On This Day in 1820: The Visionary Heads and William Blake’s attitude towards Death (Part II)

Yesterday, we marked 200 years since William Blake drew ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ on 18 September 1820.

Today, Dr Sibylle Erle (Bishop Grosseteste University) continues her reflection on Blake’s Visionary Heads…

Portrait of William Blake (c.1802-03), Tate.

On This Day in 1820: The Visionary Heads and William Blake’s attitude towards Death

This Blog post has 2 parts. Click here to view part 1.

This blog discusses Blake’s Visionary Heads not as a spiritual phenomenon[1] but as an expression of continuing bonds and Blake’s attitude towards death. If we think of the drawing sessions not as séances but as contacts with the spiritual world, Blake’s vision about life after death will come into focus. While the early heads were created in a séance-like ambience, as noted by Bentley (2004 363, 366), the later ones are different. By 1820, the wild, mad and eccentric Blake had calmed down; his new-found serenity, according to Bentley, is reflected in the faces of the later Visionary Heads (2002, 184).[2]

Blake’s first biographer Benjamin Heath Malkin notes that Blake resented drawing from life and spoke of it ‘as looking more like death’ (quoted in Bentley 2004, 564). Many will agree that in Blake’s sketches it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the living and the dead, though there are some differences for knowledgeable viewers, for example it is the dead who float and disobey the laws of gravity in Blake’s paintings. Blake was deeply interested in the relationship between life and death. For him, they weren’t opposites; they were connected as two states of being. Blake is known to have talked to his ‘dead’, younger brother Robert all his life. He never forgot the dead; the dead were never far away. To console William Hayley, who had lost his son Thomas Alphonso at the age of 19, Blake wrote a letter of condolence (6 May 1800), telling the distraught father about the afterlife: 

I am very sorry for your immense loss […] I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago. I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit […] Forgive me for expressing to you my Enthusiasm which I wish all to partake of Since it is to me a Source of Immortal Joy even in this world by it I am the companion of Angels. (E705) 

John Linnell, ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams’ (after William Blake), Tate.

Maybe it was less about seeing than talking to the dead for Blake. When in Felpham, a little village on the south coast, and working for William Hayley, to escape from the mundane drudgery, Blake went to the shore to talk with the dead from lives past: ‘Here he forgot the present moment and lived in the past; he conceived, verily, that he had loved in other days, and had formed friendships with Homer and Moses; with Pindar and Virgil; with Dante and Milton.’ (BR2 640)

Often associated with Blake’s Visionary Heads and dating from around the same time is Blake’s ‘A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet’ (c.1819-20), another drawing in the Tate Collection. It is also referred to as ‘Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall’ (Heppner 1991-92). 

William Blake, ‘A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall’), Tate.

In Butlin, the image is listed among the Visionary Heads and just after ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Drawing in His Dreams’, although style and spatial organisation of this drawing are completely different (1981, #756). Heppner’s motivation for suggesting a new title, moves the image closer to the Visionary Heads. Heppner, associating the scene with 2 Kings and the story of Elisha and the woman of Shunem, argues that the image represents the setting in which Elisha prophecies that the woman will bear a son. This story about a miracle, within the reach of an Old Testament Prophet, already contains the kernel for another miracle; this son will die, and Elisha will resurrect him from the dead. Blake’s juxtaposition of life and death, through a story from the Bible, is also captured in the design as this chamber looks like a tabernacle, which is a secure box designed to hold consecrated bread from the Eucharist, in a Catholic Church. The consecrated bread is believed to contain the real presence of Christ and the fact that the tabernacle contains the consecrated element is indicated by a perpetually burning candle, often suspended above the tabernacle. The drawing was given by Catherine Blake to Frederick Tatham who also owned a head which could be Christ (Butlin 1981, #758). 

When Blake died in 1827 he was cheerful. He had been poorly for some time; his health was failing and we could say that he had accepted the inevitable. I think that Blake’s death is consistent with his life. There is something trusting, if not child-like, in the description of the final hours as reported in Gilchrist’s biography.

William Blake, ‘The Ghost of a Flea’, Tate.

Sibylle Erle, FRSA, FHEA, is Reader in English Literature at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. She is the author of Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (Legenda, 2010) and chapters and articles on Blake, Fuseli, Lavater, Tennyson, Ludwig Meidner and Frankenstein. She co-curated with Philippa Simpson the display ‘Blake and Physiognomy’ (2010-11) at Tate Britain, co-edited with Laurie Garrison (and contributed to) the special issue Science, Technology and the Senses (RaVoN, 2008) and co-edited with Laurie Garrison (general editor), Verity Hunt, Phoebe Putnam and Peter West Panoramas, 1787-1900: Texts and Contexts, 5 vols (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). She co-edited with Morton D. Paley The Reception of William Blake in Europe (Bloomsbury, 2019) and with Helen Hendry Monsters: Interdisciplinary Explorations in Monstrosity (special collection for Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 2019-2020). Apart from reception, her current research projects are on monsters and death (Academic and Creative Reponses to Death and Dying: How do we tell the Children?) as well as conceptualisations of ‘character’ in the Romantic period.

[1] Blake’s Visionary Heads have been discarded as an example of eccentric or explained as a practical joke (Keynes 1971; Bindman 1977; Butlin 1981). With regard to influence, the drawings are testimony for Blake’s awareness of European art. Bentley (2009), moreover, identified The Newgate Calendar and Celebrated Trials as sources for the portraits of the murderesses. 

[2] Gilchrist, who thought of the drawings as moral statements, noted that it was easy to tell the bad from the good ([1907] 1998, 273).  Anne Mellor (1978) read Blake’s Visionary Heads through the artistic and pseudo-scientific practices of physiognomy (Lavater) and phrenology (Spurzheim) and raised awareness of ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams’. Tom Hayes (2004) discusses this Visionary Head and Portrait of William Blake (c.1802-03) as self-searching, androgynous self-portraits.


Bentley, G.E., Jr., ‘Blake’s Murderesses: Visionary Heads of Wickedness.’ Huntington Library Quarterly, 72.1 (2009): 69-105.

—, Blake Records, second edition (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2004). Abbreviated to BR2. 

—, ‘Blake’s Visionary Heads: Lost Drawings and a Lost Book.’ In Tim Fulford (ed.), Romanticism and Millenarianism(New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 183-206.

Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon 2977).

Butlin, Martin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1988).

Curry, Patrick, A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology (London: Collins & Brown 1992).

Erle, Sibylle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252.

Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake edited and with an Introduction by W. Graham Robertson (New York: Dover [1907] 1998).

Heppner, Christopher, ‘The Chamber of Prophecy: Blake’s “A Vision” (Butlin #756) Interpreted.’ Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 25.3 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 127-31.

Hayes, Tom, ‘William Blake’s Androgynous Ego-Ideal.’ ELH, 71.1 (Spring 2004), pp. 141-165.

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1971. ‘Bake’s Visionary Heads and The Ghost of a Flea.’ In Blake Studies, Essays on his Life and Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 130-136.

Mellor, Anne, ‘Physiognomy, Phrenology, and Blake’s Visionary Heads.’ In Robert Essick and Donald Ross Pearce (eds.), Blake in His Time (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 53-74.

Story, Alfred T., James Holmes and John Varley (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1894).

1 thought on “On This Day in 1820: The Visionary Heads and William Blake’s attitude towards Death (Part II)

  1. Keri Davies

    Terrific stuff. As always I have to put a Moravian slant on things.

    At the Moravian chapel in Fetter Lane, from the time that Blake’s mother was part of the Congregation until many years later, the pulpit was entered from the adjoining Hall, not from a staircase within the Chapel, and thus formed a little room within the great room of the Chapel. The resemblance to Elisha’s Chamber on the Wall, as in 2 Kings 4: 10, may be deliberate.

    Furthermore, towards the end of the 1740s and in the early 1750s Moravian spirituality became increasingly focused on the Communion. A frequently used image was that of Elisha, who when reviving a dead boy put his mouth upon the boy’s mouth and stretched himself upon him so that the child’s flesh became warm. In a sermon in 1747 Zinzendorf spoke thus of the Communion: “It is therefore an act when the Saviour spreads over a soul, like Elisha over the boy, so that what happens to these two, to the Bridegroom and the Bride, to the Lamb and the Soul, what the Saviour says in Matthew 19:5: ‘they will become one flesh’.”

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