Sunday, 17 March 2013

William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea

The Ghost of a Flea is a miniature painting by the English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake, held in the Tate Gallery, London. Measuring only 8.42 inches x 6.3 inches (21.4 x 16.2 cm), it is executed in a tempera mixture with gold, on a mahogany-type tropical hardwood panel. Completed between 1819 and 1820, it is part of a series of works depicting "Visionary Heads" commissioned by the watercolourist and astrologist John Varley (1788–1842). Fantastic, spiritual art was popular in Britain from around 1770 to 1830, and during this time Blake often worked on unearthly, supernatural panels to amuse and amaze his friends.

In both his artwork and poetry, Blake often gave personality and human form to such abstractions as time, death, plague and famine. Fleas are often associated with uncleanliness and degradation; in this work, the artist sought to magnify a flea into "a monsterous creature whose bloodthirsty instinct was imprinted on every detail of its appearance, with 'burning eyes which long for moisture', and a 'face worthy of a murderer'."

When Alan Cunningham visited Varley in connection with the chapter on Blake for his Lives, published in 1830, he was shown the tempera, which Varley suggested was the product of a second visitation. ‘“I'll tell you all about it sir”’, reports Cunningham. ‘“I called upon him one evening and found Blake more than usually excited. He told me he had seen a wonderful thing - the ghost of a flea! ‘And did you make a drawing of him?’ I inquired. ‘No indeed’ said he, ‘I wish I had, but I shall, if he appears again!’ He looked earnestly into a corner of the room, and then said, ‘here he is - reach me my things - I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! 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;’ - as he described him so he drew him.”’ Varley's account, though an accurate description of the painting, may be a fanciful one; Blake could well have worked up the painting from the drawing. Another locale for the execution of one of the versions of ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ is suggested by Walter Thornbury in his British Artists from Hogarth to Turner, 1861, 1, p.28: ‘the house of the father of my old friend, Leigh, the artist’ (Samuel Leigh, father of James Mathews Leigh, where ‘Blake was a frequent visitor’), but this seems unlikely both for the two drawings in the sketchbook, which seem to have been done at Varley's, and for the tempera, according to Varley painted at Blake's own house.
Martin Butlin

What kind of a flea is this? The point of a flea is that it is peskily small, and, from a physical point of view, utterly insignificant. As John Donne once wrote to his lover, mockingly, and in a characteristically unholy mood: "Mark but this flea, and mark in this /How little that which thou deniest me is..." A flea is utterly risible on account of its size, and, being small, it is therefore a thing of almost no consequence. It exists only to torment us.

This flea, on the other hand, looks quite the opposite. This self-vaunting monster looks like a creature of some moment, not to be easily cast aside or screwed into nothingness beneath a careful thumb. Fully embodied, it is striding the boards of what almost looks like a stage set (see those magical, drape-like trees – if that is what they are - to left and to right of it) – stepping out like a great Shakespearean actor. Its look is violently purposeful. Its huge ear sweeps back and up like an elaborate architectural feature. Its fingers are long and violently flexing. It stares long and long into the rimmed, bucket-like acorn cup that it is gingerly carrying in its left hand, as if summoning the future. In its right, it holds a nasty curling thorn. It has all the tremendous muscular allure of a male nude by Michelangelo. Malignity writ large then. Yes, it seems to have all heaven in its tow: all those shooting stars, fresh snatched from some tree in the children's nursery, look as if they are dancing attendance upon it as they fizz and roar at its back. It looks like some magician that is about to yank a trick out of its acorn cup. In short, it has a wonderful, commanding presence. The natural world seems to pivot about it. This flea is determined to get somewhere.
Michael Glover

William Blake was a known Freemason and famously wanted to build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land in his poem. I don't know if there is any connection with the Reptilian theories and Zionism though?

Thanks for the info. I know Blake was a deeply into religion, but after recently reading the background on the "Flea" piece above, it definitely sounds like Blake had some clairvoyant abilities and encountered an entity for which this form is known for.

I've been viewing Freemasonry from a more neutral standpoint as of late, understanding that these societies mainly provide the knowledge and tools, while the intention behind their use stems from the hand and heart of the individual.

I know Icke has come under accusations of antisemitism when speaking on Zionism. These accusations are a common knee-jerk reaction that others place on those who disagree with the ridiculous belief of Zionism. Which I feel is made even more absurd by the fact that it originates from a race that had millions of it's people exterminated by another group who saw themselves as a "chosen people". No one chooses what race, culture or time period they are born into when they enter this world. No race, religion or bloodline is entitled to any portion of land. Nonetheless, man still chooses to take.

Is it too hard to realize that we're all together in this big mess of a world? Can't we just hug it out? (C'mon 'Flea', you too.) :D
2x helix

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