Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 0BD, UK
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Willesden Jewish Cemetery, Beaconsfield Rd, Willesden, London NW10 2JE, UK
Simeon Solomon (9 October 1840 – 14 August 1905) was an English painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites who was noted for his depictions of Jewish life and same-sex desire. A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (1869) is cited as example in Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850-1900, by Brian Reade. The Cannibal Club was populated by several somewhat eccentric personalities of the time: along with Richard Burton, vice president of the Anthropological Society, founder of the Club and one of the most famous translators of pornographic Oriental literature of his time, members included Simeon Solomon, a homosexual painter involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who was condemned for sodomy in 1873. The term ‘cannibalism’ eventually came to function as a shorthand for male–male desire within the group.
Solomon was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was the eighth and last child born to merchant Michael (Meyer) Solomon and artist Catherine (Kate) Levy. Solomon was a younger brother to fellow painters Abraham Solomon (1824–1862) and Rebecca Solomon (1832–1886).
Born and educated in London, Solomon started receiving lessons in painting from his older brother around 1850. He started attending Carey's Art Academy in 1852. His older sister first exhibited her works at the Royal Academy during the same year.
As a student at the Royal Academy Schools, Solomon was introduced through Dante Gabriel Rossetti to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, as well as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and the painter Edward Burne-Jones in 1857.
By the age of eighteen, Solomon was seen as something of an artistic prodigy among his peers and had met and befriended his hero Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Solomon’s early paintings reflected his familiarity with Jewish Old Testament themes which were influenced by Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite style, but these were gradually replaced by the Classical subjects preferred by his new friend, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and ultimately with the poet’s encouragement these would manifest into Solomon’s choice of sexually charged homoerotic and sado-masochistic imagery.
Simeon Solomon's painting of Sappho with Erinna
Solomon's first exhibition was at the Royal Academy in 1858. He continued to hold exhibitions of his work at the Royal Academy between 1858 and 1872. In addition to the literary paintings favoured by the Pre-Raphaelite school, Solomon's subjects often included scenes from the Hebrew Bible and genre paintings depicting Jewish life and rituals. His association with Swinburne led to his illustrating Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon in 1865.
In 1870, the Simeon Solomon had attended the trial of the infamous transvestites ‘Fanny and Stella’, Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who had been arrested one evening at the Strand Theatre for ‘personating women’. Writing to his close friend and illicit lover, Cambridge don Oscar Browning in May 1870, Solomon revealed that he had been intrigued by the newspaper coverage of the arrest and, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, supposed that they were probably ‘a most disreputable set of young men’. After both men were acquitted in March 1871, Solomon became friends with Boulton, a budding actor, and attended the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester with him later that year, with Boulton cross-dressed as his alter-ego Stella. Solomon wrote that he went to see the pantomime Bluebeard with Boulton on his arm, describing him as ‘a charming young lady’. Documentation also links Solomon with many other male actors such as Johnston Forbes-Robertson who, as a young man, posed for one of the figures in Solomon’s drawing Until the Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away (1869). Another actor, active in the Drury Lane Theatres during the 1880s and 1890s, was Cecil Frederick Crofton, an avid collector of Solomon’s homoerotic art which he subsequently bequeathed to the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery in 1908. Crofton – who remained a bachelor all his life, lived with various young men and left much of his outstanding estate to two young male friends – was likely personally acquainted with Solomon during this period, given his large collection of Solomon’s work and the artist’s affinity with the area.
Poets W.B. Yeats, Ernest Rhys and Lionel Johnson appear to have held a certain curiosity and veneration not only for Simeon Solomon’s homoerotic imagery but for the artist himself. Certainly, many of the Rhymers’ poets, including Oscar Wilde, had been introduced to Solomon’s artwork as undergraduates at Oxford during the late 1870s and 1880s, a period some years after the artist’s arrest and during a time when Solomon’s name had been somewhat somewhat lost to obscurity and myth. Wilde described Solomon as that ‘strange genius’ and Yeats recalled that Johnson’s rooms at Fitzroy Street were walled with ‘overpowering pictures’ by Solomon, many of them collected during his time at Oxford. Yeats also described how one might meet the ‘ragged figure’ of Solomon as of some ‘fallen dynasty’ in the rooms of one of the Rhymers’ Club members. To the Rhymers, Solomon was an enigma, a Bohemian artist like Paul Verlaine, who had appeared to cast aside all the trappings of wealth and all attempts at respectability and was willingly living in poverty in the area of St Giles that so attracted other Decadents such as Ernest Dowson.
In 1873 his career was cut short when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street, in London and charged with attempting to commit sodomy: he was fined £100. Solomon was arrested in a public urinal with sixty-year-old stableman George Roberts and charged with attempting to commit the ‘abominable crime of buggery’. Solomon was arrested by police constable William Mitchell around the corner from Marylebone Police Station, in a public urinal situated in Stratford Place Mews off Oxford Street. He was arrested again in 1874 in Paris, after which he was sentenced to spend three months in prison.
Following his arrest and conviction for attempted sodomy in 1873, the homosexual Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon spent the remaining thirty-two years of his life living in varying degrees of poverty and hardship in and around the Holborn and Bloomsbury areas of central London. Records indicate that during this time, Solomon’s residences alternated between lowly common lodging houses, rooms in cheap private rentals, the workhouse and the workhouse’s casual wards for vagrants – a life which was in direct contrast to his former prosperous and comfortable existence among London’s artistic elite.
After his prosecutions he no longer exhibited, but achieved a degree of celebrity amongst those who shared his sensibilities: Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Count Eric Stenbock, and Walter Pater all collected his works.
By February 1879, during one of the coldest winters on record, the artist’s need had become so great that he was forced to approach the City of London Guardians and request admission to the workhouse. He was sent directly to the Homerton Workhouse in Hackney where he spent the next ten days as an inmate. Workhouse records indicate that by the time of his admission Solomon was resident in the St Giles area, and living in a mean common lodging house at 27 Castle Street (now called Shelton Street), housing 160 mostly single men. The majority of his workhouse admissions over the following twenty-five years were to the St Giles workhouse on Endell Street. The records of the St Giles workhouse chart many of the locations where Solomon lived during this period and list addresses which include Dyott Street, Fullwood’s Rents (now called Fulwood Place), Wakefield Street, off Regent’s Square, Betterton Street, Newton Street and Macklin Street, which were all located within a mile of the St Giles workhouse.
The Baltic-German aristocrat, Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, a close associate of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Oscar Wilde, was also fascinated fascinated by Solomon and his homoerotic art and would become one of Solomon’s most fervent supporters during the 1880s. Despite his wealthy aristocratic background, like the Rhymers, Stenbock was attracted to Solomon’s unfettered Bohemianism and was undeterred by the artist’s life of poverty in St Giles and reputation as a convicted sodomite. On the contrary, the flamboyant, eccentric, Aesthetic and decadent Count became infatuated with the artist. Stenbock was a poet and short-story writer who had lived on his family’s vast estates in Estonia before going up to Oxford and arriving in London in the mid-1880s. Here he established friendships with Decadent writers and artists Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde’s friend More Adey, Arthur Symons, publisher Herbert Horne, Yeats, Johnson and others. Yeats portrayed Stenbock as a ‘scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert’ and the ‘most charming of men’, while Symons described him as ‘bizarre, fantastic, feverish, eccentric, extravagant, morbid and perverse’. Stenbock’s passion for Solomon is also revealed in the poet’s first privately published book of poetry, Myrtle, Rue and Cypress, in which he dedicates ‘the myrtle thereof’ to Solomon. In addition, Stenbock’s fascination with Solomon is also evident in the similarity between the poet’s staff-and-serpent monogram and Solomon’s own monogram, which appears on the dedication page of Myrtle, Rue and Cypress. Solomon acknowledged this likeness himself in a letter of 1885 when he suggested that he had designed a new monogram for Stenbock after the poet had adopted his old one. Stenbock had written to Solomon (probably care of the photographer Frederick Hollyer, who had been producing and selling platinotype copies of Solomon’s artworks), asking for Solomon to go to him ‘as soon as possible’. Solomon described in a letter to Hollyer how he had had a ‘delightful day’ with Stenbock, whose kindness was ‘most singular’. Solomon also describes in his letters various trips with the Count to the Grosvenor Gallery, the then unofficial home of the Aesthetic movement, which was cleverly satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience as ‘the greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery’. It is unclear from the extant correspondence where Stenbock was lodging in London during this time, although by 1891 he is recorded as living at 11 Sloane Terrace in Knightsbridge. Simon Reynolds remarked in his 1985 monograph on Solomon that by 1888 the artist was entertaining hopes of being commissioned to decorate Stenbock’s home, but that their initial flurry of friendship was waning with the Count tiring of Solomon’s continued importunities. There may be some legitimacy to Reynolds’s suggestion, given that Stenbock had recorded in a letter to his family in Estonia that the artist was in the worst condition and ‘the bane’ of his life.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Simeon Solomon corresponded with one of his most important patrons, art collector and founder of the Century Guild publishing company, Herbert Horne, through notes and letters written and sent by way of the City News Room at Ludgate Circus.
In 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse where he continued to produce work, but his life and talent were blighted by alcoholism. In a letter to Oscar Browning, written around 1884, it is apparent that Solomon had felt some sense of contrition over his perceived ‘bad behaviour’ and his decision to remain withdrawn from respectable society. He remarks in the letter that he hoped that Browning would ‘pardon what he had done’.
Solomon and Paul Verlaine are likely to have met through Herbert Horne and Arthur Symons when both men organized Verlaine’s visit to London to give a series of lectures in November 1893. In addition, Verlaine’s signature appears on the frame of one of Solomon’s chalk drawings, The Winged and Poppied Sleep (1889), currently in the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums collection.
When Robbie Ross met with Solomon in 1893, he found the artist ‘extremely cheerful’ and not ‘aggressively alcoholic’. To Ross, Solomon appeared to have no grievances and no bitter stories about former friends, no scandalous tales about contemporaries and no indignant feelings towards those who assisted him. Ross reported that Solomon was full of ‘delightful and racy stories’ about poets and painters, policemen and prisons and ‘enjoyed his drink, his overpowering dirt, and his vicious life’ in St Giles.
In 1897, the caricaturist and writer Max Beerbohm chose to site his satirical decadent character, Enoch Soames, at Solomon’s former residence at Dyott Street, close to Endell Street and the workhouse. In the late 1890s, the decadent poet and Rhymers’ Club member, Ernest Dowson, in the company of author Robert Thurston Hopkins, played a regular game of ‘Blind Chivvy’ through the by-ways, alleys and courts of central London. Hopkins described this game with Dowson in his essay ‘A London Phantom’. The two men sometimes rove forlornly about the foggy London streets, ‘initiated bohemians, tasting each other’s enthusiasms, sharing money and confessions’. The route that they took from the Bun House at 417 The Strand to Dowson’s lodgings at 152 Euston Street would have taken them straight through the St Giles area, passing through Simeon Solomon’s former residence at Dyott Street.
In 1905, he died from complications brought on by his alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.
Examples of his work are on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wightwick Manor and at Leighton House. Retrospectives of his work have been held at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2005–6, and in London at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2006.
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