The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

William Blake The Ghost of a Flea c.1819–20

William Blake 'The Ghost of a Flea' c.1819-20
William Blake 1757–1827
The Ghost of a Flea c.1819–20
Tempera heightened with gold on mahogany
support: 214 x 162 mm; frame: 382 x 324 x 50 mm
Tate N05889
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
Artist and astrologer John Varley encouraged Blake to sketch the figures, called ‘visionary heads’, who populated his visions. This image is the best known. While sketching the flea, Blake claimed it told him that fleas were inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men, confined to the bodies of insects because, if they were the size of horses, they would literally drain the population. Their bloodthirsty nature is shown by the eager tongue flicking at the ‘blood’ cup it carries. This intense disorientating image, the stuff of delirium and nightmare, taps into the unconscious, internalised sublime.

How to cite

William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 07 December 2021.