Blake and Varley
Blake’s friendship with the artist and astrologer John Varley (1778–1842) is one of the most unusual and intriguing of all Blake’s unusual and intriguing friendships. They first met in 1818, when they were living as near-neighbours in London, and it is Varley we have to thank for the remarkable series of drawings of ‘Visionary Heads’ that Blake made, in the company of Varley, over a number of late-night (or rather early morning) meetings – or ‘seances’ as some people called them – that they had, usually at Varley’s house, 10 Great Titchfield Street, off Oxford Street, which was near to Blake’s in South Molton Street. These drawings included the famous image of ‘The Ghost of The Flea’; it is a rather remarkable fact that this Ghost arose out of their discussions about astrology and the possible influence of the position of the planets on both our psychology and physiognomy. The Ghost (or Spiritual Form) of the Flea, apparently, denoted ‘Gemini’.
Blake’s drawings (including that of the Flea) were used by Varley for his 1828 book A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy – the only time that Blake collaborated with someone else on the production of a book. And what an fascinating book it is: ‘Zodiacal Physiognomy’ is surely one of the most intriguing titles for a book ever. But what exactly was zodiacal physiognomy?
Signs of the Times: Astrology and Physiognomy
As Varley defines it, zodiacal physiognomy refers to the belief that the position of the zodiac at the hour of our birth influences not only our lives but our actual physical features and forms, especially our facial features – that “the precise moment of one’s birth determines one’s physiognomy as well as one’s character”, as he notes in his Preface to the book (see diagram below – it’s not from Varley, but perhaps gives an indication of the system):
In this schema Varley, like Lavater, gives particular prominence to profiles rather than full-face images: the shape and size of the forehead, nose, and chin played an important part in his readings. The second head drawn here in ink, for example, was identified in Varley’s book as ‘Capella as transmitted from Taurus’ and is, he suggests, illustrative of a bullish (Taurean) character:
This I think in itself gives us a better idea of the sorts of drawings that Blake produced in Varley’s presence – many of his ‘Visionary heads’ seem to feature unusually prominent eyes, or noses, or foreheads; or seem to be ‘types’:
This interest in astrology, and the possible connections between the planetary positions and the alignments of our faces – a sense of the intimate and invisible connections between the inner and outer – was rooted in a profound and sincere curiosity about the nature of our forms. As Adrian Bury notes, “Varley believed that astrology was a vehicle of acquiring greater knowledge, and he studied it with as much enthusiasm as he devoted to water-colour painting. He was quite convinced about the influence of the stars on human beings, and wherever he went, at whatever table he sat as guest, it was not long before he began to talk about astrology. This interest in things occult [i.e., ‘hidden’] as well as in art brought him an abiding friendship with William Blake.”
I don’t think Blake ever accepted or believed in Varley’s ‘Zodiacal’ framework as literally true (it would probably be at odds with his ideas about free will and the uniqueness and internal drivers of our particular Form, and also give too much rein to Urizen’s domain and influence – Urizen’s domain, as Damon notes, is “the stars”), but it surely seeped into their discussions and into the drawings that emerged out of them.
The Ghost of Gemini
So Blake’s Flea found its way into Varley’s Zodiacal Physiognomy, as being characteristic of the constellation ‘Gemini’, which also gives us the wonderful comment by Varley explaining its origin and nature – its ‘type’ or taxonomy. While drawing the spirit, we’re informed, the ghostly Flea apparently told Blake that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”. In the painting, it duly holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits – or perhaps an animal character marred by human traits. Such overlappings or insights, while seemingly bizarre, are actually common-place within cultures – from the Egyptian therianthropic deities to the Grimm Brothers to modern-day Disney. They are also of course the stuff of dreams.
Sometimes these extraordinary late-night drawing sessions and nocturnal visitations were in the nature of public events, as Bentley noted: “These midnight seances attracted the attention of many who otherwise would have ignored Blake, and a surprising number of lurid accounts were published about them – accounts which may, however, be substantially true. At least they are fairly consistent both with each other and with the inscriptions on the Visionary Heads themselves.”
Varley himself left accounts of the sessions, which took place almost nightly at times, often recording key dates and circumstances of the evenings. He frequently made detailed inscriptions below or on the back of Blake’s drawings, which help enormously in locating and classifying them: for example, on the back of Blake’s own drawing of Varley (below), Varley has – somehow very poignantly, across this expanse of time – written: “18.56 pm [Sagittarius] ascending”:
As the Tate Gallery (who now own the Ghost) notes, “Over a period of about six years Blake made over 100 ‘Visionary Heads’. They depict real historical figures such as medieval kings, as well as legendary characters like Merlin and a range of imagined beasts. Blake’s contemporaries debated whether his nocturnal visions were a sign of mental ill health or a charming quirk”:
The Ghost of a Flea is one of Blake’s most bizarre and famous characters. As the vision appeared to Blake he is said to have cried out: ‘There he comes!’ – his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green. John Varley watched Blake make the original sketch of this character. He also owned this painting showing the creature on a stage, flanked by curtains with a shooting star behind. Varley was a keen astrologer. He paid Linnell to engrave Blake’s drawings, including the Flea, to illustrate his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy.
While sketching the flea, Blake claimed it told him that fleas were inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men, confined to the bodies of insects because, if they were the size of horses, they would literally drain the population. Their bloodthirsty nature is shown by the eager tongue flicking at the ‘blood’ cup it carries. This intense disorientating image, the stuff of delirium and nightmare, taps into the unconscious, internalised sublime.
In his early biography of Blake (1907), Arthur Symons provided a fascinating extract from Varley’s Zodiacal Physiognomy, suggesting the close connection between Blake’s image and the Zodiacal framework:
With respect to the vision of the Ghost of the Flea, seen by Blake, it agrees in countenance with one class of people under Gemini, which sign is the significator of the Flea; whose brown colour is appropriate to the colour of the eyes in some full-toned Gemini persons. And the neatness, elasticity, and tenseness of the Flea are significant of the elegant dancing and fencing sign Gemini.
This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect. As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, ‘I see him now before me,’ I therefore gave him paper and a pencil, with which he drew the portrait, of which a facsimile is given in this number. I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it. (Varley, Zodiacal Physiognomy)
It’s notable that Varley doesn’t make anything of the literal manifestation of Blake’s depiction – he clearly doesn’t think that all Geminis are blood-thirsty insects. Presumably fleas, like any other creature, can come in all Zodiacal shapes and physiognomies. Varley (rather beautifully I think) sees in Blake’s Flea not some image of Gothic nightmare, but rather a sign of “the elegant dancing and fencing sign Gemini”, with its “neatness, elasticity, and tenseness”. Elasticity is indeed considered a characteristic of Gemini among astrological circles, along with the supposed qualities of being mercurial, impulsive, curious, adaptable, restless, changeable, and “belonging to the element of Air”: “They are fascinated with the world itself, extremely curious, with a constant feeling that there is not enough time to experience everything they want to see.”
When Blake imaginatively sees a form of being that spends its life sucking the blood of others, as “blood-thirsty” and compares it to “the souls of bloodthirsty men”, is he being anthropomorphic, or actually descriptive? Is he revealing something about the invisible and inner nature of the organisation and behaviour of the flea? It’s interesting how our “human” characteristics are spontaneously associated with or attached to particular forms of being, which indeed seem incarnations of them (or vice versa) – perhaps suggesting an underlying connection within all physiognomy, within all being. We rarely say “as elegant as an elephant”, for example. But we do say things like “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God”, “The busy bee has no time for sorrow”, “The cut worm forgives the plough”, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”, and “The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.” It is surely these connections – some deep subconscious sense or recognition of the psychology of zoology – that informs not only our myths and folklore but also our dream symbolism: an understanding of animals as instantiations or archetypes, or as having an archetypal dimension. Different forms of being do seem to be, on one level, different manifestations or “archetypes” of inner, psychological natures. We are so blinded by outsides: what Blake is suggesting, as with his ‘Spiritual Form’ of Pitt and Nelson, is the Spiritual Form of the Flea.
Linnell, Varley and Blake: an artistic Zodiacal Circle
John Linnell, who had introduced Blake to Varley (being a former pupil of the latter) was also involved in these late-night events and copied many of Blake’s ‘Visionary Heads’ to engrave them later for Varley’s Treatise. In his biography of Linnell, A.T. Story provides some useful context for these strange nocturnal sessions, noting the closeness of Varley’s connection with Linnell who, as Story remarks, had first encountered him over a decade before:
Linnell was kindly received by Varley, who carefully examined his work, and questioned him as to what instruction he had received. Greatly impressed with his abilities, he gave him all the encouragement he could, and allowed him to visit him as often as he liked. Linnell’s pupilship under Varley appears to have begun at the end of 1805 or the beginning of 1806.
The secret of Varley’s success as a teacher appears to have lain in the fact that he confined his tuition to giving a general superintendence to his pupils’ work, while infusing into them his own enthusiasm. He was undoubtedly a man of great personal qualities … a hearty, good-natured soul, full of life and vitality, and generous and unsuspicious to a fault. He had the defects of his qualities, and was accordingly easily imposed upon by the crafty. His sagacity appears to have been at fault in regard to his marriage. His wife was Esther Gisborne, a sister of John Gisborne, the friend of Shelley.
As already intimated, Linnell’s admiration for John Varley was very great. He had a high appreciation of the sterling qualities which went to the forming of his character. That Linnell must have been greatly influenced by the Varley circle and surroundings there can be no doubt.
The biographer also discloses some of the rather remarkable astrological forecasts or horoscopes that Varley made. These included successfully forecasting the date of a colleague’s marriage, a remarkable sixteen years in advance, as well as “the death of William Collins, R.A., to the very day”, and “a fatal accident to Paul Mulready, the death of Collins the artist, the injury by fire of William Volkins’s daughter, and the burning of his own house.” As Story notes:
John Varley’s bent was mainly to things of an occult nature. He was a believer in judicial astrology, and had a very creditable knowledge of the ‘science,’ if one may take the word of those who knew him. He was one of the first calculators of human probabilities of his day, and was credited with a number of very happy prognostications. Once he foretold that on a certain day he himself would be in danger from water, because under the constellation Aquarius. He resolved, therefore, not to venture out of the house that day; but, going downstairs, he fell over a bucket of water and broke his shins. Linnell used to say that, in consequence of this accident, Varley used ever afterwards to wear tin leggings.
To See a World
Blake’s striking image of the spirited Siphonaptera may also have been inspired after seeing images of fleas from the book Micrographia by the early English scientist Robert Hooke, who produced compelling illustrations based on his pioneering documentation of organisms as seen through microscopes. The march of science was gradually revealing hitherto unknown, invisible, and unsettling worlds that sparked fears about what else could exist undetected beyond the boundaries of the human senses. For an artist who saw a world in a grain of sand, this form of micrographia was evidently both intriguing and potentially revelatory – allowing us to come face to face with the physiognomies of all sorts of hidden lives and forms of beings: Blake had already explored and considered the spiritual forms of the Fly and the Tyger.
Hooke was a mapmaking pioneer, architect, astronomer, biologist, and ingenious experimenter. He was also a founding member and ‘curator of experiments’ at the Royal Society, the national academy of science – a society traditionally at the cutting edge of scientific discovery in Britain. His book – it’s full title, like that of Varley’s, is both curious and revealing: Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses – was the first important work on microscopy (the study of “minute bodies” by means of a microscope). First published in 1664, the book contains many beautiful illustrations of some of the specimens Hooke viewed under the microscopes that he designed. Among its drawings and observations is the famous and remarkably detailed large-scale illustration of a flea – an image which fills a huge fold-out page. The text celebrates the ‘beauty’ of this tiny wingless insect, ‘adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suit of sable [black] Armour’ and ‘multitudes of sharp pinns, shap’d almost like Porcupine’s Quills’. Hooke also describes the parasitic powers of ‘this little busie Creature’ which sucks ‘out the blood of an Animal, leaving the skin inflamed’.
Blake’s own magnified image of the Flea unites both ends of these ‘glasses’ – of perception – the astronomical and the microscopic. Hooke’s most famous plate folded out, so that the image of the flea became three times the size of the actual book – a similar technique, perhaps, to Blake’s equally ‘physiological’ study, telescoping one world into another.
Spiritual Forms and Physiognomies
Blake’s ‘Ghost’ of a Flea seems more focussed on its internal or psychological nature rather than simply its external physical form – hence the striking comments, or perhaps translations, that Blake made to Varley, who thankfully recorded them. Blake’s Flea may therefore be something more akin to Jungian archetypes than simply physiognomy. As one Blake commentator notes, “it is a subject of scholarly debate whether Blake’s gothic visions were creative exercises of imagination whereby he was able to summon forth a sort of Jungian archetype to be captured artistically”. The boundary between image and imagination is sometimes so porous that at times they become the same: as Alan Moore acutely observed of Blake’s image, “the world of ideas is every bit as real as the material world that surrounds us. He was living in a Romantic visionary world, where he thought that the things inside his head were as important as things in the material universe. And that’s a belief that I share.”
The exact “status” of such encounters is fascinating I think – seemingly hovering between some kind of deep archetypical facility or knowledge within Blake, and an extension of his “normal” imaginative creativity. As Morton D. Paley has suggested, perhaps these visions should be considered as forms of powerful “eidetic” imagery.
What is clear from Varley’s account is that the images Blake drew as Visionary Heads were perceived rather than invented. This phenomenon has rightly been characterised as an example of eidetic imagery. What defines an eidetic image is that it is actually seen rather than remembered or made up. As E.R. Jaensch, who pioneered the study of this subject, wrote: ‘When the influence of the imagination is at its maximum, they are ideas that, like after-images, are projected outward and literally seen.’ So when Blake would tell Varley, for example, ‘I can’t go on – it is gone! I must wait till it returns’, he was not imposing on his credulous friend, as Gilchrist believed, but reporting what he actually saw. (The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake)
But it’s details like the Ghost’s communication that “all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were by nature bloodthirsty to excess” that lend particular authenticity and sharpness to these encounters or images I think. The idea that everything has a ‘spiritual’ form – or perhaps that all forms are ultimately ‘spiritual’, that is to say, ‘psychological’. Our morphogenetic fields seem expressive of a far deeper level of identity or self than the merely physical – the ‘formal’.
Blake’s image of the ‘Spiritual Form’ – or true psychological nature – of William Pitt bears some resemblance, both in its falling meteors, its dark Gothic colouring, and the connection of its central figure with human blood, to his later image of the ‘Ghost’. This was perhaps intentional: Pitt was best known, and reviled amongst radical quarters, for his enthusiasm for military engagement in foreign wars. On either side of Pitt are two curious giant forms: one is the Reaper and the other the Plowman. The Reaper is using the crescent moon as a sickle to destroy humanity, as a blazing star falls to earth; the Plowman wields an instrument resembling a huge meat cleaver to cull the excess and teeming populations, as a large red planet (presumably Mars, but possibly representing Venus) orbits above him. Here again we see a striking convergence or alignment between the historical, the psychological, and the astrological.
“Before considering Varley’s Treatise,” remarks Bury, “it is not without interest to recall that the sciences of astrology and physiognomy are related. As everybody knows, the custom of prophecy by the stars dates from remote antiquity. Apart from the use of it for royal personages and great occasions in ancient times, the story of the Star of Bethlehem is, of course, the most moving one in Holy Writ”.
Varley himself emphatically maintained that astrology could be used as a key to the future and that every individual’s career, and even his appearance, could be accounted for in a combination of planets with the signs of the Zodiac at the time of the person’s birth. Famous as a drawing master he thus became equally famous for casting horoscopes (literally “hour-watcher”, i.e., studying the hour of someone’s birth and entry into this world). Since the celestial bodies, in Varley’s view, had such an influence on human action it was only logical to assume that physical appearance was likewise affected by stellar powers. Classical writers had routinely referred to the physiognomical method of the divination of character: Aristotle was apparently the first writer to publish a treatise (Physiognomonica) in which several chapters are devoted to this theory.
Varley the Artist
“At last, in Varley,” Kathleen Raine, has remarked, “Blake had a friend who did not consider his visions ‘mad’ “:
Varley was an astrologer, and apparently a highly professional one. Skeptical Gilchrist admits that his predictions were astonishingly accurate. He was evidently also a student of other esoteric subjects, and it was under his encouragement and in his company that Blake was encouraged to draw (in a light-hearted spirit, as it seems) those strange ‘spirit heads’. One is again reminded of Swedenborg, who conversed with spirits of departed almost as an everyday matter. These drawings – less imaginatively inspired, be it said, than Blake’s more serious work – have a more-than-lifelike quality which bears witness, at least, to astonishing power of visual fantasy.
Gilchrist (in his Life of Blake) provides a compelling account of Varley’s artistic and aesthetic background, and how he seems to have been in many ways at the centre of a circle of contemporary artists who included not only Blake but also many others: his illustrious list of pupils included John Linnell, William Henry Hunt, William Mulready, David Cox, Copley Fielding, Peter De Wint, Francis Oliver Finch and Samuel Palmer.
I have mentioned John Varley as one in the new circle to which Mr. Linnell introduced Blake. Under Varley’s roof, Linnell had lived, for a year, as pupil; with William Hunt, a since famous name, as comrade. Varley, one of the founders of the New School of Water-Colour Painting, a landscape designer of much delicacy and grace, was otherwise a remarkable man, of very pronounced character and eccentricities; a professional Astrologer in the nineteenth century, among other things, and a sincere one; earnestly practising judicial Astrology as an Art, and taking his regular fees of those who consulted him.
When Linnell first met Varley he was at the height of his artistic influence and powers, as Story notes in his life of Linnell: “Varley, who was born in 1777, was now in the heyday of his powers, having first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, and in 1799 brought back from Wales those drawings which made an epoch in art, and won for him the proud title of Father of the English School of Water-Colour Painters. He was greatly to the front in those days, and about the time when young Linnell called upon him he was very busy with others — among them being James Holmes — in establishing the Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1804), to the exhibitions of which he sent a large number of pictures.”
Varley was particularly fascinated (like his contemporary Goethe) by colour – or what one might call the psychology of colour. He not only helped to establish the first Watercolour Society in London, and later the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours, serving as one of the leading instructors in the medium, but also published a practical book for artists exploring the various colours and their uses and connotations: his List of Colours (1818).
In conjunction with his classes, Varley also published a number of other instruction manuals including A Practical Treatise on the Art of Drawing and Perspective, (1815), Precepts of Landscape Drawing, exemplified in fifteen views (1818), A Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Design (1816-21), and of course A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828), which was developed with his closest friends John Linnell and William Blake.
If painting was Varley’s profession then astrology, as Gilchrist notes, was his passion. Indeed, every morning Varley would apparently cast his own horoscope for the day. (As we’ve seen, a number of his divinations and forecasts seem to have been alarmingly accurate – even of his own house burning down to the ground). If the mornings started with a “casting’, then the evenings – at least following his meeting with Blake – were often devoted to Zodiacal activity: the castings of famous figures from the past.
And as Martin Butlin notes, “the works that brought Blake most notoriety in his lifetime, and were most responsible for accusations that he was mad, were the ‘Visionary Heads’ he did for the delectation of the landscape watercolourist John Varley, whom he had met in 1818 through one of Varley’s pupils, John Linnell, the great patron of Blake’s later years.”
Thankfully, Gilchrist recorded some of the practical and technical details of these meetings for his 1863 Life of William Blake: “At these singular nocturnal sittings, Blake thus executed for Varley, in the latter’s presence, some forty or fifty slight pencil sketches, of small size, of historical, nay, fabulous and even typical personages, summoned from the vasty deep of time, and ‘seen in vision by Mr. Blake.’ Varley, who accepted all Blake said of them, added in writing the names, and in a few instances the day and hour they were seen. Thus: ‘Wat Tyler, by Blake, from his spectre, as in the act of striking the tax-gatherer, drawn Oct. 30, 1819, 1 h. P.M.’ On another we read: ‘The Man who built the Pyramids, Oct. 18, 1819, fifteen degrees of 1. Cancer ascending.’ A remarkable one is that of King Edward the Third as he now exists in the other world according to his appearance to Mr. Blake: his skull enlarged in the semblance of a crown,—swelling into a crown in fact,—for type and punishment of earthly tyranny, I suppose.” (Life of William Blake).
“Varley it was”, Gilchrist continues, “who encouraged Blake to take authentic sketches of certain among his most frequent spiritual visitants. The Visionary faculty was so much under control that, at the wish of a friend, he could summon before his abstracted gaze any of the familiar forms and faces he was asked for. This was during the favourable and befitting hours of night; from nine or ten in the evening, until one or two, or perhaps three and four, o’clock in the morning; Varley sitting by, ‘sometimes slumbering, and sometimes waking’.”
Varley would say, ‘Draw me Moses,’ or David; or would call for a likeness of Julius Caesar, or Cassibellaunus, or Edward the Third, or some other great historical personage. Blake would answer, ‘There he is!’ and paper and pencil being at hand, he would begin drawing, with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him; ingenuous Varley, meanwhile, straining wistful eyes into vacancy and seeing nothing, though he tried hard, and at first expected his faith and patience to be rewarded by a genuine apparition. A ‘vision’ had a very different signification with Blake to that it had in literal Varley’s mind.
Sometimes Blake had to wait for the Vision’s appearance; sometimes it would not come at call. At others, in the midst of his portrait, he would suddenly leave off, and, in his ordinary quiet tones and with the same matter-of-fact air another might say ‘It rains,’ would remark, ‘I can’t go on,—it is gone! I must wait till it returns;’ or, ‘It has moved. The mouth is gone;’ or, ‘he frowns; he is displeased with my portrait of him’: which seemed as if the Vision were looking over the artist’s shoulder as well as sitting vis-à-vis for his likeness. The devil himself would politely sit in a chair to Blake, and innocently disappear; which obliging conduct one would hardly have anticipated from the spirit of evil, with his well-known character for love of wanton mischief.
In his monograph on Varley, Adrain Bury notes the curious sort of constellation or astrology of the three figures themselves in these night-time encounters and trajectories: “John Linnell was also greatly interested in these strange affairs, and could one have been present at those seances one would have been impressed by three differently inspired personalities, united, however, in their love of art, nature and truth, and earnestly trying to probe the mystery of life and death. Blake with his massive forehead and brilliant eyes; Varley, cumbersome in form, an excited and eloquent talker; Linnell, very intelligent, original and deferential, adding here and there a fine point to the discussion, ‘forbearing to contradict Blake’s stories of his visions, etc., but trying to make reason out of them’.”
These illustrious visions and visitations included “live” sittings from the likes of Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Lot, Job, Socrates, Julius Caesar, Christ, Muhammad, Merlin, Boadicea, Charlemagne, Ossian, Robin Hood, Caractacus, Wat Tyler, Roger Bacon, John Milton, Voltaire, and The Man Who Built the Pyramids. Varley was keen to see what these important figures looked like, believing that their physical forms were related to the specific time that they were born and their place in the cosmos – that is to say, that their forms were not accidental but perhaps intimately associated with underlying temporal and spatial connections, attachments, and fields.
Uranus, Urizen, and Orc: Varley’s Planet
Varley was apparently one of the first astronomers to identify the influence of the planet that was then widely known as “the Herschel planet” (i.e., Uranus) as ruling Aquarius. In A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy he notes: “Aries and Scorpio are the houses of Mars, Taurus and Libra are the houses of Venus, Gemini and Virgo are under the dominion of Mercury, Cancer is the house of the Moon, Sagittarius and Pisces are the houses of Jupiter, Capricorn is the house of Saturn; and Aquarius is governed by the Herschel planet.” As one modern commentator, Kim Farnell, intriguingly remarks:
Varley had no doubt about the matter. To emphasise the point further he wrote: ‘But as the dominion of the world was acquired by Saturn’s trading people, who by virtue of his real and true dominion in the accumulating sign Capricorn, became the wealthy and powerful directors in the Commonwealth; they – still believing erroneously, while ignorant of the Herschel planet’s existence, that the sign Aquarius was Saturn’s masculine and superior house…’
It looks very much like Varley should be recognised as the first to claim that Uranus rules Aquarius.
Interestingly, Uranus is known in astrology as the “Awakener,” since its aspects and transits bring sudden changes and shocks. As Molly Hall remarks, “it rules Aquarius, the quirky innovator, and sometimes these upheavals are a necessary break from restrictions in favor of a more liberated path” (Uranus: The Planets in Astrology).
Many commentators have noted the striking correspondence between the discovery of this planet, which is astrologically associated with ideas of upheaval, rebellion, and revolution, with the period of the French and American revolutions, and the role of George III in both (after whom Herschel originally called the planet). In a passage that casts intriguing light on Blake’s similar connection of historical events and figures with wider mythological and astrological phenomena and patterns, Farnell observes:
The discovery of Uranus is attributed to Sir William Herschel on March 13 1781. Herschel was occupied in searching the skies for new celestial objects. On that particular evening his attention was caught by the new planet. He didn’t realise at first that he had discovered the solar system’s newest member, but he did know that he wasn’t looking at a star.
It wasn’t long before astronomers realised the significance of Herschel’s discovery. Originally, Herschel chose to name the new planet Georgium Sidus, after King George III, who granted him a stipend and honoured him with a title for his work. Despite the interesting reflection that a planet known for its disruptive and divisive effects was well matched to a king ousted from power on account of his mental instability, it is perhaps not surprising that the name didn’t catch on outside Britain. The German astrologer Johann Bode suggested the name Uranus after the sky god Urania. The new name took a while to become popular and occasionally appears in the form “Ouranus”.
So it looks very much like Varley should be recognised as the first to claim that Uranus rules Aquarius. But why? What made him so convinced about the meaning and rulership of Uranus?
A clue to Varley’s particular interest in the “planet known for its disruptive and divisive effects”, and even for a possibly connection with “mental instability” (remember that our word “lunacy” also originally derives from the supposed influence of the moon on our psyches), perhaps lies in some unusual details of Varley’s own life, Farnell observes. An article in the Occult Review of July 1916, entitled ‘Some Astrological Predictions of the Late John Varley by his grandson, John Varley’, he notes, gives the story of a number of predictions made by Varley and in particular one dramatic one involving the newly-discovered planet of “disruptive and divisive effects”, Uranus:
‘He was in the habit of consulting his own horoscope each morning, and bringing up directions etc. On one particular morning he was evidently ill at ease and though he had an appointment, he did not go out; and about 11 in the forenoon he gave his watch to my father, telling him to take it to a watchmaker in Regent Street and have it set to Greenwich time … he explained that there were some evil aspects in his horoscope, which would come into operation a few minutes to twelve that day. He was so certain as to the evil effects that he might not go out, fearing some street accident. He said, ‘I might be run over, or a slate might fall on my head’, that he was uncertain whether his life or his property was menaced, but he saw in the figure that it would be sudden.
The difficulty arose from the fact that the effects of the planet Uranus were not yet understood by astrologers, and his agitation increased as the time approached. He asked if my father was sure that his watch was put to Greenwich time and complained that he could not go on with his work. Sitting down, he said two or three times, ‘I feel quite well, there is nothing wrong with me. I am not going to have a fit or anything of the sort.’ Then, rising from his seat he came to my father saying, ‘What is it to be? The time is passed. Could I have made some mistake in my calculations?’ He took some paper and a pencil to go through the figures again – just then there was a cry of fire from the street. He rapidly made a note in his astrological book as to the effects of Uranus. The house was burned down, all his property was destroyed, and unfortunately he was uninsured …’
The date of the fire, as given by Roget, was June 25th, 1825, and it originated at Stoddart’s pianoforte factory nearby. Varley was unperturbed by the calamity although he lost everything, and was not insured. Indeed, he was rather pleased that he had proved the evil potentialities of the new planet. To Fielding, who condoled with him on hearing the news, and asked if the matter was serious, Varley replied: ‘No, only the house burnt down; I knew something would happen.’ (Occult Review, July 1916)
Why, oh why do we not have Varley’s notebooks? All our questions about Uranus would be answered. There were no dates given for when this event took place and I’ve not been able to find any earlier versions of the story.
Indeed: why do we not have Varley’s notebooks? Or Linnell’s journals? Or the final volume of the “Blake-Varley Sketchbooks” (two have been recovered by collectors, but the third has yet to be discovered, though clear records from the period and individual pages attest to its existence).
Given Varley’s remarkable interest in, and knowledge of, the stars and planetary activity, it’s striking that his own paintings and water-colours are all either rather orthodox Romantic landscapes (ruined buildings, often against a picturesque valley or mountains) or else sketches of human faces, usually in profile. That is to say, there are no paintings of planets, or Zodiacs, or even stars in any of them – it was Blake who did all that – who included them and incorporated into his artistic vision and aesthetic and psychological framework of the world.
The Nativity of Mr Blake: Casting Blake’s Horoscope
Varley even cast a horoscope for Blake, curious to discover whether there was a link between his unusual features and talent and the hour of his birth. It is to Varley we owe the knowledge of the precise time of Blake’s birth: 7.45 pm on 28 November, 1757, in London. Indeed we have the horoscope that Varley cast for Blake:
The portrait at the centre of the chart is a hand-coloured engraving by Schiavanetti of the formal portrait painting by Phillips. As one critic and contemporary astrologer has remarked, “The chart is that cast by John Varley, and published in the magazine Urania; or, the Astrologer’s Chronicle and Mystical Magazine (1825), during Blake’s lifetime, when he was working on the marvellous Illustrations to the Book of Job”:
Varley’s chart is reasonably accurate: in fact, at that time, the Moon was in 12.03 Cancer, and the Ascendant was 29.36 Cancer, and the MC 04.29 Aries. The planet Uranus (which Varley had studied in great depth, and at considerable personal loss) was actually in 19.17 Pisces. However, the deviations between this chart, cast from early 19th century tables, and one cast by modern computer methods, are remarkably slight. For notes on Varley as an astrologer, and on his curious relationship with Blake, see F. Gettings, The Hidden Art. A study of occult symbolism in art, 1978.
Indeed, the magazine mentioned – Urania; or, the Astrologer’s Chronicle, and Mystical Magazine – contained not only the nativity chart but also a fascinating analysis of Blake’s horoscope:
It is probable that the extraordinary faculties and eccentricities of idea which this gentleman possesses, are the effects of the Moon in Cancer in the 12th house (both sign and house being mystical), in trine to Herschel from the mystical sign Pisces, from house of science, and from the mundane trine to Saturn in the scientific sign Aquarius, which latter planet is in square to Mercury in Scorpio and in quintile to the Sun and Jupiter in the mystical sign Sagittarius. The square of Mars and Mercury, from fixed signs, also, has a remarkable tendency to sharpen the intellects, and lay the foundation of extraordinary ideas.
Symons, in his biography of Blake, adds the intriguing comment: “I am told that the most striking thing in the map, from an astrological point of view, is the position and aspect of Uranus, the occult planet, which indicate in the highest degree ‘an inborn and supreme instinct for things occult,’ without showing the least tendency towards madness.”
Symons also provides a slightly longer excerpt from the reviewer of the Urania magazine, who was obviously personally acquainted with Blake, and sees connections and correspondences in his wider work and “his list of remarkable nativities”:
The above horoscope is calculated for the estimate time of birth, and Mr. Blake, the subject thereof, is well known amongst scientific characters, as having a most peculiar and extraordinary turn of genius and vivid imagination. His illustrations of the Book of Job have met with much and deserved praise; indeed, in the line which this artist has adopted, he is perhaps equalled by none of the present day. Mr. Blake is no less peculiar and outré in his ideas, as he seems to have some curious intercourse with the invisible world; and, according to his own account (in which he is certainly, to all appearance, perfectly sincere), he is continually surrounded by the spirits of the deceased of all ages, nations, and countries. He has, so he affirms, held actual conversations with Michael Angelo, Raphael, Milton, Dryden, and the worthies of antiquity. He has now by him a long poem nearly finished, which he affirms was recited to him by the spirit of Milton; and the mystical drawings of this gentleman are no less curious and worthy of notice, by all those whose minds soar above the cloggings of this terrestrial element, to which we are most of us too fastly chained to comprehend the nature and operations of the world of spirits.
Mr. Blake’s pictures of the last judgment, his profiles of Wallace, Edward the Sixth, Harold, Cleopatra, and numerous others which we have seen, are really wonderful for the spirit in which they are delineated. We have been in company with this gentleman several times, and have frequently been not only delighted with his conversation, but also filled with feelings of wonder at his extraordinary faculties; which, whatever some may say to the contrary, are by no means tinctured with superstition, as he certainly believes what he promulgates. Our limits will not permit us to enlarge upon this geniture, which we merely give as an example worthy to be noticed by the astrological student in his list of remarkable nativities. There are also many other reasons for the strange peculiarities above noticed, but these the student will no doubt readily discover.
It’s an observation that makes one wonder at the astrological implications of the other significant and extraordinary ”nativity” that Blake famously painted repeatedly, and its possible meaning and significance.
Zodiacs and Zoas
The Zodiac, which literally means “circle of animals” (zōdiacus), is a zone or belt in space projected onto the celestial sphere through which, from our viewpoint, the planets move. The word ‘zodiac’ is related to the words zoo, and zoological, and indeed zoa (Greek zôia, plural of zôion animal) – from which Blake derived his central archetype of ‘The Four Zoas’, the fundamental powers or living systems that drive who we are. Záō or zṓon essentially means “living” – a living creature (literally, “something alive“); in the Bible, the term zṓon (“living creature”) is often mistranslated as “beast” (rather than “living being” or “living one”). The idea, as applied to the circle of the Zodiac, is that the “skies” are somehow alive.
These ‘zoas’ – whether seen in the skies as the ‘living creatures’ of the Zodiac or within us as living Zoas – relate to some of the most ancient structures and secret aspects of being. In the biblical book of Revelation the term is awkwardly translated as “beasts”, and John the Divine on Patmos (an influential figure for Blake), talks about the “four beasts” situated on or constituting the “throne” of the Lamb. These beasts are the same four “living creatures” which Ezekiel beheld by the river of Chebar (Ezekiel I:5). Rather like the Babylonian image of the heavenly ‘Zodiac’ itself, these animal figures are associated with – and seen within – a wheel, indeed “wheels within wheels”, which revolve and act as the ‘chariot’ of Deity.
Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:5-10)
Interestingly, Ezekiel saw this vision of the four living creatures “in the land of the Chaldeans”. The land of the Chaldeans is of course Babylon, where Ezekiel had been taken during the traumatic period of the Babylonian captivity: it was “as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar”, he poignantly records, that “the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1).
Might there be some link between the striking “zoa” of Ezekiel and the “zodiac” of the Babylonians, in whose culture the prophet was now immersed? Knowledge of the Babylonian zodiac, as E. W. Bullinger suggests, certainly seems to be both indicated and reflected in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, Bullinger interprets the creatures appearing in the book of Ezekiel as the middle signs of the four quarters of the Zodiac, with the Lion as Leo, the Bull as Taurus, the Man representing Aquarius and the Eagle representing Scorpio (the eagle being an ancient form of Ophichus, the ‘serpent holder’, which stands above Scorpio). Similarly, William D. Mounce has noted that the four “living creatures” in the Book of Revelation may have been associated with the four principal or fixed signs of the zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius). This cosmology and these figures were built into the very architecture of Babylon, as Damon notes – visions which the prophet would certainly have also witnessed: “before Ezekiel, the huge statues of the guardians of the Assyrian palace gates were sculptured with the face of a man, the head of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the body of an ox.”
These same “zoas” form a central part of Blake’s own vision and his understanding of the fundamental processes and structures of being. As Damon notes, “Blake identified them with the four fundamental aspects of Man”, which he termed Tharmas, Urizen, Luvah, and Urthona – and which in Blake’s psychological topography also relate or ‘map onto’ the four cardinal points by which or through which we measure space itself. Blake provided just one image or illustration of them and their interconnected interrelationships: it might perhaps be seen as a form of Zodiac:
Varley’s view of astrology and the “power of the Zodiac”
Varley’s book on Zodiacal physiognomy – or, to give it here its full and properly Zodiacal title: A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy, illustrated with Engravings of Heads and Features, and accompanied by Tables of the Time of the Rising of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, and containing also new and Astrological Explanations of some Remarkable Portions of Ancient Mythological History – was finally published in 1828, just a year after Blake’s death. And like Blake’s own prophetic or illuminated books, it was composed, or perhaps one should say ‘formed’, of both words and images: the engraved frontispiece and six plates were by John Linnell after Varley, with additional contributions by Blake.
It is today a very rare book – indeed a collector’s item – and therefore very hard to find a copy. However, one auctioneer has helpfully provided a brief description of a copy that once came to auction:
FIRST AND ONLY EDITION of this elusive Blake item, described by Gilchrist in 1863 as ‘that singular and now very scarce book’, and by Michael Rossetti as ‘a precious and almost undiscoverable brochure’. The British Library copy is imperfect, lacking the final Blake plate, and most recorded copies lack the wrappers. Although the printed front wrapper states ‘No. 1 To be completed in four parts’, no more parts appeared, perhaps because Varley was so constantly in debt. His publication had much to do with the contemporary fascination for physiognomy as well as astrology.
Besides Blake’s figure of the constellation ‘Cancer’, it includes ‘the most curious of all these visionary heads, and the most talked about’ (Gilchrist) – ‘the ghost of a flea’, seen in the frontispiece with mouth open, and in the penultimate plate, with jaw tightly shut. How Blake came to draw the apparition, and how he reported its explanation of the spirit world to Varley, is famously described.
In his preface Varley writes: “The apparent power of the various signs of the Zodiac in creating a great diversity in the features and complexions of the human race has long been as well established among enquiring people as the operation of the moon on the tides, and may properly be termed a branch of natural philosophy which I propose to denominate Zodiacal Physiognomy.” The rest of the volume, apart from a short section entitled ‘On Physiognomy’ at the end, is chiefly concerned with a detailed description of the physiognomical influence “of the signs Aries, Taurus and Gemini and of stars situated therein”. As the auctioneer above noted, only one volume of Varley’s projected 4-volume Zodiacal Physiognomy appeared – presumably each volume would have covered three different signs. Blake’s Flea appears here simply because the initial volume included the sign Gemini – one wonders what other Ghosts Blake might have conjured up for subsequent signs.
Though physiognomy and astrology are associated, Varley states that the former is independent of “judical prediction,” and can be studied on its own merits as a branch of natural philosophy. He divides mankind into four temperaments “answering to the four trigons, trinities or triplicities,” which confer these different triplicities:
There is the Fiery Trigon: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius, under whose auspices are born spirited, generous, magnanimous and princely natures.
The Earthy Trigon: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn, which contains the careful, sordid and penurious qualities.
The Aerial Trigon: Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, symbolising the humane, harmonious and courteous principles.
The Watery Trigon: Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces, cold, prolific, cautious and severe qualities.
The influence of these signs, he suggests, is modified by the position of the planets at the time of a person’s birth. For instance, one born “under a watery or earthy trigon may be of a more elevated and generous disposition if at birth several of his planets were in the fiery or aerial signs, and especially if these and his ascendant are in good aspect.” As H. Stanley Redgrove observed in his article on Blake and Varley for the Occult Review, “the Galenical quadripartite classification of temperaments, namely into the phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic and sanguine, is naturally adopted, this corresponding to the traditional classification of the twelve signs of the Zodiac into four groups of three each, termed the watery, fiery, earthy and aerial triplicity respectively.”
Into the Future: Blake and Shelley
Interestingly, one of those who approached Varley for his divinatory skill was Mary Shelley. As Sheila Ahlebrand records, “she even mentions asking for predictions about Shelley from John Varley, a relative of the Gisbornes who was known for his abilities at divination. Mary Shelley is obviously sceptical, but she nonetheless asks Maria Gisborne if she will ask Varley about her as well.”
Writing to Mrs. Gisborne on March 7th, 1822, Mary Shelley appears to have been interested in Varley’s powers. “But to speak of predictions and antedictions, some of Varley’s are curious. ‘Ill fortune in May or June, 1815.’ No, it was then that he (Shelley) arranged his income; there was no ill except health al solito, at that time. The particular days of the 2nd and 14th June, 1820, were not ill, but the whole period was disastrous.” (Dowden, Life of Shelley)
I find this link both absolutely fascinating and incredibly poignant. As a teenager Mary Shelley had apparently received some art lessons from John Linnell, and her friend Maria Gisborne was actually related to Varley – her husband, John Gisborne, was the brother-in-law of Varley. It is surely tantalising to think that these two circles – the Shelleys and the Blakes – might have intersected like this. And that Mary had approached Varley “for predictions about Shelley”. You wonder what might have happened if Varley had foreseen Shelley’s death.
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), a study of William Blake’s works in the light of contemporary neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017) and The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2020). He is also an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.
For more on Blake’s interest in Ezekiel and his vision of the living “zoas”, see Ezekiel and the Burning Coal of Prophecy and for Blake’s interest in astronomy and the stars see Burning Bright: Meteoric imagery in the works of William Blake, by A. McBeath.