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  • Leaving Their Mark:Lavater, Fuseli and Blake's Imprint on Aphorisms on Man
  • Sibylle Erle (bio)

Aphorisms on Man, like few other books of its size or content, has remained part of the scene of literary history owing to the combined efforts of three men, its Swiss author, Johann Caspar Lavater, its translator, Johann Heinrich Füssli, more commonly known in England as Henry Fuseli, and its illustrator and annotator William Blake. Johann Caspar Lavater's Aphorisms on Man (1788)1 was published to prepare the British for his Essays on Physiognomy (1789–1798). As Marcia Allentuck has pointed out, it 'contained, in encapsulated form, some of the underlying theories of his physiognomical approach'.2 Published in London by Joseph Johnson a few months after the first fascicles of Essayson Physiognomy were issued to subscribers and a year ahead of the book,3 Aphorisms on Man was translated by Lavater's childhood friend, the Swiss-born painter and future Royal Academy Professor Henry Fuseli, who in all likelihood added the crucial final aphorism: 'If you mean to know yourself, interline such of these aphorisms as affected you agreeably in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense of uneasiness with you; and then shew your copy to whom you please';4 it was Fuseli, too, who provided the preliminary drawing on which William Blake based his frontispiece.5 The main reason Aphorisms on Man is read today is that it was annotated by Blake.6

Lavater's Physiognomical Projects, Their Practices and Some Of Their Outcomes

By the standards of the day, Aphorisms on Man was enormously popular. This was only partly due to its association with Essays on Physiognomy. Its attraction was that it also claimed to be a guide to self-knowledge. A second and a third edition, published by Johnson, followed in 1789 and 1794, and by 1795 Aphorisms on Man had gone through five editions. [End Page 347] This paper explores the relationships between the Greek inscription on the frontispiece (the Socratic 'Know thyself'),7 the heart drawn in ink by Blake onto the title-page around Lavater's printed and Blake's signed names, and that all-important final aphorism. Crucially, this aphorism has no precursor in either of the German sources, but it encourages readers to annotate and add yet another layer of significance to the already complex text.

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Figure 1.

Johann Caspar Lavater, Aphorisms on Man (London: Joseph Johnson, 1788), frontispiece and title page. This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California.

Annotating books and sharing them with friends was common in the late eighteenth century, and Blake's annotation and, hence, appropriation of Lavater's text was not unusual.8 In examining Blake's annotations I hope to determine what this late-eighteenth century dialogue of texts can tell us about the early history of physiognomy in England, Lavater's reception and his English connections.9 This paper will also show how Fuseli's editorial decisions, most importantly to render 'rules' as aphorisms,10 encouraged Blake to annotate Aphorisms on Man the way he did. Blake's language not only engages with Lavater's in a [End Page 348] revealing manner, his annotations also reverberate with the discussions about Lavater and his views on body-soul relationships in contemporary reviews.

Aphorisms on Man was translated from a now lost manuscript especially prepared for Johnson and Fuseli. As it turns out, this manuscript was compiled from Vermischte unphysiognomische Regeln zur Selbst- und Menschenkenntnis (1787) and Vermischte unphysiognomische Regeln zur Menschen- und Selbstkenntnis (1788).11 The publication of these two small volumes took place at the end of a long and intensive process of revising the so-called art of physiognomy. Physiognomy in its current state, Lavater explained, was really the science of human character in its infancy. To many of his contemporary's utter amazement, Lavater claimed that it was possible to accurately measure how body and soul interconnected once the common physiognomical feeling had been trained and developed into a reliable tool of rational analysis.12 In his physiognomical practice Lavater mapped out how character could be...


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pp. 347-369
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Archived 2009
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