Blake and Physiognomy

This new display in Room 2 of the Tate Britain collections for British Art 1500-2010 brings together a selection of Blake’s works in the context of Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and physiognomist most famous for his book, Essays on Physiognomy. Translated in 1789, this book caused something of a sensation in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe), and Blake was commissioned – along with Thomas Holloway – to engrave a number of designs made for the Essays by Lavater’s friend, Henry Fuseli.

The display has been brought together by Philippa Simpson with input from Sybille Erle, who has long worked on Blake’s illustrations to Lavater and whose book, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy was recently published by Legenda. It opens with a brief account that contextualises the ideas made popular by the Swiss writer. His illustrations to Essays on Physiognomy, begun near the start of Blake’s career, are followed immediately by designs for the so-called “Visionary Heads”, the series of drawings and famous tempera painting of the Ghost of a Flea that were composed at the instigation of his friend John Varley in the final years of Blake’s life. While Blake seemed to have taken a lifelong interest in the depictions of facial types that was consonant with the philosophy of Lavater, that interest was much less literal in many respects than Varley’s who, as various asides from his contemporaries made clear, believed more or less everything he heard and everything that he read.

Much of the display is comprised of selections from two series that Blake worked on: the large colour prints, including the magnificent illustrations of Nebuchadnezzar and Newton, and watercolours and engravings from the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. While Blake was immensely impressed by Lavater’s theories, having inscribed a heart around his and Lavater’s names in his own copy of the Essays, one of the most striking elements of this display is the occasional dissonance that appears to occur in Blake’s own art. Lavater suggested that through physiognomy was displayed the essential characteristics of a person’s character, and while Blake appears to have agreed with this basic tenet he also sometimes appears to turn the correspondences between psychic and physical attributes on their (so to speak) head. This is most evident in the print of Newton – in which the idealised spiritual beauty of the scientist betrays a cold, almost blind monomania rather than perfection of character – and Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils. In this latter engraving, the malebranche, or horned devils that torture Ciampolo (whose sin is to sell political influence) have faces of refined gentlemen, offering a satirical cast on Blake’s use of physiognomy to reflect character.

As the curators make clear, if very subtly, though Lavater was considered one of the mildest of men his pseudo-scientific theories also contained disturbing aspects, most notably his anti-semitism. Lavater believed, for example, that by conversion to Christianity Jews would see their features slowly become less “jewish”, and once or twice the immensely philo-semitic Blake appears to pander to this crass prejudice, as well as – perhaps rather understandably – the straightforward Eurocentrism of the age.

While Blake’s illustrations dominate the display, there are also works on show from Sir David Wilkie and William Hogarth, whose painting of heads of six of his servants is a delightful masterpiece. While Hogarth is obviously fascinated by the features of his servants, his interest in physiognomy does not display the same fascination in abstraction, theory and types as Lavater’s and Blake’s but captures instead vivid characters rather than correspondences. Alongside this is a print of Blake’s depiction of the Canterbury Tales, vivid and brilliant in a very different way to Hogarth’s masterly painting. In his catalogue entry for the original painting, Blake had written: ”

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter.” (E532-3) Whereas Hogarth depicted individual characters, specific to the faces of the wonderfully mundane figures in his employ at that time, for Blake the illumination of types from literature was a more important consideration for the ideal artist.

The final items on display are two versions of the famous life mask of Blake made by James Deville in 1823. Deville, who created and collected phrenological casts, wished to capture the faculties of imagination which, he assumed, were displayed most clearly in the face of Blake. The versions, in plaster and bronze, have become one of the most significant and popular images produced by Blake, influential on a wide range of later artists such as Francis Bacon and Antony Gormley – and which I have long considered his most important piece of performance art. As ever, the life mask, is a fascinating piece and also offers an ironic counterpoint to many of my own assumptions regarding the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that Lavater inspired: if physiognomy is not an index of character, particularly of the racialist strictures that it was to give rise to in the nineteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how much of my own estimation of what type of man Blake was has been formed by looking on the somwhat stern, concentrated face preserved in Deville’s remarkable cast.

Blake and Physiognomy runs until 8 May 2011. Entrance is free.

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