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Fig.1. Photograph of Simeon Solomon by Frederick Hollyer, c.


The Swan Song of Solomon: Blackguardism by Preference 1

1 Blackguardism by preference was the appraisal made of Solomons character by the artist Charles Ricketts in Self-Portrait: Taken from the Letters & Journals of Charles Ricketts, R.A., (1939) edited by T. Sturge Moore and Cecil Lewis. Ricketts had a vested interest in taking a distanced stance from the actions of Solomon as his own life-long homosexual relationship with the artist Charles Shannon was a closely guarded secret.

Twenty-two years before the cause celebre of Oscar Wildes trial, another homosexual scandal emerged in the art world. This time, the fame of the culprit was not as great, and his crime did not directly impinge upon the ruling class. However, the effects of his conviction and punishment were the same: destitution, ignominy and a complete crushing of his artistic career. He ended his days alternating between living rough on the streets of Whitechapel, where he occasionally eked out a living as a pavement artist, and the St Giles workhouse, when his alcoholism precluded even this small dignity.
At ten past seven on the evening of February 11, 1873, two men were arrested while having sex in the men's public lavatory on St Christophers Place, just round the back of Oxford Street. In the London of the timesuch arrests were not unusual, but this one featured a highly unusual combination of culprits. One of them was an illiterate, 60-year-old stableman (Mr George Roberts), while the other was the 33-year-old youngest son of a respectable East End Jewish family, a rising star of the London art scene.2

Fig. 2 Simeon Solomon, Self Portrait, pencil on paper, 1859

The younger man was the painter Simeon Solomon (fig 1). He was born in the East End of London in 1840, the last of eight children in an artistic, prosperous middle-class Jewish family. In 1856, at the age of sixteen, he was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools.3 Lionised by such luminaries as Rossetti, BurneJones and Walter Pater, he quickly established himself as a fashionable painter, engraver and watercolourist. For a while, he mixed in the most exalted of artistic circles and his star was set to rise very high indeed. He greatly admired the work of Edward Burne-Jones, in whose androgynous figures he saw a parallel with his own. He was friends with the decadent poet Swinburne, who was older by three years. Whilst it has been sometimes suggested that Solomon was seduced into debauchery by the slightly older man,4 there is ample evidence to show that
Neil Bartlett, Fallen Angel, The Guardian, October 8, 2005. He had been proposed by the painter Augustus Egg. This was the standard age for entry into the schools. However, John Everett Millais, the most technically brilliant of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and a child prodigy, gained entry at the unprecedented age of eleven due to his remarkable drawing ability. Ever an enthusiast, Ruskin records that, even at the age of seven, Millais could draw with the assurance of an adult. 4 Swinburnes poetry was suffused with sadomasochism, lesbianism and a longing for death. For a time he kept a pet monkey and a rumour arose (probably started by Swinburne himself) that he had trained the animal to masturbate him. When he was twenty-seven, it is claimed that he had eaten roast monkey with the then fourteen-year-old Guy de
3 2

Solomon had been interested in morbid themes in his own poetry and paintings before he and Swinburne ever met. Perhaps it is more correct to suggest that the pair were kindred spirits who were inevitably drawn together by their respective differences. For all Solomons desire to be included within the canon of PreRaphaelitism, it is the contemporaneous French decadents with whom he had closest affinity. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Solomons work and an attempt to elevate him in status as a major but long-neglected British artist. He has become something of a gay poster-boy for his daring outr behaviour.5 In 2005, the first major exhibition of his work, Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites, was staged at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The aim of the exhibition was to reposition Solomon as a leading exponent of late Pre-Raphaelite art and to make a claim for his importance in British art. As the introduction to the catalogue informs us,
one of the most remarkable features of Solomons career was how often the word genius was used to describe him. For his admirers and even for his many critics his works were evidence of prodigious talent elevated, to a greater or lesser degree, by this rare quality.6

Fig. 3. Simeon Solomon, pencil self portrait, 1860 Fig. 4. Simeon Solomon, pencil self portrait in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, 1860

One may indeed marvel at the word genius, because this large body of work, collected together for the first time, revealed that in fact Solomons output was patchy in quality. Sometimes, it is extremely good, as in the pencil self portraits, which show great attention to detail and likeness: in these beautiful drawings (figs 3 and 4) we can see a resemblance to a photograph of Solomon taken by Frederick Hollyer some years later (fig. 1), and there is a sense that Solomon has
Maupassant:: whether it was the same unfortunate animal is not clear. 5 British playwright and occasional gay-activist Neil Bartlett wrote his monologue on Solomon, A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, in the late 80s. It was performed in the nude. 6 Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites, eds. Colin Cruise and Victoria Osborne, Merrell, 2005, p.11.

striven to capture all the details and nuances of himself as a young artist. In the self-consciously Pre-Raphaelite self portrait (fig 4), Solomon has portrayed himself as medieval princeling, complete with sensitive downcast gaze and luxuriantly bouffant coiffure. Elsewhere, however, his output is marred by indifferent, even scruffy, drawing; eyes are sometimes mismatched, for instance, or he is inattentive to the proportions of the body; some works are marred by an unsure, over-tentative application of the chalk or pastel. This unevenness may certainly be ascribed to his later decent into alcoholism and drug addiction, but Solomon also seems to have had a cavalier attitude to his own talent and abilities throughout his career and even some of his earlier works suffer from a sometimes lackadaisical approach. To the late-Victorian world, Solomon presented what we would perhaps today call a camp persona, which undoubtedly had its origins in his observations of the male members of the Aesthetic movement, but which he intensified and personalised to a marked degree. He was flamboyant in demeanour and given to archly camp remarks; on a trip to Rhaiadr-y-Wennol in North Wales for instance, he stood at the picturesque rapids and cascading falls and said, I suppose they turn this off at night.7 A journalist once interviewed the destitute artist in the St Giles workhouse and asked how he felt to be living there? Solomon replied that he liked it immensely because it was so central. Throughout his professional life, Solomon disported himself recklessly in public and completely disregarded the strict heterocentric tenets of his times: in 1871, for instance, he not only attended the trial of the gay transvestites Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park,8 but he had tea with them afterwards, following their acquittal.9 It is here timely to recall that it was only in 1861, a mere ten years before this trial, that the death sentence for buggery had been abolished.10 There followed a spectacular growth of Victorian middle-class puritanism:11
A powerful religious revival, laying stress on such things as the sanctity of family life, the virtues of conventional behaviour, the repression of sins of the flesh, even the upholding of Britains imperial mission, created a climate increasingly hostile to all manifestations of sexual and social unorthodoxy, especially [my italics] homosexuality.12

As it was, Boulton and Park stood to receive a sentence of hard labour from between ten years to life, so Solomons public support of the two men can be seen to have been both brave and completely reckless. To a large degree, in the early stages of his career, Solomon was immune from censure because he moved in bohemian circles; indeed, even the resolutely heterosexual Rossetti hardly batted an eyelid when Solomon and Swinburne cavorted naked and
Quoted in Pearsall, Ronald, The Worm in the Bud, Penguin, 1989, p.550. Boulton and Park were known to each other, and the various men they picked up, as Stella and Fanny. They were arrested at the Strand theatre in 1871 for importuning and committed for trial. This proved inconclusive and they were acquitted. 9 Cooper, Emmanuel, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, Routledge, 1994, p. 66. 10 Aronson, Theo, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld, John Murray, 1996, p. 13. 11 Ibid, p.13. 12 Ibid, p.13.
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shrieking around his house in Cheyne Walk, only complaining when it became difficult to work because of the din they were making.13 Eventually, however, even in the rarefied strata of London bohemia, Solomon eventually came to be viewed as beyond the pale: a pariah. At the end of his trial he was fined onehundred pounds and ordered to submit to police supervision. His partner in the nocturnal adventure, the elderly, working-class George Roberts, who had no powerful friends to help him, fared less well and was sentenced to eighteen months' hard labour. Almost immediately Solomons friends and supporters dropped him. Even Swinburne distanced himself, sending letters to mutual friends castigating Solomon.

Fig. 5. Photograph of Simeon Solomon in Oriental robes and turban by David Wilkie Wynfield, c.1870

In an essay about the artist from 1905, the same year as Solomons death, Robert Ross writes that he enjoyed his drink, his overpowering dirt and his vicious life. He was full of delightful and racy stories about poets and painters, policemen and prisons, of which he had wide experience.14 Ross goes on to relate the story of Solomon calling on an artist friend (it is now generally assumed to have been Burne-Jones) to ask for money, which was duly given to him. Later the same evening, Solomon returned to the house with an acquaintance; they broke in with the intention of stealing the silverware.15 Ross says that by the late 1800s Solomon had ceased to produce work of any artistic merit whatsoever, and that he poured out a quantity of pastels at a guinea a piece which were repulsive and ill-drawn, with the added horror of being the shadows of once splendid achievements.16

13 14

Cooper, p. 66. Ross, Robert, Simeon Solomon, collected in Masques and Phases, BiblioBazaar, 2007, p. 86. 15 Ibid, p. 85-86. 16 Ibid, p. 87.

The negativity directed towards Solomon does not end with the moral arbiters of his own period; in Ronald Pearsalls study of Victorian sexuality, The Worm in the Bud, originally published in 1969, Solomon is described as that most raffish of Victorian perverts,17 and Timothy Hilton, in Pre-Raphaelites (1970), calls him dissipated and describes his work as having an unwholesome and sexy gloom.18 One supposes that, had Solomon manifested a wholesome heterosexual robustness, he would have been afforded a much different appraisal.
Always a heavy drinker, he specialised in dressing up in vaguely eastern robes and flaunting his equally flowing red hair - this at a time when to risk appearing either too Jewish or too effeminate was considered unwise even at the most advanced of art world parties, and to be both at the same time, unheard-of.19

In a photograph taken around 1870 (fig. 5), we see Solomon posing, resplendent in these vaguely eastern robes. Speaking about this photograph, Solomon scholar Robert C. Ferrari said: [The] David Wilkie Wynfield photograph is fascinating - there's something odd about a Jewish man wearing a turban - as if to suggest a sort of universalizing Orientalism.20

Fig. 6. Simeon Solomon, Babylon Hath Been a Golden Cup,

1859, pen and ink.

In 1859, Solomon drew Babylon Hath Been a Golden Cup (fig. 6) for a group exhibition of work based upon bible stories: it was refused, and one can only imagine the concern of the Dalziel brothers, who had organised the exhibition, on first seeing it. Ostensibly, the work refers to a passage in Jeremiah about the enslavement of the Jewish people in the kingdom of Babylon; the reclining figure is the elderly and bedridden King David and the figure behind him is his maidservant Abishag who, according to the biblical story, was supposed to lie
17 18

Pearsall, p.501. Hilton, Timothy, Pre-Raphaelites, Thames & Hudson, London, 1970, p. 202. 19 Bartlett. 20 Robert C. Ferrari in correspondence with me, 2008.

with the elderly king to keep him warm with her body. However, Solomons transformed image is decidedly sexually charged and highly ambiguous. Against a pale backdrop featuring half-naked dancing girls, the king leans back into the naked body of the servant; their faces are turned towards each other, only separated by a breath. That the servant appears to be, even after long and careful scrutiny, a young man, is undeniable; the fact that he reaches over the kings shoulders and gracefully plucks the harp that is propped on his lap, while the old man swoons with pleasure, is provocatively homoerotic; to complete the picture, curled up just below the dais supporting the two figures, like an overgrown pussycat, is a drowsing panther; perhaps an ancestor of one of those that feasted with Oscar Wilde. It was with the dawn of the new decade, shortly after this watercolour was made, that Solomon sought more classical themes:
It was [during the 1860s] that homosexuality blossomed in both his art and life. He began to explore Greco-Roman images with homoerotic themes.21

Solomon was doubly stigmatised: first, by his Jewishness, which was seen as an exotic feature in his work and in his appearance, and second, by his homosexuality, which he made absolutely no attempt to disguise. That he chose to make a virtue of both is testament to his courage, even if this veered into foolhardiness on countless occasions. John Addington Symonds, writing about Solomons drowsily erotic poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep22 (1871), which was loosely based on The Song of Solomon, stated that:
Mr Solomon's Love is not classical, not medieval, not Oriental; but it has a touch of all these qualities - the pure perfection of the classic form, the allegorical mysticism and pensive grace of the middle age, and the indescribable perfume of Orientalism ... Added to these general qualities we trace in this spirit of love a vague yet intense yearning; a Sehnsucht, which belongs to music and is essentially modern.23

The essentially modern, ethereal longing that the Symonds speaks of is homosexual and it is pertinent that he draws a parallel with Orientalism and its indescribable perfume; it was indescribable because it was still the love that dared not speak its name. In a letter to Swinburne, Solomon revealed that he was aware that his work was looked upon with suspicion and that in pecuniary and some other ways, I have had to suffer for it, and shall probably have to suffer still.24 This was to prove an understatement. In Solomons watercolour, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego Preserved from the Burning Fiery Furnace, from 1863 (fig. 7), he presents the story of the three biblical martyrs. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered by King
21 Ferrari, Roberto C. From Sodomite to Queer Icon: Simeon Solomon and the Evolution of Gay Studies, in Art Documentation, Spring 2001, Vol. 20 No. 1, p. 11. 22 Published in 1871, Solomon dedicated the poem to Edward Burne-Jones.


Symonds, John Addington. Solomon's A Vision of Love and other studies, pp. 189-90. Academy, 21, 2, 1st Quoted in Henderson, Philip, Swinburne, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1975, p.169.

April 1871.

Nebuchadnezzar to be thrown into a furnace after they refused to worship a golden idol; miraculously, they emerged from the conflagration completely unscathed. In Solomons version, the three have been transmuted into listless effeminate youths, gathered together in the arms of a protective androgynous angel, whose wings enfold and shield them from the flames. Pale and willowy, their cheeks are pressed as closely together as those of lovers, their rosebud lips as succulent as those of any Rossetti damsel. There can be little doubt that Solomon intended to imply that the real nature of their martyrdom was

Fig. 7. Simeon Solomon, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego Preserved from the Fiery Furnace, watercolour, 1863

homosexual and, moreover, that their sin was sanctioned by god. In a drawing from 1865, Love Among the Schoolboys (fig. 8), which was probably originally drawn privately for Swinburne and was later owned by Oscar Wilde,25 Solomon presents a decidedly homoerotic paean to romance amongst adolescent boys. In this drawing, Love is personified as a winged angel come down to the schoolroom, where he holds court amongst the sybaritic youths who loll about in a hazy, stunned, erotic trance; older boys embracing younger in a reference to ancient Greek paiderastia. In the pen and ink drawing, The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love (fig. 9), from 1865, we are presented an image of a young married couple, romantically entwined and wrapped up in each other; the bride is pinning a flower into her husbands hair. However, the grooms hand reaches to grasp the hand of a sad Eros, who wanders beside him like a shadow. I would here like to make the point that the groom is clearly not grasping Loves genitals, as some scholars would have it, in the (unnecessary) hope of clinching the homoerotic fact: on close inspection, one can clearly see the outline of the scrotum as well as the outline of

Loughery, John, Canons and Causes, The Hudson Review, 56, 1, 2003, pp. 171-172.

the penis of the youthful angel, and these are both placed well above and beyond the easy grasp of the groom. That being said, as a metaphor it could not have been plainer: the groom, co-opted by societys direction, now needs to adapt to heteronormalcy, and yet he still clearly hankers after his previous, and now precluded, lifestyle. As a presentiment of Oscar Wildes predicament (and the predicament of many thousands of other gay men) in the coming decades, the image would be hard to improve.

Fig 8. Simeon Solomon, Love Among the Schoolboys, pencil drawing, 1865

Fig. 9. Simeon Solomon, Bridegroom and Sad Love, pen and ink, 1865

Solomons work is replete with stylised, mannerist figures; in this he took his cue first from Rossetti and later, Burne-Jones, neither of whom, compared to their contemporaries, was a naturally gifted draughtsman. Solomons lissom,

androgynous boys represent a symbolic type which had significant, even fetishistic appeal to the artist and his followers, in the same way that Rossettis women conformed to that older artists fetishised type. The following description of Solomons figures was written a year after his death:
A void and wonderfully vague desire fills all these hollow faces, as water fills the hollow pools of the sand the lips are sucked back and the chin thrust forward in a languor which becomes a mannerism, like the long thin throats, and heavy halfclosed eyes and cheeks haggard with fever or exhaustion. The same face, varied a little in mood, scarcely in feature, serves for Christ and the two Marys, for Sleep and for Lust. The lips are scarcely roughened to indicate a man, the throats scarcely lengthened to indicate a woman. These faces are without sex; they have brooded among ghosts of passions till they have become the ghosts of themselves; the energy of virtue or of sin has gone out of them, and they hang in space, dry, rattling, the husks of desire.26

But it should also be remembered that there was no other way for images of male/male love, or even the suggestion of it, to be aired. In a real sense, in order to deal with subjects close to his heart, Solomon had to make his youths androgynous; there had to be the suggestion that one or other of the figures could actually be female and thereby conform to the heteronormative stricture. Accordingly, as his career developed, so did his mannerist approach to figuration.

Fig. 10. Simeon Solomon, Youth, chalk drawing, 1869


Symonds, Arthur, Nineteenth Century Painting, Archibald, Constable and Company, London, 1906, pp. 60-61.

Consider the artists chalk drawing Youth (fig. 10), which was made during a trip to Italy in 1869. Once again, we see the stylised, trance-like expression so familiar from other works by the artist: the same wide-spaced vacant eyes, the same generalised Rossetti-esque lips, and the same rounded chin. This is not a flesh-and-blood figure with any sense of life outside the (un)reality of the drawing; it is a figure of hermetically sealed, bland, homoerotic fantasy. This was the case with so many of Solomons figures, projected by the artist to fill the gap between reality and desire; ciphers which would be easily recognised by gay men of the period, but which could also pass as merely historic or Grecian (or, in many instances, even as women) to those with more orthodox heterosexual tastes and desires.

Fig. 11. Simeon Solomon, My Soul and I, watercolour, 1894, photographic print of the image by Frederick Hollyer

Fig. 12. Simeon Solomon, Love Confronted by Death, 1874, photographic print of the image by Frederick Hollyer

Fig. 13. Simeon Solomon, Until the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away, 1874, photographic print (Frederick Hollyer) of watercolour

Fig. 14. Tom of Finland, Sauna, pencil on paper, 1970s Fig. 15. Tom of Finland, cover of Kake (# 23): In the Wild West, (detail) pencil on paper, 1980

Fig. 16 Photograph of Simeon Solomon in his last years by Frederick Hollyer

We see this pattern emerge time and again in Solomons work: consider, for instance, the watercolours My Soul and I (fig. 11), Love Confronted by Death (fig.12) and Until the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away (fig. 13). It is safe to assume that all the figures in these works are male, although the features of each of the figures have been stylised to such a degree that they sometimes cross into epicene caricature. Clearly, Solomon had an idealised type in mind, which triggered a deep erotic nerve. In this regard he was similar to the twentiethcentury homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, whose endless series of stylised thugs, cowboys and sailors, displaying their perfect interchangeable faces and impossible genitals, had deep erotic significance to their creator (figs. 14 and 15). Both of these homosexual artists, each in their own fashion, responded to the forms of repression of their time: Tom of Finlands work was a gleeful celebration of the homosexual experience and its very difference from the heteronormative society in which it was compelled to exist; whereas Solomons art was the result of his living in an impossibly rigid culture, where any suggestion of male/male love was too shocking to countenance. Both of these artists described an ever-narrowing selection of obsessively repeated fantasy tropes. Solomons grave is a meagre, cinder-strewn plot in the Willesden Jewish Cemetery; the headstone is smashed and worn smooth by the elements, its letters now almost indecipherable. Defiant to the end, he remained, as far as humanly possible, true to himself, in a period where conformity was all.
Even in the long years of Solomons debauchery, he would astound passersby with tipsy but sonorous recitals of the Talmud, delivered from the gutter.27

James Collard, OUT Magazine, May, 2000.

One can only hoped that whilst lying there he was, as Wilde, looking at the stars.