Somerville College
Woodstock Road, Oxford,
The ORB is published with permission of LM Publishing Ltd, Palladium House, 1-4 Argyll St, London W1F 7LD.
Subscribe to the ORB

The Lost Letters

By Lewis Roberts

The only extant copy of Simeon Solomon’s Two Treatises on Scientific Subjects has a loose leaf on which is written a note from Frederick Locker-Lampson, the Victorian bibliophile and man of letters. It reads:

This pamphlet was given to me by a poor wretch called Simeon Solomon. I knew him in Rome & then he was esteemed a young man of exceeding promise but he has a vicious, morbid style & did not advance in reputation & one day he was obliged to hide himself & he has never been seen since – tho’ I believe he is alive & in London.

Swinburne admired his art. He had a brother & sister who both painted.

This account by Locker-Lampson is typical of the rumour mill which surrounded Solomon and continues to haunt his legacy. It is written as if it were a detective novel, daring his indeterminate reader to seek out this ‘vicious’ and ‘morbid’ degenerate in the backstreets of London. I begin with this gobbet because I feel something of an affinity with his curt appraisal of Solomon. This feeling struck me deeply while I was studying this volume in the University of Cincinnati library: no one wants to talk about Solomon in any detail. I travelled to Ohio recently to see this book, having been previously dissuaded from doing do by the resident librarian. In his view, the short volume couldn’t possibly be worth flying half way around the globe, and he kindly offered to send me a photocopy of each page instead.

Little by way of biography has been written on the fringe member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that which does exist paints the artist and poet as disagreeable, ugly and odd. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that this is partly what draws me towards studying him. It seems that for every step forward I take in studying the bizarre character that he was, I take several back, as will become a motif in this article. I believe that the confusion surrounding this figure is due to a reciprocal partnership between the multiplicity of his life and the trenchant malignity his life and legacy face. I will endeavour now to highlight how contrapuntal his life was by summarising it as best I can.

Solomon was born to a moderately successful Jewish family in London in 1840. His childhood saw artistic encouragement outweigh the racism and prejudice he faced and he went on to follow his brother Abraham into the Royal Academy. There he worked closely with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and established himself as a skilled and well known draughtsman. Charles Algernon Swinburne was his great admirer and their correspondence speaks volumes about the closeness and similarity the two shared. Solomon’s early paintings are devoutly Pre-Raphaelite. The stereotypical marks – strong female jawlines, impeccable attention to detail – as well as more nuanced Pre-Raphaelite traits – a reimagining of classical metaphor, a deeply personal approach to portraiture – pervade the output from this part of his life. It was later, when he entered the dandyish, Wildean circles that he began both his physical demise and artistic estrangement from the Pre-Raphaelite circle. It was also at this time he embarked on his only extant work of poetry: A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep. Solomon was arrested in a public toilet in 1873 and following a conviction for sodomy, he died in a workhouse in 1884 from complications resulting from alcoholism.

And so, in finding the note from Locker-Lampson, at once an admirer and a detractor, I am sent chasing Solomon’s seemingly otherwise undocumented sojourn in Rome. This elliptical explanation, so common in narrations of Solomon’s life, is enticing; Rome and London are both mentioned without explanation, and the volume apparently came from the author himself. Reading these words for the first time in a university library in a country I had never visited before, with the kind but suspicious guidance of a librarian who is bemused by my suggestion that the volume is significant, I feel quite lost. If you will, I am as unfamiliar with the book as it is with scholarly research.

A few days and many guilt-ridden, environment-killing miles travelled later, I find myself in the Houghton Library at Harvard. This time, I have some back-up, in the form of an article from 2016 in the TLS by Amber K Regis, the editor of the first scholarly edition of the Memoirs of John Addington Symonds. Symonds was a close correspondent of Solomon’s and despite their dramatic artistic disparity (Symonds is flippant and a dandy by comparison Solomon), they have a lot in common. They were both incredibly talented and privileged men who spent much of the latter half of their respective lives trying to hide who they loved from the world.

Regis’ article points to unpublished and largely unread texts by Symonds at both Harvard and Bristol University libraries, which she describes as ‘rare extant copies’ of his ‘homoerotic verse’. However, when the librarian needs the assistance of a trolley to bring the volumes out from the hallowed storage rooms of the Houghton, I realise I am unprepared for the size of the collection. Hundreds of pages of typescript text, of which, as far as I can tell, the academic community is largely unaware, are plonked on the desk in front of me. I was not expecting this. Usually an unpublished manuscript listed in an online catalogue means a scrap of paper with a draft poem, or, if you are lucky, a letter which you can clumsily shoehorn into an argument to make sure your readers see your flair.

But this time, I have struck gold. One of the pieces in the volume is an essay entitled ‘Notes on the Relation of Art to Reality’: Symonds is about to be reincarnated and explain his artistic ideology to me. He writes: ‘Philosophy explains the cogency of Duty. Religion stimulates piety. Art expands our faculties by providing a noble source of pleasure.’ I am entirely perplexed by the ease with which Symonds’ aesthetic presents itself to me. I spend the next hour looking through his published works to check I am not kidding myself, that I am not in fact down a path well-trod, and that I am unveiling this thinker’s lost thoughts. The plot thickens as the next essay in the volume is entitled ‘Bacilli and Bacteria’. Thinking about Solomon’s scientific text which I had seen in Cincinnati a few days earlier, I am somewhere between relieved and disappointed to read that the pretended science is a metaphor. The essay begins:

We shall not be truly religious, upon the new lines of theology indicated by modern science, until we have admitted the voice of bacilli and bacteria, preying upon ourselves and on our dear ones, into the Chorus of the Benedicite.

Neither text can or would claim any scientific merit but they both use science as an allegory to satirise what people see as ‘truth’, or, particularly in Symonds’ case, the godly role of medicine. Science, for both these men, is a cover beneath which they are safe to expose their views. These texts satirise the Victorian obsession with the pursuit of truth in favour of a reinvigoration of art.

A few hours later I am sitting in the beautiful quad at Harvard, reminding me a lot of the 19th century colleges in my native Oxford. I am struck by just how American America is and just how English I am, as the imposing statue of John Harvard looks across at me. It is something of a cliché, but nonetheless true, that America and its universities are enormous and imposing in their prestige. Comparing this to my Oxford home, which while equally esteemed seems to maintain a certain humility, I feel something like the objects of my research, a fish out of water.

My research took me to America in the first place because the academic institutions in the US are simply wealthier and have therefore had the power over the centuries to purchase enormous collections of work by authors whom, frankly, UK universities do not have the money to invest in. I am reminded of the first stop on my trip, The J Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. It comes into my mind because I have never been in a research institution in the UK which rings of such affluence; indeed, The Morgan, as the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed, is the private library of the J P Morgan. The private lifts and one-on-one attention from the librarians is incomparable to the public institutions at home.

At the ripe old age of twenty, I am reluctant to bestow advice upon you; however, I would simply say that success on research trips comes from composing yourself quickly. There was little time to peruse Mr Morgan’s obscure and brilliant collections, for I was there to see a couple of letters by Solomon, but on arrival the librarian revealed that the single ‘call number’ (that is, the number under which the artefacts are catalogued) now hid a large collection of treasures. The librarian became increasingly helpful with each box that emerged from the seemingly endless cabinet and I became increasingly overwhelmed. These people and these texts have a kaleidoscopic history where one step forward reveals a new wealth of resources and possible avenues of research.

It is something I have found in various facets of this project. For example, the title page of Solomon’s Treatises, with which I began this article, lists a hefty trove of other texts by Solomon which are now lost. One, ‘The Diving Bell’ is mentioned elsewhere but the others are new to me and, I understand, to the academy. However, a discovery I made by chance a month earlier back home in the Bodleian gave an intriguing transatlantic link with one text in this list: a book listed on the Treatises title page as ‘Moral Tales’.

In the Bodleian’s catalogue, under the pseudonym ‘Ancient Simeon’, are four printed chapbooks which appear to exist in few other copies worldwide. A chapbook was a small Victorian storybook often aimed at giving a Christian lesson to children; many were written by ministers or learned Christian men and women. The ‘Ancient Simeon’ chapbooks date from the late 1870s and early 1880s and so would be typical and uninteresting were it not for the fact that this is the time at which Simeon Solomon converted from Judaism to Christianity.

That Solomon wrote these chapbooks is far from proven, and I am not claiming to prove it here, yet it seems so plausible that the ‘Moral Tales’ and the ‘Ancient Simeon’ chapbooks are one and the same. They say (or if they do not, they ought to) that academic research should not be based on a proverb, but if it is true that there is greater zeal in a convert than someone already on the path, then the kaleidoscope deepens further.

This transition from success to disgrace is largely undocumented and that which is available is sparse, and again, geographically spread out. I find that there is a deep parallel between the difficulties faced by scholars in Queer Studies and the scattered, dysfunctional lives of its subjects. It stems from the fact that university politics – American universities having more money (and frankly interest) to devote to these figures than British ones – mirrors how Solomon and his circle were maligned. While it would be wrong to claim that there is a conscious effort to side line these figures, they have indeed fallen through the net.

This subject is on my mind at the end of my trip, as I travel to Los Angeles to see some documents relating to this period in Solomon’s life. The University of California makes a dedicated effort to collect papers and artefacts relating to stigmatised authors, particularly queer writers. It is for that reason that their collection of ‘Wildeiana’ is one of the strongest in the world and why four letters by sometime fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and assumed pederast Oscar Browning ended up in the special collections of UCLA, at the Clark Memorial Library.

Public transport in the USA is shockingly bad for someone who has never left Europe, and so as I fall off the bus I am sharply aware of how remote the Clark Library is to the rest of LA’s cultural centre. It is situated in a former mansion, or rather, it is literally in the basement of said mansion. If I were not so irked by the world when I finally arrived, I might have managed a few poetic thoughts about how the works of these outcasts ended up in a library itself outcast and subsidiary to the rest of the work at the esteemed university.

Now well-practiced at pulling myself together in these situations, I embark upon reading a letter from Browning regarding Solomon. The letter to Joseph Leftwich begins with a particularly frank appraisal of Solomon’s subscription to ‘Greek Love’: ‘the aesthetic movement’, Browning says, ‘believed that bisexual [meaning heterosexual] love was a sensual and basing thing and the love of male for male was in every way higher and more elevating to the character.’ He goes on to say, ‘as I was at that time a schoolmaster, it was absolutely impossible that I should take their view of things.’

Letters always have a certain magic for researchers; it is as if you have taken a step closer to their author when you can see every pen stroke and every mistake. But here it seems particularly visceral. Here is a man on the edge of two worlds: early twentieth century Cambridge, where heterosexuality is not just the norm but is enforced, and a subaltern community of academics who pine for a world they see as sexually liberated. Later in the letter, Browning usefully sheds some light on Swinburne’s relationship with Solomon following the latter’s collapse:

Swinburne was a loathsome little beast. His favourite occupation was to see boys flogged till they bled, and if the blood would not come, they used red ink.

and later:

It was Swinburne who made him a drunkard and for this I never forgave him. He got very bad in his old age, the consequence of drink.

It is difficult not to be moved by this. I knew Swinburne was said to be antagonistic, but this is, to put it mildly, an intense tale.

By the time I leave the library, it is 38 degrees and, suffering the severe misfortune of being English, this disgruntles me. Moreover, I feel somewhat cheated by my day’s research. Solomon, who had to me been something of a mystery, flitting between labels and categories, having a biography which lacks significant details, gets more human the more research I do. Indeed, he drank too much and he fell out with his friends, who, while particularly malicious, serve to make the history more real. While I feel sure there is some homophobia there and that I really ought to hate Swinburne as much as Browning did, I don’t. Instead, rather than feeling angry for this maligned figure, I am instead annoyed at Solomon for no longer being so much of a riddle.

With every new relationship of his that I uncover, I understand his social life more, and I can see more clearly the wake he left behind. A man who was once an ethereal enigma is increasingly a moment in history, and it is a history of an England which made him compete with figures more interesting than himself.

But, in essence, that is the point of research, to know my subject better than before. A E Housman (another sad, gay man) once said that ‘all human knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.’ I’m not sure if I agree, but we all must have faith that this is true. This was my first research trip abroad and I learnt a huge amount about my subject and about research itself. I have found that there is a certain teleology to research which means that one finds oneself aiming towards a final conclusion, which is partly fulfilled with every minor discovery and yet which always necessarily remains elusive.

I mean to say that while it is impossible to create a perfect picture of any artist, and I certainly wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest I have come close, that must be the aim of research if it is to mean anything. If it is inevitable that in uncovering a life, fleshing out his story to revive the flesh, that that life will become more human, then I can only say that for Solomon and his circle, I am doing my job well.

LEWIS ROBERTS reads English at Magdalen. He constantly aspires to aspire to the condition of music.

Art by Ellen Sharman