The forgotten Pre-Raphaelite

Painting 'He descedend in to Hell' by Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon was all of the things you shouldn’t be in Victorian England; he was Jewish, he was gay and he suffered from mental health issues. Through his friendship with Rossetti he became one of the group of artists, poets and designers involved in the second wave of Pre- Raphaelitism. He was hailed a genius within his lifetime, exhibiting his art in all the major London galleries, designing stained glass for Morris & Co. and illustrating beautiful books, all to much critical acclaim. Yet he is largely forgotten today and died in obscurity, poverty and alcoholism in the workhouse.

Early Life

Solomon was born into a prosperous Jewish family in London. His father was the first Jewish person to be given the freedom of the city of London and first Jew to hold a licence to trade there.
The Solomon’s were a family of artists. Solomon’s Mother painted and his siblings Abraham and Rebecca, were both successful professional artists. Solomon attended the Royal Academy Schools when he was fifteen and exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of just eighteen. He was hailed a genius by his contemporaries.

" Solomon was the best of us all"
- Edward Burne-Jones

Solomon initially gained much critical and commercial acclaim for his depictions of Old Testament scenes with his accurate portrayal of costume and location, using his own Jewish heritage and community as inspiration. These were sold to a predominately Christian market, who adored them. But, by 1870 his style was changing, with the influence of Aestheticism (Art for Art’s sake) and the exploration of his homosexuality becoming overtly evident in his art. He was becoming reckless.

'Night' by Simeon Solomon
Night by Simeon Solomon
'Night' by Simeon Solomon

Discrimination and Obscurity

Solomon's spectacular fall from grace happened in a public urinal near Oxford Street in 1873. His 60 year old partner was sentenced to 18 months hard labour and Solomon was fined £100 (over £100,000 today) and had to promise he would behave himself … he didn’t. He was arrested in Paris the following year for the same offence (gross indecency) where he served three months in jail.  Many friends deserted him, terrified of being associated with the scandal and many galleries refused to display his work.
The sale of photographic copies of Solomon’s pictures brought his work to the notice of a group of gay undergraduates at Oxford, including a young Oscar Wilde. He became an underground gay icon. Although friends tried to help him, his alcoholism was getting worse and this lead to severe mental health problems.
Solomon spent the last 20 years of his life in and out of the workhouse; he was admitted to St Giles Workhouse Bloomsbury in 1884 as a broken down artist where he died in 1905. 

The Honeysuckle Room at Wightwick Manor contains 10 works of art by Solomon; most from the later period when he is repeatedly exploring the themes of Night and Death. Please note that the upper floor of the Manor, including the Honeysuckle Room, is currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Drawing by Simeon Solomon hanging in the Honeysuckle Bedroom

Simeon Solomon explored

Watch three videos that explore the tragic life and work of the Pre-raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon as we mark 50 years since the partial de-criminalisation of homosexuality.