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The present drawing is an example of one of Blake's 'Visionary Heads' and also his complete figures, imagined by the artist for his friend the landscape painter and teacher John Varley (1778-1842). Varley's superstitious nature was well-known and a drawing by the two artists' mutual friend John Linnell (1792-1882) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, typifies the two artists' relationship, Varley vivacious and credulous, Blake sceptical (see G.E. Bentley, Jnr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake, New Haven and London, 2001, pl. 118 B).
Most if not all of the drawings were executed at night at Varley's home; dated examples range from October 1819 to 1825. Some were drawn in two sketchbooks that had first been used by Varley for his own landscape drawings. Further examples seem to have been in a larger folio sketchbook and others on separate sheets of paper. The present drawing is from what is known as the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook.
At the time of its first publication in 1969 the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook was the only one known; it was then thought to have been the one from the collection of Varley's brother-in-law the painter William Mulready. However, with the appearance of the Large Blake-Varley Sketchbook in 1989 it was realized that the early provenance should be transferred to that sketchbook. The Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook is now known to have passed from John Varley to 'A young friend who had married the daughter of a companion of Varley, a fellow-artist, a musician who taught at the same seminary...'; this was William Christian Selle (W.B. Scott, 'A Varley-and-Blake Sketch-Book', The Portfolio, II, 1871, pp. 103-5). A note by Scott inside the back cover of the sketchbook confirms that he was given the book in 1870 by Keats' and Shelley's editor, H. Buxton Forman. The evolving history of the sketchbook can be traced in Butlin op. cit., 1969 and 1981 for the Small Book and Christie's sale catalogue, 21 March 1989 with text by Laura Keen for the Large Book, and G.E. Bentley, Jnr., Blake Records, 2nd ed., New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 346-69 for his reconstruction of the Folio Blake-Varley Sketchbook.
While most of the Visionary Heads are of classical, biblical or historical heads or personages, some were of personifications such as The Ghost of a Flea or The Man who Built the Pyramids and a few, like this example, embody more than one figure. It is difficult to make out the subject of the present example. What appears to be an angel raises his arms, behind which two wings can be seen, unless indeed they are rising flames or emanations of divine inspiration. The other figure seems to have just approached him with arm outstretched as if to indicate from whence he has come; his head is silhouetted against what seems to be a large halo. Alternatively, this second figure could be female. Behind runs a line of regularly shaped hills or perhaps pyramids.
The reference to Hotspur and his need to keep himself 'collected' may refer to a lost drawing on the missing facing page; stubbs of paper remain to show where papers have been cut out of the sketchbook and in some cases such drawings can be identified (see Butlin, op. cit., 1981, p. 506, nos. 692 a-d) but not in this case. A further inscription concerning Hotspur recurs on another page, again facing one that has been removed (Butlin, op.cit., 1981, p. 505, no. 692 131). There is what is presumably a different head of Hotspur in the large Blake-Varley Sketchbook (p. 60, illustrated in Christie's catalogue, 21 March 1987) and a counterproof taken from this drawing (Private Collection, U.S.A.), Butlin, op.cit. 1981, p. 523, no. 746, pl. 756.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Signature: With indistinct inscription in the hand of John Varley 'Hotspur...' and further indistinctly inscribed (recto) and with indistinct inscription in the hand of John Varley 'it is allways [sic] to keep yourself collected' (verso)
(Sketchbook) London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, The Works of William Blake, 1876, no. 318.
(Sketchbook) London, Tate Gallery, 1969-1971.
M. Butlin, The Blake-Varley Sketchbook of 1819 in the Collection of M.D.E. Clayton-Stamm, London, 1969, p. 24, illus.
M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven
and London, 1981, pp. 499-50, no. 692 (53, 54).
John Varley (as part of a sketchbook).
William Christian Selle (as part of a sketchbook), and by descent to his son-in-law, Henry Buxton Forman, by 1864 (as part of a sketchbook), by whom given to William Bell Scott, poet, painter and writer, by 1870 (as part of a sketchbook), by whom given to Miss Alice Boyd, of Penkill Castle, Ayrshire, by 1897 (as part of a sketchbook), and by descent in the family until 1967, when sold to
M.D.E. Clayton-Stamm; Christie's, London, 15 June 1971, lot 157.
William Blake is remembered as both a talented Romantic painter and a poet—he entered drawing school and began writing poetry around the same time in his adolescence. By age 20, Blake was thought to have written some of the finest lyrical poetry in the English language. He apprenticed for seven years with the engraver James Basire. In addition to engravings, Blake made drawings, watercolors, and small paintings in tempera. In 1788, he developed a process of etching that allowed him to combine an etching and text on the same printing plate, gaining unprecedented layout control of the printed page. Blake was deeply religious and believed that art could elevate the spirit. His most popular works were Biblical subjects, and illustrations inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
British, 1757-1827, London, United Kingdom, based in London, United Kingdom