Birmingham is hosting the first major exhibition for almost a century of a precocious Victorian artist whose career was ended by homosexual scandal. Terry Grimley reports...
The name of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) will be familar to anyone who has taken an interest in the Pre-Rapahelites, but until now it has not been easy to get an overall picture of his career.
A member of the supporting cast around the second, Rossetti and Burne-Jones-dominated, phase of the movement, he is distanced from it by two characteristics which deeply affected his work: Jewishness and homosexuality.
Regarded as brilliantly promising when he first became known to the art world as a teenager (?We are mere schoolboys compared to you,? Burne-Jones told him), his public career came to an abrupt end in 1873 following an indiscretion in a public toilet and his subsequent prosecution.
For the last 30 years of his life Solomon was a social pariah - though it seems that some of his isolation from old friends was self-imposed - and he died in the work-house 100 years ago this year.
Now Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, which owns the largest public collection of Solomon?s work, has organised the most comprehensive display of it since the memorial exhibitions which followed his death.
From the start of the 20th century the Pre-Raphaelites in general underwent more than six decades of neglect. While fashion turned in the 1960s, revival of interest in Solomon has been led by gay consciousness and such specific events as Neil Bartlett?s theatrical evocation of the artist in the mid-80s.
The exhibition traces Solomon?s career from examples of his precocious teenage draughtsmanship to the loose post-fall work with its links to European Symbolism.
It shows that he took inspiration not only from Jewish ritual but from that of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, that he was part of the classical revival in high Victorian Art, and that the homo-erotic aspect of his work could be remarkably explicit.
This suggests a certain element of denial among contemporary view-ers, though if so his falling-out with the important patron F R Leyland over his painting Heliogabalus suggests that it was wearing thin by 1869.
But by the time he embarked on his most revealing series of allegorical paintings incorporating the male nude, he was cocooned in a circle of gay patrons.
Outside this circle criticism of his work, though encoded, became more trenchant.
The exhibition also confirms what was said about Simeon by contemporary critics - that his work is extremely variable in quality. The general consensus was that a great talent had failed to fulfill its promise, yet it is not entirely clear where exactly this talent was thought to lie.
Solomon?s originality was largely a matter of subject matter rather than style or technique.
The early Old Testament subjects, for example, make an issue of the artist?s Jewishness, in striking contrast to the work of his elder brother Abraham, a conventional painter of mid-Victorian genre subjects.
Some early drawings of contemporary Jewish ceremonies including a circumcision are the only images where such modern props as top hats appear. For the rest, Solomon inhabits the medieval neverland of Rossetti and Burne-Jones or the classical world of such artists as Leighton and Alma-Tadema, and much of what he produced has an essentially secondhand look.
A Deacon (1863), bought by Birmingham two years ago and one of Solomon?s most satisfying oil paintings, shows an indebtedness to Leighton rather than Burne-Jones or Rossetti, whose vapidity he could emulate only too well in his portraits of stereotypically Pre-Raphaelite women.
Birmingham can claim some of Solomon?s most powerful works, including the remarkable drawing Babylon Hath Been a Golden Cup (1859), done at the age of 17, and Bacchus (1867), a painting which encapsulates the artist?s classicism and, more fundamentally, enthusiasm for male beauty.
The latter also characterises the startling watercolour portrait of a young priest, The Mystery of Faith (1870, Lady Lever Art Gallery). With its predominant white and gold colouring this relates to the single-colour experiments of such artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement as Whistler and Albert Moore.
However, in contrast to those artists Solomon shows little stylistic consistency around this idea.
Throughout the exhibition contemporary works by other artists from the Birmingham collection provide a commentary and context. In the final section of late works the context is provided by the loan of two works by that fascinating Belgian artist, rarely glimpsed in Britain, Fernand Khnopff.
The juxtaposition unfortunately serves only to emphasise how much more interesting an artist Khnopff is than Solomon, whose late works seem as derivative of Burne-Jones?s late quasi-Symbolist work as his The Painter?s Pleasaunce (1861, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester) is of Burne-Jones?s early manner.
Reading the catalogue, comprehensively researched by guest curator Colin Cruise and his collegues, the sense of personal tragedy in Solomon?s story comes through powerfully. Early accounts of him suggest a charming, lively and entertaining young man.
Students of Judaism and homosexuality in Victorian England will find his work a priceless resource. But from the point of view of art, whether this close-up view of Solomon will significantly enhance his reputation is open to debate.
* Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites is at the Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, from tomorrow until January 15 (Mon-Thu, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am- 5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission #3.95, concessions #2.95). It will also be show at the Villa Stuck, Munich, from March 9-June 18 next year.