The present drawing is an example of one of Blake's 'Visionary Heads' and also his complete figures, imagined by the artist for his friend the landscape painter and teacher John Varley (1778-1842). Varley's superstitious nature was well-known and a drawing by the two artists' mutual friend John Linnell (1792-1882) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, typifies the two artists' relationship, Varley vivacious and credulous, Blake sceptical (see G.E. Bentley, Jnr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake, New Haven and London, 2001, pl. 118 B).
Most if not all of the drawings were executed at night at Varley's home; dated examples range from October 1819 to 1825. Some were drawn in two sketchbooks that had first been used by Varley for his own landscape drawings. Further examples seem to have been in a larger folio sketchbook and others on separate sheets of paper. The present drawing is from what is known as the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook.
At the time of its first publication in 1969 the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook was the only one known; it was then thought to have been the one from the collection of Varley's brother-in-law the painter William Mulready. However, with the appearance of the Large Blake-Varley Sketchbook in 1989 it was realized that the early provenance should be transferred to that sketchbook. The Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook is now known to have passed from John Varley to 'A young friend who had married the daughter of a companion of Varley, a fellow-artist, a musician who taught at the same seminary...'; this was William Christian Selle (W.B. Scott, 'A Varley-and-Blake Sketch-Book', The Portfolio, II, 1871, pp. 103-5). A note by Scott inside the back cover of the sketchbook confirms that he was given the book in 1870 by Keats' and Shelley's editor, H. Buxton Forman. The evolving history of the sketchbook can be traced in Butlin op. cit., 1969 and 1981 for the Small Book and Christie's sale catalogue, 21 March 1989 with text by Laura Keen for the Large Book, and G.E. Bentley, Jnr., Blake Records, 2nd ed., New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 346-69 for his reconstruction of the Folio Blake-Varley Sketchbook.
While most of the Visionary Heads are of classical, biblical or historical heads or personages, some were of personifications such as The Ghost of a Flea or The Man who Built the Pyramids and a few, like this example, embody more than one figure. It is difficult to make out the subject of the present example. What appears to be an angel raises his arms, behind which two wings can be seen, unless indeed they are rising flames or emanations of divine inspiration. The other figure seems to have just approached him with arm outstretched as if to indicate from whence he has come; his head is silhouetted against what seems to be a large halo. Alternatively, this second figure could be female. Behind runs a line of regularly shaped hills or perhaps pyramids.
The reference to Hotspur and his need to keep himself 'collected' may refer to a lost drawing on the missing facing page; stubbs of paper remain to show where papers have been cut out of the sketchbook and in some cases such drawings can be identified (see Butlin, op. cit., 1981, p. 506, nos. 692 a-d) but not in this case. A further inscription concerning Hotspur recurs on another page, again facing one that has been removed (Butlin, op.cit., 1981, p. 505, no. 692 131). There is what is presumably a different head of Hotspur in the large Blake-Varley Sketchbook (p. 60, illustrated in Christie's catalogue, 21 March 1987) and a counterproof taken from this drawing (Private Collection, U.S.A.), Butlin, op.cit. 1981, p. 523, no. 746, pl. 756.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.