The Swiss minister Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) was convinced that the science of physiognomy made it possible to know about a person’s interior self from their exterior body. This included both the physical skull itself and the visual representation of it. He published his beliefs in three major editions, Physiognomische fragmente (1775-78) RBSC Oversize 6453.568.15q, Essai sur la Physiognomonie (1781-1803), and Essays on Physiognomy (1788-99) GAX Oversize 2007-0002Q. These volumes are lavishly illustrated with profile portraits, silhouettes and linear profile outlines.
Johan Heinrich Lips (1758-1817) was the principal engraver of the plates, working from his own drawings and after drawings by Georg Friedrich Schmoll. Lavater’s close friend Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) added a few illustrations and brought in the young William Blake (1757-1827) to complete a few additional plates.
Joan K. Stemmier, writing in The Art Bulletin (March 1993), asserts that Lavater planned a lavish folio edition of his Physiognomonie and prepared several drawings on folio sheets for this project. Ultimately, trouble between Lavater, Fuseli, and the publisher, Joseph Johnson, brought a halt to the project.
This was around 1787, at the point when Blake was called in to engrave, among other things, a large portrait of Lavater. The question is, who made the drawing that he used for the image? There is a chalk drawing by Lips in the Kunstsammlungen at Weimar that resembles this engraving, but not exactly.
The graphic arts division at Princeton University holds a second large profile drawing of Lavater. This is believed to be the source for Blake’s engraving. According to Stemmier, Lips drawing was engraved by Adam Ludwig Wirsing in 1787 and sent to Lavater but the author was not satisfied with the sharp angles and lack of overall harmony in composition. Working from either the drawing or the engraving, Lavater made his own drawing with the harsh lines altered and jowl softened. It is this drawing that was sent to Blake to engrave, which is now owned by Princeton.
When the folio edition fell through, Johnson published Blake’s engraving as a single print in several editions from 1787 through 1800. Now it was Blake’s turn to be dissatisfied. “I find on all hand great objections to my doing any thing but the meer drudgery of business …” he wrote to his patron Thomas Butts and vowed to give up reproductive engraving for projects on which he could have complete artistic control.