John Varley – an artist, astrologer and close friend of William Blake – reported in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1882) that Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.
© Tate, 2014
- Article by:
- Roger Luckhurst
- The Gothic
Roger Luckhurst challenges the idea of the 19th century as one of secularisation, exploring the popularity of mesmerism, spiritualism and 'true' ghost stories in the period.