallery (69a), Manchester (74), Nottingham (57) and Edinburgh (78) 1913–14; British Drawings from the Tate Gallery CEMA tour 1944 (6); Tate Gallery 1947 (83); Hamburg and Frankfurt 1975 (163, recto repr.); Tate Gallery 1978 (282, recto repr.)
LITERATURE Varley Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy 1828, pp.54–5 (reprinted in Bentley 1969, pp.372–3, and Butlin 1969, p.11); Gilchrist 1863, 1, pp.255–6; Rossetti 1863, p.245 list 2 no.56, and 1880, p.262 list 2 no.65; Richard C. Jackson, ‘William Blake: An unlooked for Discovery’, South London Observer 22 June 1912 (see G.E. Bentley Jr, ‘All the Evidence that's fit to print’, Blake Newsletter, 11, 1968–9, p.12); Keynes Bibliography 1921, p.318; Keynes Drawings 1927, no.49, recto repr.; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.203, recto pl.59d; Frye 1947, pp.123–4; Charles Singer, ‘The first English microscopist: Robert Hooke (1635–1703)’, Endeavour, XIV, 1955, p.14; Blunt 1959, p.82; Keynes in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, LXIV, 1960, pp.570–1, recto repr. facing p.567; Butlin 1969, pp.9–11, 28–9, repr.; Erdman 1969, p.106; Roe in Rosenfeld 1969, p.175; Bindman 1977, p.202, recto pl.165; Klonsky 1977, p.124, recto repr.; Paley 1978, p.181, recto pl.87; Butlin 1981, pp.495–6, 503 nos.692 98 and 97.

Unlike the other pages from the Small Blake-Varley sketchbook in the Tate Gallery, this leaf and three others that can be identified were removed from the book early on and were until recently regarded as separate entities (for the others see Butlin nos.692 35–6 and a-d). In the original sketchbook the profile and reduced drawing of ‘Milton's First Wife’, which is here regarded as the verso, in fact came first, as page 97. The watermark ‘1806’ is found on a number of pages in the Blake-Varley Sketchbook. The book itself is oblong in format.

The drawing of the head of a flea, accompanied by a larger sketch of its mouth alone, now open, is the subject of a well-known anecdote in Varley's Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy: ‘I felt convinced by his [Blake's] mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it. During the time occupied in completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men, as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess...’

Linnell engraved two complete heads, one with mouth shut, one open, for Varley's Trealise. A note written by Varley to Linnell criticizes his engraving of the latter, adding ‘it has been compared with a tracing & these remarks made’ (coll. M. Butlin, repr. Butlin 1969, pl.6); no such tracing is known in this case. According to Gilchrist, Linnell also made a copy in colour; this could be a reference in the tempera painting, N05889.

Blake's drawing may have been influenced by Robert Hooke's Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses, with Observations and Inquiries thereupon, 1665, in which there is a greatly enlarged engraving of a flea on plate 32 (repr. Singer op. cit., p.15, and Keynes 1960, facing p.567).

What is now regarded as the verso of this sheet originally faced page 96 in the Blake-Varley Sketchbook, a drawing of ‘Milton's First Wife’ now in a private collection in Great Britain (repr. Butlin op. cit. 1969 and sale cat., Christie's 1971, lot 145). This shows Milton's wife Mary Powell (b.1615) whom he married in 1643. From a Royalist, anti-Puritan family, she left him after a month and Milton declared that he would never take her back. The incident coincided with, and may have led to, Milton's pamphlet on divorce. In 1645, however, after the ruin of the Royalist cause, Milton did take her back, together with her family, and they had four children before her death in 1652. The reduced-scale drawing in the Tate Gallery, with its various colour-notes, was presumably done so that Varley could record observations without fear of spoiling the original drawing on the facing page. It is accompanied by a crude profile of a thick-lipped figure and also by traces of what may be another head in the lower left-hand corner.

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


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