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  • Writer's pictureBen Samuel

William Blake's Visionary heads

Throughout his life William Blake claimed to have seen visions of people from the remote past, as well as deceased friends.

William Blake (1757 – 1827) the only known self-portrait of Blake painted when he was around 45 years old

"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!" William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

In 1818 Blake met John Varley (1778–1842) who, fascinated by Blake's visions persuaded him to draw them. From 1819 to 1820 the two would regularly meet at Varley's house where Varley would request that Blake summon a "spirit", upon the appearance of the spirit, Blake would take up his pencil and paper and attempt to draw it. Sometimes the sitter would move or disappear entirely, displeased with Blake's portrait. Other times Blake would sit drawing and conversing with them.

Visionary Head of Caractacus (c. 1819) From The Small Blake–Varley Sketchbook

"You can see what I do if you choose. Work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done." William Blake (1757 – 1827)

Varely provided Blake with sketchbooks to collect his visionary heads together. There are thought to be three though one has not yet been discovered.

The Small Blake–Varley Sketchbook (discovered in 1967)

The Large Blake–Varley Sketchbook (discovered in 1989)

The Folio Blake–Varley Sketchbook (not yet discovered)

Visionary Head of Harold killed at the Battle of Hastings (c.1819) From The Small Blake–Varley Sketchbook

“I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination.” William Blake (1757 – 1827)

Drawings from The Small Blake–Varley Sketchbook...

Ghost of a flea, head in profile (c.1819)

The Man who Built the Pyramids (c.1819)

The Man who Built the Pyramids (c. 1819)

Head of Cancer (c.1820)

Drawings from The Large Blake–Varley Sketchbook...

The Great Earl of Warwick Brother to Edward the 4th Drawn by Wm Blake (c.1819)

Colonel Blood who attempted to steal the Crown (c.1819)

Wat Tyler by Wm Blake, from his spectre (c.1918)

Drawing from The Folio Blake–Varley Sketchbook. not discovered whole...

Corinna the Rival of Pindar and Corinna the Grecian Poetess (c.1820)

Loose Visionary Heads (c.1819 - 1825). There are more than 50 loose visionary heads...

Uriah the Husband of Bathsheba and Bathsheba (c.1820)

Head of Job (c. 1823)

Joseph and Mary & the room They were seen in (c.1820)

Queen Eleanor (c.1820)

The Assassin lying dead at the feet of Edward I & Saladin (c.1820)

William Wallace & Edward Ist (c. 1819)

Visionary Head of Edward III? (c.1819)

"Blaze in each countenance, and fire the battle. The enemy fight in chains, invisible chains, but heavy; Their minds are fetter'd, then how can they be free? While, like the mounting flame, We spring to battle o'er the floods of death! And these fair youths, the flow'r of England, Venturing their lives in my most righteous cause, O sheathe their hearts with triple steel, that they May emulate their fathers' virtues." - From King Edward III by a young William Blake

Gray the Poet & Friar Bacon (c.1820)

Old Tom Parr when Young (c. 1820)

Spirit of Voltaire by Blake (c. 1820)

A Visionary Head (c.1819-20)

Imagination of A man who Mr Blake has recd instruct[ion] in Painting &c from [sic], counterproof (c.1819). It has been noted that this head bares a striking resemblance to the self portrait attributed to Blake above.

Some other Visionary Heads...

The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20)

"the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men, as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess."

The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819–20)

"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." John Varley (1778–1842)
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