Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy

Sibylle Erle

Studies In Comparative Literature 21


6 September 2010  •  235pp

ISBN: 978-1-906540-69-2 (hardback)  •  RRP £80, $110, €95


William Blake never travelled to the continent, yet his creation myth is far more European than has ever been acknowledged. The painter Henry Fuseli introduced Blake to traditional European thinking, and Blake responded to late 18th century body-theory in his Urizen books (1794-95), which emerged from his professional work as a copy-engraver on Henry Hunter’s translation of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789–98). Lavater’s work contains hundreds of portraits and their physiognomical readings. Blake, Fuseli, Joshua Reynolds and their contemporaries took a keen interest in the ideas behind physiognomy in their search for the right balance between good likeness and type in portraits. Blake, Lavater, and Physiognomy demonstrates how the problems occurring during the production of the Hunter translation resonate in Blake’s treatment of the Genesis story. Blake takes us back to the creation of the human body, and interrogates the idea that ‘God created man after his own likeness.’ He introduces the 'Net of Religion', a device which presses the human form into material shape, giving it personality and identity. As Erle shows, Blake's startlingly original take on the creation myth is informed by Lavater's pursuit of physiognomy: the search for divine likeness, traced in the faces of their contemporary men.

Sibylle Erle is Senior Lecturer in English at Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln.


  • ‘Erle’s conclusion is that Lavater could be seen by Blake to be superficial, and that Blake was more interested in showing how identity was constructed through the body, rather than through a given soul: bringing back the body means showing how that is connected to historical and material circumstances and culture operating, for instance, in the 1790s, the decade of Blake’s creation myths.’ — Jeremy Tambling, Modern Language Review 106.4, 2011, 1132-33 (full text online)
  • ‘By developing this art-historical context [i.e., of Henry Fuseli], Erle produces many informative analyses of the ways in which both Blake's poetry and his prints reveal an abiding interest 'in how the human form acquires its embodied identity and the pitfalls inherent in likeness-making'.’ — Joseph Bristow, Studies in English Literature 51.4, Autumn 2011, 927
  • ‘Erle deserves great credit for returning the role of Lavater to Blake studies - especially as Blake’s interests in physiognomy remained with him all through his life, surfacing again in his late Visionary Heads—and her chapter on the editing that took place in transforming the Physiognomische Fragmente into the Essays on Physiognomy is a superb piece of scholarship on this often neglected text.’ — unsigned review, The Year's Work in English Studies 91.1, 2012, 673
  • ‘Erle’s thorough knowledge of the German and British settings puts her in an exceptionally good position to elucidate a Blake connected to international literary, philosophical, and artistic circles, participating in collective publication projects that circulate knowledge between Britain and the Continent. Indeed, one of the most attractive features of the book is its attention to the intellectual exchanges and emotional bonds between men. In Erle’s view of the annotations to Lavater, we see a Blake who is, perhaps surprisingly, as eager to please, heartily agree, and find affinities as he is to denounce Error.’ — Tristanne Connolly, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly 47.4, Spring 2014

Bibliography entry:

Erle, Sibylle, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy, Studies In Comparative Literature, 21 (Legenda, 2010)

First footnote reference: 35 Sibylle Erle, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy, Studies In Comparative Literature, 21 (Legenda, 2010), p. 21.

Subsequent footnote reference: 37 Erle, p. 47.

(To see how these citations were worked out, follow this link.)

Bibliography entry:

Erle, Sibylle. 2010. Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy, Studies In Comparative Literature, 21 (Legenda)

Example citation: ‘A quotation occurring on page 21 of this work’ (Erle 2010: 21).

Example footnote reference: 35 Erle 2010: 21.

(To see how these citations were worked out, follow this link.)

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