A Visionary Head, for Varley
6 x 8 inches
William Christian Selle, thence to Selle's daughter;
William Bell Scott (1870);
Miss Alice Boyd, Penkill Castle;
Miss Eleanor Margaret Courtney-Boyd;
Miss Evelyn May Courtney-Boyd;
Tate Gallery, 1969-1971
Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (1981), 692, 79-80
This little drawing is one of William Blake's 'Visonary Heads', a series of mythological, historical and imaginary characters drawn at the encouragement of his fellow painter and close companion, John Varley. According to Blake's biographer, Varley urged his friend to capture likenesses of 'spiritual visitants', supernatural personalities whom Varley would summon 'during the favourable and fitting hours of the night; from nine or ten in the evening to one or two, perhaps three and four o'clock in the morning' (Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake). If the names Moses, Julius Caesar, or Edward III were invoked, Blake would 'begin drawing with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him'.
Based on its size, this drawing likely belonged in the 'Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook' - chronologically the first of three Visionary Heads sketchbooks - which also contained the original sketch on which Blake based his famous Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-1820). While this figure seems to relate to Blake's imagining of Greek lyric poet Corinna, who appears in the later Folio Blake-Varley Sketchbook (c. 1820), it also bears some resemblance to Blake's drawing of the courtesan Lais (Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, p. 711, ca. 1820).
John Varley kept the sketchbook containing our drawing until his death, when it was given to his son, Albert Varley. It was purchased in 1870 by artist William Bell Scott, who produced William Blake: Etchings from His Works (1878); it then fell into the possession of Alice Boyd of Penkill Castle, where Scott died in 1890.