from which he may depart in the proportions, but seldom
substantially. John Varley, however, could not be per-
suaded to look at them from this merely rationalistic point
At these singular nocturnal sittings, Blake thus executed
for Varley, in the latter's presence, some forty or fifty slight
pencil sketches, of small size, of historical, nay, fabulous and
even typical personages, summoned from the vasty deep of
time, and 'seen in vision by Mr. Blake.' Varley, who ac-
cepted all Blake said of them, added in writing the names,
and in a few instances the day and hour they were seen.
Thus : ' Wat Tyler, by Blake, from his spectre, as in the act of
striking the tax-gatherer, drawn Oct. 30, 18 19, i h. P.M.' On
another we read : ' The Man ivho built the Pyramids, Oct. 18,
18 19, fifteen degrees of i. Cancer ascending.' Another sketch
is indorsed as 'Richard Cceur de Lion drazvn from his spectre.
W. Blake fecit, Oct. 14, i8ig, at quarter-past twelve, midnight.'
In fact, two are inscribed ' Richard Occur de Lion,' and each is
different. Which looks as if Varley misconstrued the seer at
times, or as if the spirits were lying spirits, assuming different
forms at will. Such would doubtless have been De Foe's
reading, had Jie been gravely recording the fact.
Most of the other Visionary Heads bear date August, 1820.
Some fell into Mr. Linnell's hands and have remained there :
the rest still belong to the Varley family. Remarkable per-
formances these slight pencil drawings are, intrinsically, as
502 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [iSi8â 1820.
well as for the circumstances of their production : truly original
and often sublime. All are marked by a decisive, portrait-like
character, and are in fact, evidently, literal portraits of what
Blake's imaginative eye beheld. They are not seldom strik-
ingly in unison with one's notions of the characters of the
men they purport to represent. Some are very fine, as the
Bathsheba and the David. Of these two, beauty is, of course,
the special attribute. William Wallace and King Edward the
First have much force, and even grandeur. A remarkable
one is that of King Edward the Third as he now exists in the
other world accordijig to his appearance to Mr. Blake : his skull
enlarged in the semblance of a crown, â swelling into a crown
in fact, â for type and punishment of earthly tyranny, I sup-
pose. Remarkable too are The Assassin lying dead at the
feet of Edward the First in the Holy Land, and the Poj-trait
of a Man who instructed Mr. Blake in Painting, in his
Among the heads which Blake drew was one of King Saul,
who, as the artist related, appeared to him in armour, and
wearing a helmet of peculiar form and construction, which he
could not, owing to the position of the spectre, see to delineate
satisfactorily. The portrait was therefore left unfinished, till
some months after, when King Saul vouchsafed a second
sitting, and enabled Blake to complete his helmet ; which,
with the armour, Avas pronounced, by those to whom the
drawing was shown, sufficiently extraordinary.
The ideal embodiment of supernatural things (even things
so wild and mystic as some of these) by such a man â a man
of mind and sense as well as of mere fancy â could not but
be worth attention. And truly they have a strange coherence
and meaning of their own. This is especially exemphfied in
one which is the most curious of all these Visionary Heads,
and which has also been the most talked of, viz. the Ghost of
a Flea or Personified Flea. Of it, John Varley, in that singular
and now very scarce book, A Treatise on Zodiacal Phy-
siognomy, published in 1828, gave the first and best account;
XT. 61â63.] JOHN VARLEY AND THE VISIONARY HEADS. 3O3
one which Southey, connoisseur in singularities and scarce
books, thought worth quoting in T/ie Doctor : â
This spirit visited his (Blake's) imagination in such a figure as he
never anticipated in an insect. 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 of which a fac-simile is given in this
number. 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. During the time occupied in
GHOST OF K FLEA.
LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
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, and
were therefore providentially confined to the size and form of insects ;
otherwise, were he himself, for instance, the size of a horse, he would
depopulate a great portion of the country.
An engraved outline of the Gliost of a Flea was given in
the Zodiacal Physiognomy, and also of one other Visionary-
Head â that of the Constellation Cancer. The engraving of
The Flea has been repeated in the Art Journal for August,
1858, among the illustrations to a brief notice of Blake. The
original pencil drawing is in Mr. Linnell's possession. Coloured
copies of three of the Visionary Heads â Wallace, Edzvard
the First, and the Ghost of a Flea â were made for Varley, by
Mr. Linnell. [See Annotated Catalogue, List H., Vol. H.]
OPINIONS : NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 1820. [/ET. 63.]
From internal evidence I judge 1820, or thereabout, to
have been the date of the Notes to Reynold's Discourses,
already referred to. The present, therefore, is a fit place to
give the reader a taste of them, "eminently characteristic as
they are of the vehement, one-sided enthusiast. In the same
indignant strain as that in which the Notes began, commenting
on the patronage of his day, is written on the fly-leaf the
following curious doggrel : â
Advice of the Popes who succeeded the Age of Raphael.
Degrade first the Arts if you would mankind degrade ;
Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade ;
Give high price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with labour of idleness fill every place.
In plain prose he asks, ' Who will dare to say that " polite
'Art" is encouraged, or either wished or tolerated, in a
' nation where the Society of Arts suffered Barry to give
' them his labour for nothing ? A Society composed of the
' flower of the English nobility and gentry, suffering an artist
â¢ to starve, while he really supported what they, under pre-
' tence of encouraging, were endeavouring to depress ! Barry
' told me that while he did that,' â painted, namely, the
VOL. I. X
306- LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [1820.
picture in the Society's Great Room at the Adelphi, â ' he
' lived on bread and apples.'
' O ! Society for the Encouragement of Art ! King and
' Nobility of England, where have you hid Fuseli's Milton ?
' Is Satan troubled at his exposure ? ' alluding to Fuseli's
Satan building the Bridge. At the words in Reynolds'
Dedication to the King â 'royal liberality,' he exclaims,
' Liberality ! we want no liberality ! we Avant a fair price and
' proportionate value, and a general demand for Art. Let
' not that nation where less than nobility is the " reward "
' pretend that Art is encouraged by that nation. Art is first
' in intellect, and ought to be first in nations.'
At page 120 Blake tells the following anecdote, bearing
on orator Burke's vaunted patronage of Barry : ' Barry
'painted a picture for Burke equal to Raphael or Michael
' Angelo, or any of the Italians (!), Burke used to show
' this picture to his friends, and to say, "I gave twenty guineas
' for this horrible daub, and if any one would give me * * " '
The remainder of the sentence has been cut ofi" by the binder,
but may easily be guessed, â ' Such was Burke's patronage of
Art and Science.' A little further on Blake declares ' the
' neglect of Fuseli's Milton, in a country pretending to the
' encouragement of Art, is a sufficient apology for my
' vigorous indignation : if, indeed, the neglect of my own
' powers had not been. Ouglit not the employers of fools
' to be execrated in future ages .'' They will and SHALL !
' Foolish men ! your own real greatness depends on the
' encouragement of the Arts ; and your fall will depend on
* their neglect and depression. What you fear is your own
' interest. Leo the Tenth was advised not to encourage the
' Arts. He was too wise to take this advice. The rich men
'of England form themselves into a Society' (alluding to
the British Institution, founded in 1805), 'a Society to sell, and
' not to buy, pictures. The artist who does not throw his
' contempt on such trading Exhibitions does not know either
' his own interest or his own duty â
a:t. 63.] OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 307
When nations grow old,
The Arts grow cold,
And Commerce settles on every tree,:
And the poor and the old
Can live upon gold,
For all are born poor.
Which concluding enigmatical line indicates, I presume,
the age of the annotator at the date of writing.
Again, still alluding to his own case : ' The inquiry in
' England is, not whether a man has talents and genius, but
' whether he is passive and polite, and a virtuous ass, and
'obedient to noblemen's opinions in art and science. If he
'is, he is a good man ; if not, he must be starved.'
In a highly personal strain of sarcastic allusion to the
favoured portrait-painters of his era, Blake scribbles in
Some look to see the sweet outlines
And beauteous forms that Love does wear ;
Some look to find out patches, paint,
Bracelets and stays and powdered hair.
And in even more eccentric vein : â
When Sir Joshua Reynolds died,
All nature was degraded ;
The king dropped a tear
Into the queen's ear,
And all his pictures faded. (!)
Angels of light make sorry wits â handle mere terrestrial
weapons of sarcasm and humorous assault in a very clumsy,
' I consider Reynolds' Discomses to the Royal Academy,'
our annotator in plainer, if still startling words announces,
'as the simulation of the hypocrite who smiles particularly
'when he means to betray. His praise of Raphael is like
' the hysteric smile of revenge ; his softness and candour the
3o8 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [1820.
' hidden trap and the poisoned feast. He praises Michael
' Angelo for quahties which Michael Angelo abhorred ; and
' he blames Raphael for the only qualities which Raphael
' valued. Whether Reynolds knew what he was doing is
' nothing to me. The mischief is the same whether a man
' does it ignorantly or knowingly. I always considered true
' art and true artists to be particularly insulted and degraded
' by the reputation of these Discourses; as much as they
' were degraded by the reputation of Reynolds' paintings ;
' and that such artists as Reynolds are, at all times, hired by
' Satan for the depression of art : a pretence of art to destroy
art.' A sufficiently decided opinion^
At page 20, we read â ' Mem. That I make a note on
"sudden and irresistible approbation."' This threat is in
reference to Sir Joshua's observations respecting the kindling
effect of the great examples of Art on the student's mind.
' How grossly inconsistent with what he says somewhere on
the Vatican!' At page 17 of the Fhst Discourse, where,
after cautioning the student against following his ' vague and
uncertain ideas of beauty,' and drawing the figure, not as it
is, but as he fancies it ought to be, Reynolds adds that the
habit of drawing correctly what we see gives the power of
drawing correctly what we imagine : â ' Excellent ! ' is Blake's
comment ; and further on, ' This is admirably said ! Why
does he not always allow as much .'' ' Instances of praise
seldom elicited. Once, indeed, he finds a passage wholly
after his own heart : * A firm and determined outline is one
of the characteristics of the great style in painting.' Against
which is written : ' Here is a noble sentence ! a sentence
which overthrows all his book.'
On Sir Joshua's singular inconsistency in condemning
generalization in one place, while approving and recommend-
ing it in a hundred, he remarks : ' The contradictions in
' Reynolds' Discourses are strong presumption that they are
' the work of several hands ; but this is no proof that
' Reynolds did not write them. The man, either painter or
^:t. 63.] OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 309
'philosopher, who learns or acquires all he knows from
'others, must be full of contradictions.' And elsewhere,
more definitely, on this subject of generahzation he says :
' Real effect is making out the parts, and it is nothing else
Expressive of the special creed of Blake, to whom inven-
tion and meaning were all in all, and of his low estimate of
the great rhetoricians in painting, â Correggio, the Venetians,
Rubens, and those whom we weak mortals have been wont to
admire as great colourists, â is such a note as this, at the
beginning of the Second Discourse : â 'The laboured works of
'journeymen employed by Correggio, Titian, Veronese, and
'all the Venetians, ought not to be shown to the young
'artist as the works of original conception, any more than
' the works of Strange, Bartolozzi, or WooUett. They are
'works of manual labour.'
Blake cherished his visionary tendency as an essential
function of imagination, ' Mere enthusiasm,' he here de-
clares, ' is the all in all.' And again, â ' The'man who asserts
' that there is no such thing as softness in art, and that every-
' thing is definite and determinate ' (which is what Blake was
ever asserting), ' has not been told this by practice, but by
'inspiration and vision; because vision is determinate and
' perfect and he copies tJiat without fatigue. Everything
' seen is definite and determinate. Softness is produced
' by comparative strength and weakness, alone, in the
' marking of the forms. I say these principles would never
' be found out by the study of nature, without con- or in-
' nate science.'
With no more than justice he remarks on the very weakest
feature in Sir Joshua's system : ' Reynolds' opinion was, that
' genius may be taught, and that all pretence to inspiration is
' a lie or deceit, to say the least of it. If it is deceit, the
'whole Bible is madness. This opinion' (of Sir Joshua's)
'originates in the Greeks calling the Muses daughters of
' Memory,' In the same spirit, and with truth too, he of the
3IO LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [1820.
Third Discourse energetically avers : ' The following Discourse
' is particularly interesting to blockheads, as it endeavours to
â " prove that there is no such thing as inspiration, and that
' any man of a plain understanding may, by thieving from
' others, become a Michael Angelo.'
So, too, when Reynolds tells his hearers that ' enthusiastic
admiration seldom promotes knowledge ; ' and proceeds to
encourage the student who perceives in his mind 'nothing of
' that divine inspiration with which, he is told, so many others
' have been favoured ' who ' never travelled to heaven to
gather new ideas,' &c. Blake answers : * And such is the
' coldness with which Reynolds speaks ! and such is his
' enmity ! Enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of
'knowledge, and its last. How he begins to degrade, to
' deny, and to mock ! The man, who on examining his own
' mind, finds nothing of inspiration, ought not to dare to be
' an artist : he is a fool, and a cunning knave suited to the
' purposes of evil demons. The man who never in his mind
' and thought travelled to heaven, is no artist. It is evident
' that Reynolds wished none but fools to be in the arts ;
' and in order to this, he calls all others vague enthusiasts
' or madmen. What has reasoning to do with the art of
' painting ? '
Characteristic opinions are the following: â
' Knowledge of ideal beauty is not to be acquired. It is
' born with us. Innate ideas are in every man, born with
' him ; they are truly himself. The man who says that we
' have no innate ideas must be a fool and knave ; having no
' conscience, or innate science.' And yet it is a question
metaphysicians have been discussing since metaphysics
Again : ' One central form composed of all other forms
' being granted, it does not therefore follow that all other
' forms are deformity. All forms are perfect in the poet's
' mind : but these are not abstracted or compounded from
'nature; they are from imagination.'
-KT. 63.] OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS, 31I
On some of the more technical points respecting art, Blake
observes : ' No one can ever design till he has learned the
' language of Art by making many finished copies both of
' Nature and Art, and of whatever comes in his way, from
' earliest childhood. The difference between a bad artist and
' a good is, that the bad artist seems to copy a great deal, the
'good one does copy a great deal.'
' To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the
great distinction of merit.'
' Servile copying is the great merit of copying.
'Execution is the Chariot of Genius.'
' Invention depends altogether upon execution or organiza-
' tion. As that is right or wrong, so is the invention perfect
'or imperfect. Michael Angelo's art depends on Michael
' Angelo's execution altogether.'
' Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.'
' Passion and expression are beauty itself. The face that
' is incapable of passion and expression is deformity itself,
' let it be painted and patched and praised and advertised for
' ever. It will be admired only by fools.'
With strong reprobation our annotator breaks forth when
Sir Joshua quotes Vasari to the effect that Albert Durer
' would have been one of the finest painters of his age, if,'
&c. 'Albert Diirer is not "would have been!" Besides,
' let them look at Gothic figures and Gothic buildings, and
' not talk of " Dark Ages," or of any " Ages ! " Ages are
' all equal, but genius is always above its Age,'
'A sly dog!' 'He makes little concessions that he may
take great advantages,' says Blake, apropos of the remark
that the Venetians, notwithstanding their surpassing ex-
cellence as colourists, did not attain to the 'great style,' but,
with 'splendour' of manner, concealed poverty of meaning.
' If the Venetian's outline xvere right, his shadows would
destroy it,' persists Blake. And finally, unable to give vent
to the full measure of his contempt in plain prose, he breaks
out into an epigram : â
312 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [1820.
On the Venetian Painter.
He makes the lame to walk we all agree ;
But then he strives to blind all who can see !
Many readers of the .present day, who have learned
to almost worship the transcendant Venetian painters â .
Giorgione, Titian, Tintoret, Veronese, not to speak of the
Bellini, Carpaccio, &c. â may be startled to note Blake's
pertinacious scorn of them. Such readers will do well to
remember that Blake, who had never been abroad, must have
formed his idea of the Venetians almost wholly from en-
gravings, and from what writers like Reynolds say of
the characteristics of the school. ' He had picked up his
notions of Titian,' says Mr. Palmer, ' from picture-dealers'
" Titians ! " '
When Reynolds speaks of Fresco as 'a mode of painting
which excludes attention to minute elegancies,' Blake ob-
serves, ' This is false, /r^j^^-painting is the most minute. It
is like miniature-painting. A wall is a large ivory.'
In the Fifth Discourse we are told that Raphael 'was never
able ' (in his easel-pictures) ' to conquer perfectly that dry-
' ness, or even littleness of manner, which he inherited from
' his master.' Upon which, Blake : ' He who does not admire
Raphael's execution does not even see Raphael ! ' And the
assertion that Raphael owes the grandeur of his style, and
much else, to Michael Angelo, is met by a favourite simile of
Blake's : ' I believe this no more than I believe that the rose
' teaches the lily how to grow, or that the apple teaches the
' pear tree how to bear fruit.'
Prefatory to the same Discourse Blake writes, ' Gains-
' borough told a gentleman of rank and fortune that the
' worst painters always chose the grandest subjects. I de-
' sired the gentleman to set Gainsborough about one of
' Raphael's grandest subjects, namely, Christ delivering the
* Keys to St. Peter; and he would find that in Gainsborough's
A'.T. 63.] OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 313
' hands it would be a vulgar subject of poor fishermen and a
'journeyman carpenter. The following Discourse is written
' with the same end in view Gainsborough had in making the
' above assertion ; namely, to represent vulgar artists as the
' models of executive merit.'
And again : ' Real effect is making out the parts. Why
' are we to be told that masters who could think, had not the
'judgment to perform the inferior parts of art ? (as Reynolds
' artfully calls them) ; that we are to learn to think from great
' masters, and to perform from underlings â to learn to design
' from Raphael, and to execute from Rubens } '
Blake had, in truth, just personal grounds for speaking
with indignant emphasis on this topic. * The lavish praise I
' have received from all quarters, for invention and drawing,'
says he elsewhere, ' has generally been accompanied by this :
' " He can conceive, but he cannot execute," This absurd
' assertion has done, and may still do me, the greatest
In the MS. note-book are some stray verses, manifestly the
overflowings of the same mood as these notes. We .shall be
best able to appreciate their vigour of meaning, and tolerate
the occasional hobbling of the verse, by taking them in
connexion with the foregoing : â
Raphael, sublime, majestic, graceful, wise, â
His executive power must I despise?
Rubens, low, vulgar, stupid, ignorant, â
His power of execution I must grant !
The cripple every step drudges and labours,
And says, * Come, learn to walk of me, good neighbours ! '
Sir Joshua, in astonishment, cries out,
* See what great labour springs from modest doubt ! '
Call that the public voice which is their error?
Like as a monkey, peeping in a mirror,
Admireth all his colours brown and warm,
And never once perceives his ugly form.
314 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE. [1S20.
On Sir Joshua again : â
No real style of colouring now appears,
Save thro' advertisements in the newspapers ;
Look there â you'll see Sir Joshua's colouring :
Look at his picturesâ all has taken wing.
I think it may not be superfluous to take into account
here, as we did when first alluding to these notes on Reynolds,
all the sources of Blake's hostility towards the universally
admired and extolled Prince of English Portrait-painting.
The deepest of these was the honest contempt of a man with
high spiritual aims for one whose goal, though honourable,
and far above the common attainment, was at as widely
different an altitude from Blake's as the mere earthly hill-toj)
from the star which shines dov/n upon it. Hence the entire
antagonism of their views; for such different ends must be
reached by wholly different means. It is no invalidation of
this high claim for Blake to add that the vivid contrast
of their respective lots was another source ; for recognition- is
dear to every gifted man, however unworldly, however sincere
his indifference to those goods of fortune which ordinarily
accompany recognition, but are the mere accidents of which
that is the precious substance.
There was also, I am bound to confess (and it is not much
to confess either), some personal antipathy in the case which
added, doubtless, an extra dash of sharpness to the flavour of
these pungent notes, and would seem to have originated in
an interview (probably anterior to the one already described),
at which Blake's experiences were not wholly of Sir Joshua's
' blandness.' ' Once I remember his talking to me of
Reynolds,' writes a surviving friend : ' he became furious at
' what the latter had dared to say of h.is early works. When
' a very young man he had called on Reynolds to show him
'some designs, and had been recommended to work with less
' extravagance and more simplicity, and to correct his dravv-
' ing. This Blake seemed to regard as an affront never to be