William Blake’s Phantom Face

February 16, 2023

To accompany her talk at the Wellcome Collection, Chair of the Blake Society, Sibylle Erle, dims the lights and examines Blake’s macabre and mysterious Ghost of a Flea.

William Blake was never the eccentric loner that his early biographers made him out to be. Blake had visions but he wasn’t mad. He was a Londoner and lived in a thriving metropolis. He went to a drawing school, was apprenticed to an engraver and studied at the Royal Academy. He was in a supportive relationship, had a close-knit family, many friends, patrons and employers. He was an avid reader, took note of radical politics and sympathised with Swedenborgianism. Though many of his ambitions were thwarted in the emerging print market, every aspect of Blake’s life gives opportunity to think about Blake’s social life. 

John Varley’s Zodiacal Physiognomy and William Blake’s Visionary Heads are the two mainstays of a project which involved séance-like meetings at Varley’s house. While the lights were still lit, Varley’s guests would have listened to the stories about the flea. With The Ghost of a Flea in front of them, the recitals of the flea’s pompous speeches, combined with the fact that it was just a ghost who leered after human blood, Varley’s guests might have laughed very heartily, if not in front of him then behind his back. It is more than likely, and many have argued this, that Blake humoured Varley or even made fun of him. 

Each evening followed the same protocol. When the lights were extinguished, Varley would call out a name and Blake would look around, suddenly exclaiming ‘There he is!’ and start drawing. While those present were staring into empty space, Varley would record the time in order to calculate Blake’s invisible sitters’ ascendants.

Even though none of Blake’s Visionary Heads, ranging from Edward I and William Wallace to Wat Tyler’s daughter, bears a resemblance to existing portraits, Varley believed with all his heart that Blake was drawing the portraits of spirits. 

The flea is the most striking of the Visionary Heads, though it is not the only head which exists in different versions. If appearance is elemental to any kind of judgement of one human being by another, then Blake deliberately confused Varley. By working up the sketch, he played on Varley’s expectations; he presented him with an extraordinary and very puzzling painting: The Ghost of a Flea. But why, if Blake could have chosen any monster, did he settle on the ghost of a flea?

Sibylle Erle will discuss The Ghost of a Flea at the Wellcome Collection on 23 February 2023.