The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea by Wiliam Blake (c.1820)

In my previous blog I left off the story of William Blake with him still living in London.  Today I will conclude the short biography of the great man.

 In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex and began to work on illustrations to go with the poetry of the poet William Hayley.  It was during his time in Felpham that Blake began to write his epic poem, Milton: a Poem and it was the preface to this work which includes a poem:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

The poem later became the words for the anthem, Jerusalem which was set to music quite emotively by the composer Hubert Parry in 1916.

Blake had always been radical and had, on a number of occasions, fell foul of authority.  His most serious run-in with the law came in 1803 when he and a drunken soldier, John Schofield, who was part of a troop which was billeted at the local pub.  The soldier had strayed into Blake’s cottage garden and the two had a physical altercation during which Schofield alleged that Blake had verbally damned King George III.  Blake was charged with voicing seditious and treasonous words against the monarch.  Blake on the other hand contested that the charges were a “fabricated perjury”.  A pre-trial hearing at the local quarter sessions in Petchworth found sufficient evidence to send Blake to stand trial in Chichester in the January of the following year but fortunately for the artist the jury found him not guilty.

In 1804 he left his Sussex home and returned to London where in the following years he was to illustrate many books including Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as illustrative work for bibles. Blake showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours  in 1812 and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.  In 1809 and 1810 he organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in rooms above his brother’s hosiery shop in London.  The exhibition gave him the chance to show his Canterbury Illustrations, which were a set of illustrations he had done for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with some of his other works.  To accompany the exhibition he put together a prospectus, entitled Descriptive Catalogue,   which described and explained the works on display. 

The Descriptive Catalogue

His exhibition was not a success and only a few people saw the exhibits.  The journalist and art critic Robert Hunt wrote about the exhibits and the accompanying catalogue.   Of the display, Hunt said the pictures were “wretched” and of the write-up of them in the catalogue he said Blake’s words were “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity”.  It is interesting to note that the Descriptive Catalogue which received such bad reviews is now looked upon as a brilliant analysis of Chaucer’s work.   Robert Hunt concluded his review by saying that in his opinion Blake was “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement”.  More devastating reviews followed and Blake was shattered and began to withdraw more and more from public life.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, his most important patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.  The largest Blake collection ever formed, was assembled by Thomas Butts probably between 1799 and  1810, and between 1820 and  1827. It consisted of over 200 biblical temperas and watercolors, Milton illustrations, color-print drawings, illuminated books, illustrated books, and engravings.

 In 1818 Blake is introduced to the English landscape painter John Linnell who became one of his best friends and ardent patrons.  It was Linnell who gave Blake the two largest commissions he ever received for single series of designs.  He paid £150 for drawings and engravings of The Inventions to the Book of Job.  In 1826, the year before Blake’s death Linnell commissioned him to produce etchings and watercolours illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Although he never lived to complete the commission, the illustrations he produced of the poem were not viewed merely as accompanying works, but rather they were considered to be a critical revision of Dante’s masterpiece.  There was in his pictures a commentary on the particular spiritual and moral aspects of Dante’s text.

Blake died in August 1827.  According to the biography, Blake by Peter Ackroyd, on the day of his death, Blake worked tirelessly on Linnell’s Dante series commission. Completely exhausted, he stopped working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Looking at her, Blake said, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.”  Having completed this portrait which is now lost, Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses.  At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died.

Throughout his life Blake spoke about visions he had.  They started at the age of four and carried on throughout his life.  These visions were often connected to beautiful religious themes and imagery, and probably inspired him to paint his spiritual works and God and Christianity were at the heart of all his writings.  He stuck to the belief that in some way he had been instructed to create his art works by the Archangels and that the works he completed were read and looked at by these heavenly bodies.

His attitude to life, his visions and his works leads one to believe that he was bordering on insanity and William Wordsworth said of him:

“…There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott…”

My Daily Art Display featured picture is entitled The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake, which he completed in 1820 and in some ways highlights how disturbed his mind was at this time.  It is a tempera heightened with gold on mahogany
support and is quite small measuring just 21cms x 16 cms.  The work can be seen at Tate Britain in London but unfortunately has degraded quite badly mainly due to the technique Blake used to create the work.

William Blake had been introduced to John Varley, an English watercolourist,  by his friend and patron John Linnell in 1818.  Varley was some thirty years Blake’s junior but notwithstanding this age difference, he and Blake became great friends and soon became one of Blake’s circle of admirers who had called themselves The Ancients.  As Varley believed strongly in astrology,  he was attracted to Blake’s visionary tales of heaven and angels and how he was able to converse with these heavenly creatures.  Blake would often call on Varley and the latter was energized by the spiritual portraits that Blake drew when they were together.  Often late in the evening when Blake was at Varley’s home they would take part in séances at which Varley would summon a long-dead historical person or mythological creature, describe his vision to Blake, who would quickly sketch it.  It was at one such séance in 1819 that Blake conjured up an image of a flea.  In George Bentley’s book The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake, he quotes Varley’s account of what happened that evening:

“…As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, ‘I see him now before me.’ I therefore gave him paper and a pencil with which he drew the portrait… I felt convinced by his 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…”

The imagery and Blake’s imagination which conjured up such a horrific image of the creature is both awesome and terrifying.  The flea depicted in this work is monstrous in size and muscular in body.  Its long voracious tongue slithers out from its mouth to lap up blood from the acorn-shaped bowl which is held in its left hand.  Its right hand is behind its back and the fingers of the hand grasp a thorn.  It appears part human, part reptilian and in the picture it moves from right to left past a set of heavy stage-like curtains as if on a stage.  Look at the upper part of the body.  Blake has given the creature a thick neck and a small scaly head with bulging and staring eyes.  It reminds me of a head of a gargoyle and one has to remember that Blake in his early days was sent around the Gothic churches of London to sketch and it could be some of the Gothic carvings he saw stuck in his mind.

On the back of the panel are the words:

“…The Vision of the Spirit that inhabits the body of a Flea, and which appeared to the late Mr. Blake, the Designer of the vignettes for Blair Grave and the Book of Job. The Visions first appeared to him in my presence, and after wards till he had finished this picture. The Flea drew blood on this…”

John Varley bought the work from William Blake in 1820 and in 1892 it was sold on to Graham Robertson, the William Blake collector for £10.50 at a Sotheby’s auction.   Graham Robertson’s collection of works by William Blake was  recognised as the most distinguished in existence. His purchases of the group of masterpieces had mainly come from the Butts family who were descendent of Blake’s friend and patron, Thomas Butts.  Robertson lent the work to the Tate in 1913 and eventually donated it to the gallery in 1948.

There is no doubt that this is an unsettling picture, dark in tone and yet has some shimmering golden tints.  There is no doubt that Blake, albeit looked upon as a genius, had throughout his life a very disturbed mind and one has to wonder whether the visions he constantly talked about were a comfort to him or gave him a nightmarish existence.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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