Wednesday 22 May 2013

Simeon Solomon Appeal

Last November I posted a piece on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive. As I mentioned then, I’m a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society (PRS) and have been a fan of Solomon’s work for many years.

Recently, with the Spring newsletter of the PRS, members received an appeal from Frank Vigon, an Educational Consultant who has been researching Jewish artists.

The following appeal is published with his permission, and is selected from his PRS appeal, an article he wrote for several Jewish periodicals, and a personal email.
I first came upon Simeon Solomon when I was preparing a talk on the rarity of Jewish artists throughout history. On researching his work further, my mind was blown by the breadth of his talent.

From an early age he showed clear artistic talent sketching many images from Jewish culture and Jewish biblical themes. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 18. He was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite group and was very much connected to the second phase of this group’s development. He was very much at the centre. So much so that Burne Jones said of him “Solomon was the greatest artist of us all”.

By far the youngest of the group, he was nevertheless popular in Victorian England. At the height of his fame reproductions of his works were to be found in many Victorian homes.

In the hothouse of the avant-garde circles in which he moves Solomon finds himself on the margins of society both as a Jew and as a homosexual. A significant body of his work is often seen as having homoerotic undertones which is heavily hinted at by some of his less supportive critics. Nevertheless his success as an artist compensates for the two potential areas of exclusion.

In 1874 Solomon is arrested with another man in a public toilet off Oxford Street, prosecuted and found guilty. The scandal destroys his reputation, his career and his personality. The vast majority of his friends and associates drop him. The galleries that exhibited his work every year since he was 18 refuse to show his work. At the age of 33 he drifts into poverty and alcoholism and becomes an outcast. He continues to work and produces some very fine pieces including some excellent portraits, some work on Christian themes and a significant number of symbolist paintings.

He drifts in and out of the workhouse, but his output is unreliable due to bouts of alcoholism. He spends the rest of his life in a downward spiral still producing work but shunned. He dies in St Giles workhouse in 1905. The tragedy is that he was such a gifted and talented artist whose craft both as an artist and poet ought to have earned him a more prominent place within the Pre-Raphaelite group. This is one of our most significant Jewish painters. His work deserves a reappraisal and certainly his memory deserves honouring.

Alongside is a picture of his grave in Willesden Jewish Cemetery as it now lies: abandoned, fallen tombstone with the writing effaced by time. I have talked with the cemetery and intend to raise enough money over the next few months to re-establish the headstone, lay a body stone and affix a plaque which will read “Simeon Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite artist, 1840–1905. This stone re-established by subscription in recognition of his unique gifts and talent.”

To at least do something meaningful with the grave I am now targeted at around £2500 to £3000 which should cover the reinstatement of the grave. I am still discussing with interested supporters the establishment of a living legacy.

I have the support of Dr. Carolyn Conroy of Art History Dept. at the University of York, who is an acknowledged expert on Simeon Solomon [and co-creator of the Simeon Solomon Research Archive].

I am happy to receive any amount no matter how small, every little bit of money contributes and will be equally valued. Some senior citizens at some of the talks I have given gave me small change and it was in many ways more appreciated than some of the very generous cheques that I have received.

I have now raised £1,400 from contributors and talks. Many have been in touch including a distant relative, Pam Solomon, and they now feel that it would be appropriate to have something from his artwork engraved on the stone. This in itself might be problematic as this is a Jewish Cemetery and "graven images" might not be permitted. Initially I am thinking of something from his symbolist period on the subject of "night, sleep and death" as he himself said: "Night, sleep, death and the stars, they are the themes that I love best"

But any help you can give will be very much appreciated, it is so good to know that there are now many people from the Jewish, gay and heterosexual community who are coming together to reinstate a much maligned and unjustly treated artist. This alone is a fitting tribute to his memory and talent.
Frank Vigon
I also think Simeon Solomon deserves to be respected for his work and not his sexuality and downfall. I was a fan of Solomon’s art long before I discovered anything about his life.

If you want to contribute to the appeal you can send cheques made out to “Frank Vigon (Simeon Solomon” and send it to:
122 Windmill Street
Cheshire SK11 7LB
United Kingdom

If you’d rather donate in another way I’m sure Mr Vigon will be pleased to arrange something. He has agreed to let me publish his email address if you want to contact him –

I’m thinking of getting some of my friends involved by hosting a Pre-Raphaelite fundraising party. We’ll dress up as Victorians, eat Victoria sponges, listen to Victorian music, and play Victorian parlour games. I’ll put prints of Simeon’s work on the walls. I might even have a little chalk and pastel drawing contest. My guests will be asked to make a donation to the fund and have fun at the same time.

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