William Blake believed he had visions of spiritual entities throughout his life, and this painting is the result of one of these ‘visitations’. The artist and astrologer John Varley reported that Blake had painted the figure as he saw him, ‘his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hands to hold blood and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green’, and that the flea spirit told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. Blake also completed a head study and a full-figure sketch of the flea spirit.
The Ghost of a Flea
Original: Tempera and gold on mahogany 21.4 x 16.2 cm Tate. Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet and artist. Blake trained as an engraver and had a career in etching, engraving and illustration. Although he exhibited his watercolours at the Royal Academy, from 1780 he railed against academic art, insisting instead on individual inspiration. His own style was influenced by Gothic sculpture and Michelangelo’s figures. Although he received little public recognition in his lifetime, he has since been hailed as one of Britain’s greatest artists, and celebrated for his anti-slavery and pro-equality views.