This Week’s Romantic Objects Seminar in London: Blake and Varley

Posted in books, exhibitions, lectures (to attend) by Editor on June 13, 2011

Philippa Simpson and Sibylle Erle, Varley’s Visionary Heads and Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea
Institute of English Studies, University of London, 15 June 2011

William Blake, "The Ghost of a Flea," ca. 1819-20, tempera heightened with gold on mahogany support (London: Tate Britain)

Romantic Objects is a seminar series that runs over two terms (Spring and Summer) on Wednesdays 5:30-7:30, as part of the inter-university seminar in Romantic Studies at Senate House, co-organized by Birkbeck and the Open University at the Institute of English Studies. This series of seminars will rethink Romantic period material culture in the tension between Romantic attempts to recenter aesthetic experience as subjective just as a new culture of exhibitions, viewing, and collecting practices defines the centrality of objects. The aim is to provide a forum for graduate students, scholars, and curators working in the period 1750-1850 or on questions relating to objects, exhibitions, material culture.

This week’s seminar features Dr Philippa Simpson (Tate Britain) and Dr Sibylle Erle (Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln) on John Varley’s Visionary Heads and William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea. Erle and Simpson curated the current display of Blake and Physiognomy at Tate Britain. Erle is the author of Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (2010). Simpson, an expert in late eighteenth-century exhibition culture and the
reception of the old masters, co-curated the exhibition Turner and the
. The seminar takes place Wednesday, 15 June, 17:30-19:30, in
STB8 Stewart House, basement, 32 Russell Square. All are welcome!

Alexander Gilchrist, Life of Blake (1863), pp. 249-57, (via Googlebooks)

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Sibylle Erle, Blake, Lavater, and Physiognomy (Oxford: Legenda, 2010), 244 pages, ISBN: 9781906540692, $89.

ISBN: 9781906540692

William Blake never travelled to the continent, and yet his creation myth is far more European than has so far been acknowledged. His early illuminated books, of the 1790s, run alongside his professional work as a copy-engraver on Henry Hunter’s translation of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789-98) — work in which Blake helped to make a likeness of a book about likenesses. For Blake, as for Lavater, Henry Fuseli, Joshua Reynolds, and others of his age, the art of the portrait was to find the right balance between likeness and type. Blake, Lavater, and Physiognomy demonstrates how the problems occurring during the production of the Hunter translation resonate in Blake’s treatment of the Genesis story. Blake takes us back to the creation of the human body, and interrogates the idea that ‘God created man after his own likeness’. He introduces the ‘Net of Religion’, a device which presses the human form into material shape, giving it personality and identity. As Erle shows, Blake’s startlingly original take on the creation myth is informed by Lavater’s pursuit of physiognomy: the search for divine likeness, traced in the faces of their contemporary men.

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Blake and Physiognomy
Tate Britain, London, 8 November 2010 — 17 April 2011

Curated by Philippa Simpson and Sibylle Erle

[There is] not a man who does not judge of all things…by their physiognomy;

that is, of their internal worth by their external appearance.

–Johann Caspar Lavater

Johann Caspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, translated into English in 1789, catalysed a vogue for the theory that people’s characters could be read in their features. Although this would seem to serve as a model of detached observation and scientific classification, Lavater saw these judgements as stemming from an instinctive understanding of expression and appearance. At the heart of his work was a strongly-held Christian belief, according to which all forms were divinely created, and derived from the one perfect God. Lavater’s ideas were also informed by eighteenth-century codes of racial stereotyping that are deeply troubling to the modern reader.

Many British artists, including William Blake, experimented with physiognomic systems in their work. Blake’s involvement, though, was closer than most. He not only engraved illustrations for the 1789 translation of Lavater’s book but, over thirty years later collaborated with his friend, artist and astrologer John Varley, on a publication entitled Zodiacal Physiognomy. This book sought to attribute character according to time of birth, and Varley used prints after Blake’s works to illustrate different star signs. These enterprises suggest that Blake’s visual language, which often seems highly innovative – even idiosyncratic – may be read in the context of broader pseudo-scientific and artistic trends.

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