On This Day in 1820: William Blake draws Pindar the Greek Poet and Lais the Courtesan (Visionary Heads) for John Varley (Part I)

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2020 presents yet another exciting year for Romantic bicentenaries. We’ve already shared ‘On This Day’ posts about Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Today we are delighted to present a reflection on William Blake in September 1820 by Dr Sibylle Erle (Bishop Grosseteste University).

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On This Day in 1820: 18 September, William Blake draws Pindar the Greek Poet and Lais the Courtesan (Visionary Heads) for John Varley

This Blog post has two parts. Click here to read part II.

According to its inscription, which was written by John Linnell (1792-1882), William Blake (1757-1827) drew ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ on 18 September 1820 (Butlin 1981, #711).[1] Blake drew for an audience but only Blake could see who he was drawing.

Pindar (died c. 439BC) was a well-known, now canonical, lyric poet in Ancient Greece. Blake, who mentions ‘Pindar’ in passing in An Island in the Moon (1784), would have deepened his knowledge when illustrating Thomas Gray’s poems (c.1797-98). He would have been familiar with the apocryphal stories that include Corinna, a serious rival, and possibly one-time teacher, of Pindar. The work of this obscure poet survives in fragments and her life-story is tied to Pindar’s. Lais the courtesan, however, bears no connection to Pindar and her life-dates are even more uncertain as she left no trace in history. Like Corinna, Lais was a confident woman; she interrupted Blake’s drawing session and, according to Allan Cunningham, forced Blake to draw her rather than Corinna.[2]

Blake drew his Visionary Heads in the middle of the night and for the watercolour artist and astrologer John Varley (1778-1842).[3] Linnell, who had introduced them, became involved towards the end when he did the engravings for Varley’s Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828) but, as the inscription to ‘Pindar and Lais’ suggests, Linnell may have been present when Blake drew their portraits on 18 September 1820. 

Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s Victorian biographer, describes the drawing sessions as follows:

At Varley’s house, and under his own eye, were drawn those Visionary Heads, or Spiritual Portraits of remarkable characters […]. The Visionary faculty was so much under control, that […] he could summon before his abstracted gaze any of the familiar forms and faces he was asked for. ([1907] 1998, 271-272) 

Most of the Visionary Heads were done between 1819 and 1820, but very few have dates on them; most are from October 1819 and at least two date from 1820.[4]

The Visionary Heads are pencil drawings, originating from the Blake-Varley Sketchbooks. These sketchbooks technically belonged to Varley who had begun to fill them with his own drawings.

William Blake, ‘Pindar and Lais’.

Varley showed Allan Cunningham Blake’s Visionary Heads in 1830 and Cunningham, in Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptures, and Architects (1830), mentions six of them, among them Pindar, Corinna and Lais. (Cunningham was clearly uncomfortable with the claims about Blake’s vision, talking about ‘visionary fits’ (BR2 647), and could not decide if he was telling the ‘the story of a madman’ or ‘the life of a genius’ (BR2 651-52).)  Varley said: 

Observe the poetic fervour of the face – it is Pindar as he stood a conqueror in the Olympic games. And this lovely creature is Corinna, who conquered in poetry in the same place. That lady is Lais, the courtesan – with the impudence which is part of her profession, she stept in between Blake and Corinna, and he was obliged to paint her to get her away. [… ]. (BR2 650) 

Towards the end of their conversation,  Varley reached for the most famous of all: Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20).[5] Varley, perhaps sensing Cunningham’s scepticism, got confused about who was who and in what order Blake had drawn the heads. Cunningham’s account, however, reveals the drama of what happened deep on 18 September. There is competition between Pindar and Corinna and the old story acquires an unexpected twist due to Lais who just won’t go away. Rather than interpret their encounter, I would like to suggest, that the story tells us more about Blake than his sitters. Blake treated Lais with respect and thus elevated her status and admittedly so at the expense of another woman who – going by her portrait – was just as beautiful. 

We can never know Blake’s thinking behind his decisions for the portraits of Pindar, Corinna and Lais. It seems that Lais was not supposed to ‘appear’ on the same sheet as Corinna. It is impossible to say in which order Blake made these drawings, but their provenance and inscriptions suggest that there is a connection. What is Blake’s story – did Pindar and Corinna finally make up? We will never know. 

Sibylle Erle, FRSA, FHEA, is Reader in English Literature at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. She is the author of Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (Legenda, 2010) and chapters and articles on Blake, Fuseli, Lavater, Tennyson, Ludwig Meidner and Frankenstein. She co-curated with Philippa Simpson the display ‘Blake and Physiognomy’ (2010-11) at Tate Britain, co-edited with Laurie Garrison (and contributed to) the special issue Science, Technology and the Senses (RaVoN, 2008) and co-edited with Laurie Garrison (general editor), Verity Hunt, Phoebe Putnam and Peter West Panoramas, 1787-1900: Texts and Contexts, 5 vols (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). She co-edited with Morton D. Paley The Reception of William Blake in Europe (Bloomsbury, 2019) and with Helen Hendry Monsters: Interdisciplinary Explorations in Monstrosity (special collection for Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 2019-2020). Apart from reception, her current research projects are on monsters and death (Academic and Creative Reponses to Death and Dying: How do we tell the Children?) as well as conceptualisations of ‘character’ in the Romantic period.

[1] ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ comes from the Folio Sketchbook; the disbanding started in the C19th and the drawings are inscribed by Varley, Linnell and subsequent owners.

[2] Butlin, speculating about the untitled heads, suggests that Pindar and Corinna paid several visits. (Butlin 1981, #692 80, #708, #709., #710.) Lais, the courtesan, appeared only once.

[3] In astrology twelve types are superimposed on human nature to explain contradictions in human nature, working from the time (ascendant) and day (constellation) of birth.  Varley, who was a successful astrologer (Story 1894), believed in Blake’s visions (Curry 1992). Fred Getting’s The Hidden Art (1979) includes a chapter on Blake and Varley but Getting cannot explain the figures with no historical precursors. 

[4] ‘Old Parr When Young’ (1820) is inscribed ‘Aug 1820 W. Blake fec.’ (Butlin 1981, #748).

[5] Sibylle Erle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252. 


Bentley, G.E., Jr., ‘Blake’s Murderesses: Visionary Heads of Wickedness.’ Huntington Library Quarterly, 72.1 (2009): 69-105.

—, Blake Records, second edition (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2004). Abbreviated to BR2. 

—, ‘Blake’s Visionary Heads: Lost Drawings and a Lost Book.’ In Tim Fulford (ed.), Romanticism and Millenarianism (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 183-206.

Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon 2977).

Butlin, Martin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1988).

Curry, Patrick, A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology (London: Collins & Brown 1992).

Erle, Sibylle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252.

Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake edited and with an Introduction by W. Graham Robertson (New York: Dover [1907] 1998).

Heppner, Christopher, ‘The Chamber of Prophecy: Blake’s “A Vision” (Butlin #756) Interpreted.’ Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 25.3 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 127-31.

Hayes, Tom, ‘William Blake’s Androgynous Ego-Ideal.’ ELH, 71.1 (Spring 2004), pp. 141-165.

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1971. ‘Bake’s Visionary Heads and The Ghost of a Flea.’ In Blake Studies, Essays on his Life and Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 130-136.

Mellor, Anne, ‘Physiognomy, Phrenology, and Blake’s Visionary Heads.’ In Robert Essick and Donald Ross Pearce (eds.), Blake in His Time (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 53-74.

Story, Alfred T., James Holmes and John Varley (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1894).