A Casualty of Circumstance: Simon Poe Looks into the Sad Tale of Simeon Solomon, at Last Given His Due as an Artist
Poe, Simon, New Statesman (1996)
On 24 February 1873, a young Jewish artist was prosecuted at Clerkenwell Sessions for "unlawfully attempting feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery", having been caught in flagrante with a chance-met companion in a public lavatory a fort-night earlier. This was Simeon Solomon, the rising star of the Aesthetic Movement--and his career was over. "Friends" such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was a drug addict and paranoid recluse) and Lord Houghton (whose favoured guests at Fryston Hall in Yorkshire were invited to peruse his famous collection of erotica on Sundays while more fastidious visitors were at church) dropped him overnight.
The poet, Swinburne (an alcoholic sadomasochist who wrote pornographic verses about schoolboy floggings for circulation among like-minded acquaintances), said that he had become "a thing unmentionable alike by men and women, as equally abhorrent to either--nay, to the very beasts". It seems very unfair that Oscar Wilde has become a gay martyr and a secular saint, while poor Solomon is virtually forgotten. But then the infinitely quotable Oscar famously "put [his] genius into [his] life and ... only [his] talent into [his] works".
Solomon's genius went into his paintings, which are unlike anyone else's. A hundred years after his lonely death in the StGiles workhouse in Seven Dials, a major exhibition of his work has finally opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
Solomon was the youngest of eight children whose father was a Bishopsgate hat manufacturer. Two of his siblings, Abraham and Rebecca, were also artists and he had his first training in Abraham's studio. After further study at Leigh's Art School and Cary's Drawing School he arrived, aged only 15, at the Royal Academy Schools. Three years later he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, and was a regular exhibitor until his downfall.
During the late 1850s and 1860s, he produced illustrations for books and magazines, decorative work for the architect William Burges, and stained-glass designs for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. He drew on his Orthodox Jewish heritage for paintings such as Carrying the Scrolls of the Law. In 1866, he went to Italy for the first of three visits. In Florence, under the new influence of painters such as Botticelli, Luini and Sodoma, he painted Love in Autumn, one of his finest works, which shows a beautiful adolescent cupid buffeted by a cold wind amid flying leaves and lashing trees. A reviewer described it as a "mythological conceit so enigmatical [sic] as to leave us in doubt as to its reading", but it is hard now not to see a reference to the increasingly inhospitable sexual climate in which men such as Solomon found themselves. …