Solomon, in Falk’s view seen here as ‘The Outcast’.

When Bernard Falk was writing the Tragedy of Simeon Solomon, written in his 1938 text Five Years Dead, homosexuality was still a criminal act. Initially Falk’s language, at least in the earliest part of the chapter, is a little jarring and it could easily be taken that he harboured some rather unpalatable views: for example, he proclaimed Solomon’s ‘degradation’ was ‘due to a persistent lack of self-control, indistinguishable from madness’ and he even labelled Solomon as ‘the afflicted painter’. [1]

Whilst much of what Falk says is true, for example how some of his friends tried to help restore Solomon to respectable society but were unable to reclaim him from his vagabond life, he does not labour on how society closed ranks on Solomon, nor analyse that it may well have been insurmountable for Solomon (or any other in his position) to overcome such social ostracisation. There is little obvious sympathy in Falk’s tone at the beginning, and we could see it is as clinically chastising, or at worst accuse him of being homophobic. But acknowledging how Solomon ‘went beyond what the law permits’ is not a damning a criticism of homosexuality and Falk’s interest seems not in the emotional landscape of Solomon, but in the loss of a great talent. For it seems that Falk understood the loss of ‘an artist of great promise’ and we should give credit to the literary attention he gave to Solomon’s art (and life) at a time when he was largely forgotten and unpopular, along with many of the Pre-Raphaelites whom Solomon is often discussed alongside.[2] So, despite the opening passages appearing rather negative, I think we have to recognise the own social context of Falk’s time of writing and the register it required.

Certainly I am forgiving of Falk’s choice of language because his issue is not with Solomon’s sexuality, which he doesn’t discuss at all really, but with his surrounding environment. In opposition to how the essay appears to open, Falk ends up rather strongly defending Solomon, saying he ‘was the victim of a treacherous environment, rather than a pathological specimen whose nature from the first carried the seeds of destruction’.[3] His tone throughout the article Falk’s tone is more factual, than emotional. The emotion only really appears towards the end, when he is discussing Swinburne’s behaviour and character in the aftermath.

Falk sees Solomon as having been influenced by Swinburne, ‘who united extravagant genius with a reckless disregard for conventional modes of thought and behaviour’ (one cannot argue with this indictment!)[4] I should also point out that Falk is not holding Swinburne responsible for Solomon’s sexual preferences, but his general corruption of Solomon’s spirit (and ultimately in his abandoning Solomon).[5] It seems Falk holds Swinburne responsible for opening Solomon’s eyes ‘to all manner of unhealthy impulses’ which in turn then made him an ‘equally undesirable companion’.[6] Prior to this friendship with ‘the avowed disciple of the preposterous Marquis de Sade, the painter was a serious and well-behaved fellow with a sane outlook on life’.[7] These influences and tastes culminated in Solomon’s so-say ‘incoherent rhapsody’ ‘A Vision of Love Revealed in a Dream’ (1870).[8] As Falk goes on, it becomes ever apparent of his distaste for Swinburne’s incoherent eccentricities, rather than Solomon’s sexual proclivities. He declares it ‘an evil day for Solomon when he took up with Swinburne’.[9]

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A Young Solomon

Whilst discussing the ‘vagabond’ lifestyle of Solomon post 1873, Falk observes how the power and steady quality of his drawing had significantly diminished. Solomon, at least on some level, seemed to understand his art still held people’s interest and held some sway for dealers were prepared to fund his art, should he produce any. His best works were behind him though and he produced works that were ‘done in sanguine’ – it seems they were done in essence for money (possibly for alcohol) and to tick over, but they were not done with love or energy.[10] The dilemma as far as Falk sees it was whether to churn out ‘pot-boilers’ or whether to continue in indolence, thereby securing for posterity the primacy of his early works. [11] Inevitably alcoholism would preclude sustained work, as would the need to beg to live (no benefits system in those days).

Falk suggests that Solomon’s poverty was so great that he even ended up selling matches and shoe laces in the Mile End Road, and even set up in Brompton Road and Bayswater as a pavement artist. Falk rather astutely points out that Swinburne having lead Solomon to his fate,  had himself turned over a new leaf under the vigilance of Watts-Dunton.[12]

Solomon seemed to encourage the myth that his plight had turned him into a criminal, flirting with burglaries and hoaxes in the manner of Charles Augustus Howell, but Falk notes he really became a liar. None of these traits are surprising in an alcoholic. Falk does note that Solomon kept his sense of humour, entertaining old friends with anecdotes and tales when he bumped into them in the street. He did similar with Robert Ross.[13]

Solomon painting (Private Collection) ‘Middle-aged and somewhat of a vagabond’ Falk.

At moments of lucidity, Solomon returned to the patient dealers who gave him yet more chances. He even had his photograph taken to show that he was a reformed and productive painter. Sadly this did not inspire his own commitment to the claim. Falk claims, and I cannot entirely verify but have no reason to doubt, that Solomon met with the poet Francis Thompson, another ragged fellow who died young. According to Falk, Thompson encouraged Solomon to attend the Carmelite Church at Kensington.[14] Perhaps he flirted with the idea of converting to Catholicism, or was enjoying the ritual and ‘aesthetic side of the Creed’.[15] Falk quotes Murray Marks’ story, which I in turn relay now:

Marks was a famous Bond Street dealer, who had helped Solomon several times. He used to tell of a solemn lecture he had from Solomon on the subject of becoming a Catholic convert, a lecture ‘interspersed with stories from the Talmud, the whole delivered in the most serious fashion by a man, who, at that moment, was happily and contentedly drunk’.[16]

This lamentable life though took its toll and Solomon, rather unsurprisingly, ended up in the workhouse, St. Giles’ Workhouse, Seven Dials. He was allowed, perhaps even encouraged (in a manner similar to that of Camille Claudel or Richard Dadd?) to paint. His reputation as a once famous artist became known through his long tales, and he was asked to prove himself by his fellow vagrants. He produced a sketch, and, says Falk, he went out into the street and secured a couple of sovereigns whereupon it seems he bought everyone a round and they all jollied at the truth of his story before returning worse for wear to the no doubt weary workhouse.

When a newspaper seller discovered where Solomon was drinking (‘a tavern hard by Seven Dials’), he thought it would make a good story for London’s Evening News. At the time, Solomon’s final years, Falk was working on the Evening News and he was the only reporter to have heard of Solomon.[17] He writes that his life-story of Solomon got bumped by bigger news stories, and some months later an inquest report informed them of the painter’s death. Solomon, despite his alcoholism and poverty, survived until 14th August, 1905: he died suddenly in the dining-hall of the workhouse, having previously got over a heart attack which had caused him to faint in the street’.

Seven Dials refers to six streets in London that join Covent Garden to Soho. The roads converge, facing an type of obelisk which acts as a kind of sundial if you will. Each of the buildings has a clock, hence the ‘dials’, and during nineteenth century, many of the facing dial buildings housed pubs, as indeed some still do.

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Seven Dials, London

During the early nineteenth century, the parish’s population grew to 30,000. The infamous St. Giles Rookery stood between the church and Great Russell Street, and Seven Dials near where Centre Point stands today. St. Giles’ reputation needs no explaining, one only has to look at a Hogarth print for a flavour of degeneracy or read Dickens for a hint of what may lie within:

‘The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time’

Cruikshank, Seven Dials, 1836, from Sketches by Boz

Peter Ackroyd claims ‘The Rookeries embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach’. In its earliest formulation, the hospital of St. Giles (c.1120) was a leper colony. By the nineteenth century though, St. Giles’ Rookery was a hotbed of the disenfranchised who faced / courted prostitution, crime and villainy but also endured poverty, filth and cholera.

Hogarth, Gin Lane (1751, British Museum)

Residents complained to the Times in 1849: ‘We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place’. Mayhew’s famous book on London, A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood (1860) records much of the nature of St. Giles. Whilst the Rookery was demolished by the time Solomon was frequenting the Workhouse of the Seven Dials, it was still an unsavoury area. Even recently, Ackroyd suggested that the flavour of vagrancy has never left the area.

This was the environment where Solomon finally expired.

His early life would not have suggested such a demise. He was born on 8th October, 1841, at Sandys’ Street, Bishopsgate to Kate Levy and Michael Solomon, an importer of Leghorn hats. Significantly, Michael was the first Jew to be admitted a freeman of the City of London. His mother was ‘a woman of artistic impulses’ and Solomon’s elder siblings, Abraham and Rebecca, were also artists. Abraham died on the same day as he was elected A.R.A (and to repeat the grim jest of Solomon, ‘the two events were not necessarily correlated’).[18] Abraham’s most famous work, Waiting for the Verdict (1857, Tate) found its way into middle-class villas as a print. Rebecca worked in Millais’ studio for a time. Swinburne held a fascination for her for a time although Swinburne met Solomon through Burne-Jones, not through his sister. Falk describes Rebecca as having the habit of ‘immoderate drinking’, so perhaps such behaviour was a family disposition.[19]

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Abraham Solomon, Waiting for the Verdict (1857, Tate)

Solomon’s early years in the art world were spent in the Academy Schools and in the Gower Street studio of Abraham. On joining a sketching club he also became friends with Marcus Stone, Albert Moore, and Henry Holiday. He also met Poynter (the future P.R.A) and Joseph Joachim, the Jewish violinist, as well as obviously knowing Millais and the other Pre-Raphaelites.

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Solomon, The Mother of Moses (1860, Delaware)

At the young age of 18, Solomon was exhibiting at the R.A. (in 1858, Michael saw all three of his children exhibit at the R.A!) However, by 1860 his painting Finding of Moses (The Mother of Moses) was attacked for its ‘ugly women’. Falk references Thackeray’s review of the same painting which was ‘entirely favourable’: ‘it nobly represented to my mind the dark children of the Egyptian bondage’.[20]

Whilst working in the studio of Rossetti, Burne-Jones took Solomon under his wing. Frequently taking him home and extending much hospitality and kindness to him, even attempting to do so at points after Solomon’s ‘fall’. Burne-Jones said “You know, Simeon, we are mere schoolboys compared with you”.[21]

Burne-Jones was enamoured with Solomon, as was his wife who exclaimed ‘the tragedy of his broken career is one before which I am dumb’.[22] William Richmond, who first knew Solomon in 1858, claimed that year was his zenith, and suggested it was his Jewish sensibility that secured his talent, a talent Solomon jeopardised when he delved into the ‘artificial and neurotic vein of late and debased Roman Art; the result was, he was no longer sincere’.[23]

Falk goes on to mention, and further lament, Swinburne’s influence: including the naked running around Rossetti’s house anecdote. He also refers again to Menken and Swinburne, and their posing for a photograph. He then describes Solomon’s ‘less offensive, but still unpardonable’ posing in antique Greek costume – a posing designed to satisfy Swinburne again.[24]

Lord Houghton persuaded both the poet and the painter to study Blake, but Falk claims Blake’s influence over Solomon was nil, in contrast to that over Swinburne. [25] The mysticism present in Solomon’s work is of a Jewish origin, particularly from the lyrical poem The Song of Solomon, and was not a Blakean influence.

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Solomon, Portrait of Walter Pater (1873, Peter Nahum Ltd. via Victorian Web)

The Cambridge Don, Oscar Browning and Solomon visited Florence whereupon Solomon engaged with wonder at the Renaissance masters. Bacchus (1867, BMAG) was a product of such influences, and was greatly admired by Pater: this resulted in Solomon offering to paint a portrait of Pater which is one of the few portraits of the shy Don known to be in existence. More and more though, in keeping with other artists of his time, Solomon’s ‘imagination was dominated by visions suggested by Botticelli’.[26] The phrase Falk uses to describe this Botticellian influence are ‘ethereal beauty and a pervasive sense of repose’ which I would agree with.[27]

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Solomon, Bacchus (1867, BMAG)

Such was Solomon’s success that his drawings were posted up in young students’ rooms and he was christened the ‘Shelley of Painting’: Swinburne also proclaimed him ‘one of the glories of the decade’.[28] Falk mentions his vague and misty inspirations, and poetical visions but the most interesting observation he makes is in describing Solomon’s ‘strangely subtilized conceptions of Jesus’.[29]

By 1870, Solomon’s fame was such that he featured in the now legendary The Fleshly School of Poetry attack by Buchanan: he thought Solomon did ‘lend actual genius to worthless subjects, and thereby produce monsters – like the lovely devils that danced round St. Anthony’.[30] This attack was pre-empted by Sidney Colvin (who owned the sketch The Portrait of a Young Boy (1868, British Museum)) who hoped he would ‘bind himself to some grave enterprise of the old Biblical or Roman kind, instead of dispensing his energy in hints, sketches and fancies, however exquisite’.[31]

Portrait of a young girl or boy (?); almost half-length, turned and looking to front. 1868 Black and red chalk
Solomon, The Portrait of a Young Boy (1868, British Museum)

‘A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep’ was Solomon’s way of aligning himself with Rossetti, expanding his own talent, proving himself to his peers (e.g. Swinburne) and explaining ‘the mystical art exercises to which he was devoting the major part of his energies’. Swinburne provided a fairly gentle review of the poem, which did not phase Solomon but he was less pleased by his comments about his drawings. Swinburne identified ‘a mixture of utmost delicacy with a fine cruelty’ in Solomon’s faces, a criticism which Solomon thought had done his reputation more harm than good.[32] For Falk though, ‘what excited the curiosity of the cultured public was the spirit of unearthly passion which played on the countenances of the women, now giving them a slumberous, ecstatic look, now the rapt gaze of one whose soul was in communion with the Angels above’.[33]

Falk also suggests the faces of Solomon’s women signified ‘internal decay’, a fashionable moment which was embraced by the likes of Wilde (whose De Profundis tells us that he owned paintings by Solomon).[34]

The downfall of Solomon was perhaps less wilfully deserved than Wilde, who seemed to recklessly orchestrate his own imprisonment. Solomon’s discovery at cottaging in 1873, which Falk doesn’t really detail, soon showed him who his friends were. Perhaps this is where much of Falk’s dislike for Swinburne comes from, for he includes a letter Swinburne wrote to his friend George Powell on 6th June, 1873, which very clearly shows Swinburne positioning himself as an innocent and a gentle chastiser / disapprover:

‘Do you – I do not – know of any detail of the matter at first hand?’…before he firmly implies / lays suggestions at Pater’s feet ‘Pater, I imagine, did.’

‘I have been seriously unhappy about it, for I had real affection and regard for him…the distress of it has haunted and broken my sleep’. It is hideous to lose a friend by madness of any kind, let alone this’.[35]

Solomon was Swinburne’s fall guy in some ways. If Swinburne distanced himself, he maintained his own respectability: a view that I believe Falk observed, as did Swinburne’s own biographer, Dr. Georges Lafourcade. Falk firmly accuses Swinburne of being a fair weather friend who cut loose friends when it served his purpose, whilst hypocritically proclaiming the appropriate amount of sympathy and / or disapproval. I believe he did just such a thing with Solomon, as evidently Falk also believes. Similarly, on hearing of Menken’s death, he lamented and waxed lyrical, but it wasn’t long before ‘he sneered at the idea that she had ever meant to him more than any agreeable demi-mondaine’.[36]

Swinburne and Menken

When Solomon left prison and the madhouse he had been held within, he found himself abandoned, disowned by those who had courted him. Falk’s tone here is sympathetic, whilst being factual still: he tells of how Solomon sold Swinburne’s letters only when he was reduced to semi-starvation. But needs must sometimes is the view Falk takes, or as he puts it ‘hunger is a desperate counsellor’.[37] In fact within six years Swinburne descries Solomon as ‘now a thing unmentionable by men or women, as equally abhorrent to either’.[38]

In this stage of Falk’s reliving the tale it is hard to tell who he is more exasperated with: Swinburne for being ‘callous’ and disowning his friend or ‘the disgusting character of Solomon’ (this is in relation to the selling of the letters, not his homosexuality).[39]

Solomon’s newly restored grave, unveiled in 2014, Willesden Hebrew Cemetery

Solomon died and because he was Jewish, he was buried accordingly in Willesden Hebrew Cemetery. Although Salome had been deserted and left to his own drunken fate, the R.A. put on a memorial exhibition in 1906 and for the first time, the public got to judge the variety of his achievements. His reputation floundered bit in the last thirty years it is rapidly gaining ground. For example, seven of his works are included in the current Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate. Solomon’s reputation continues to grow as does people’s love for his work and interest in the ‘tragedy’ of his story, all of which combined precipitated his grave being restored in 2014 (this can be seen above in its new glory).

Falk concludes his retelling of the tragedy with the lines: ‘I repeat, as a draughtsman and the master of a seductive line, Simeon Solomon was not excelled by any of his contemporaries’.[40]

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Simeon Solomon

Images owned by: British Museum, Tate, Wikipedia, Victorian Web, Delaware Art Gallery, Simeon Solomon.com, The Evening Standard

 

[1] Bernard Falk, Five Years Dead (Plymouth: Mayflower Press, 1938), p. 311.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 312

[5] Ibid., p. 328

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 322.

[10] Ibid., 314.

[11] Ibid., 315.

[12] Ibid., p. 315.

[13] Ibid., p. 316

[14] Ibid., p. 317.

[15] Ibid., p. 317.

[16] See: Dr. G.C. Williamson, Murray Marks and his Friends.

[17] Ibid., p. 318.

[18] Ibid., p.319.

[19] Ibid., p. 319.

[20] Ibid., p 320

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 321

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 322.

[25] Ibid., p. 323.

[26] Ibid., p 323.

[27] Ibid., p. 323.

[28] Ibid., p. 323.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 324.

[31] Ibid.,

[32] Ibid., p. 325.

[33] Ibid., p. 325.

[34] Ibid., p. 326.

[35] Ibid., p. 327.

[36] Ibid., p. 328.

[37] Ibid., p. 329.

[38] Ibid., p. 329

[39] Ibid., p. 330.

[40] Ibid., p. 331.

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