Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Solomon's Vision

On Monday, February 10, 2014, Bonhams Los Angeles sold at auction a rare book that anyone who is a follower of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and the Pre-Raphaelites would have loved to own…including me. However, it was clearly above my income bracket, as it sold for the amazing price of $17,500! The good news about this is that I know who the winning buyer was, and I’m delighted to hear this person was successful in the bid, for this treasure of a book will go to a good home and be available for scholars in the near future. The seller had been in touch with my fellow Solomaniac Carolyn Conroy and me about this book for a few months already, so we were very eager to know how things would progress with this sale.

The image you see here is the cover of the book, A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, written by Solomon and published by F. S. Ellis for him in 1871 (i.e. self-published with Ellis). There were a small number of these beautifully-bound copies of his prose-poem published at the time, mostly for him to give away to his friends, so they are already unique on the market. (A search in WorldCat shows that only 16 libraries in the US, Canada, and the UK have copies.) What makes this particular copy even more special is that it was the one owned by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Inside, it is inscribed in the author’s handwriting: “With S. Solomon’s affectionate regards / to his friend, A. C. Swinburne / March 1871.” As a personal copy given by the author to his friend, it’s a lovely complement to another copy that once belonged to the painter Edward Burne-Jones, which is now at the University of Rochester.

Solomon and Swinburne were for many years a “dynamic duo” in 1860s Pre-Raphaelitism. They probably met through Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones around 1862, and the two young men quickly took a liking to one another, Solomon (photo right) a Jewish youth with unkempt hair, a beard, and sad eyes, Swinburne a slender fop with a bush of red hair (photo below). One of the most audacious anecdotes ever told about them is that Rossetti came home one day to discover Swinburne chasing Solomon down the stairs, and both of them were naked. All that said, it is doubtful they were ever lovers. Biographers tend to see Swinburne as an auto-erotic who indulged in flagellation and birching. But combined with Solomon’s homosexuality, history saw fit to mix the two as sexual deviants of the Victorian era. Solomon is credited these days with being one of the first artists to depict the ancient Greek poetess Sappho as a lesbian (see, for instance, the Tate's Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene), and this imagery was clearly part of the working association he had with Swinburne, who wrote poetry about Sappho in a similar way. Solomon also illustrated Swinburne’s birching tales, such as Lesbia Brandon, drawings one can see in the collections of the British Library. With their friendship blooming, Solomon spent the 1860s painting provocative male figures and exhibited them at the Royal Academy and the Dudley Gallery, while Swinburne scandalized readers with the first edition of his Poems and Ballads (1866) with odes written for and about sado-masochistic women.

A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep is seen today as an early example of gay literature, and indeed it was republished in its entirety most recently in Chris White’s edited anthology Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 1999). Expressing the physical and emotional angst of different types of love, Solomon’s text has come to be seen as a paean to same-sex passion at a time when one could not express this kind of love in society. At the time of its publication, however, his prose-poem was seen by reviewers as an artist’s statement for his highly symbolic, personalized imagery that drew on ancient mysticism—ephebic gods of love, angels, and love-struck youths—figures that populated his paintings such as Love in Autumn and Sacramentum Amoris and often left viewers confused as to what they meant. Discouraging reviews of the prose-poem appeared in the Athenaeum and the Jewish Chronicle, but John Addington Symonds (later a champion for same-sex passion) wrote a laudatory review in the Academy. Swinburne also wrote a review (at Solomon’s request) and it appeared in the first issue of the Dark Blue. Sadly, Solomon was less than pleased with Swinburne’s review, concerned that it gave the wrong impression of Solomon’s symbolic meaning. In retrospect it seems safe to speculate from some of their letters that this may have been the beginning of the rupture in their friendship.

After Solomon’s arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes, Swinburne was among his former friends who outright rejected and distanced himself from Solomon, probably fearing for his own public reputation. Years afterward, when he was desperate for money, Solomon reportedly tried to sell off some of Swinburne’s more salacious letters, for which the now-reformed and alcohol-temperate Swinburne never forgave him. Swinburne’s letters to Solomon have never been found and probably were destroyed at some point. However, many of Solomon’s letters to Swinburne do still exist and were published in a few books, most recently Terry Meyers’s edited Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Pickering & Chatto, 2005). The letters reveal hints of their secret adventures, occasionally written in coded language. More boldly in 1871, just two months after the publication of Vision, Solomon wrote letters to Swinburne about the trial of the famous cross-dressers Thomas Ernest “Stella” Boulton and FrederickWilliam “Fanny” Parke. The friendship of Solomon and Swinburne lasted less than a decade, but it produced a fruitful, creative relationship that clearly benefited both of them in art and literature. This particular copy of Vision that has just been sold is rather special then. It records a moment in time at the apex of their relationship when this talented duo respected one another and were close, actively learning from one another. After this moment, things changed, and this book and its inscription now forever commemorate a relationship where each was able to say, for a short period of time, “affectionate regards” to a friend.

UPDATE 3/2/14: I can now announce with some excitement who won the auction for this rare copy of Solomon's 1871 prose-poem, dedicated to Swinburne. The book now resides in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library. Mark Samuels Lasner has spent much of his life amassing one of the best private collections of Victorian literature, manuscripts, and drawings. He has been incredibly generous in providing access to works in his collection for researchers (myself included), and he has exhibited his collection widely to encourage further scholarship. His long-term plan of making the collection accessible through the University of Delaware Library means scholars worldwide will be able to have access to these rare and excellent items for ages to come. I can't think of a better home for this special copy of Solomon's little book.

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