Restoring a reputation
Stone Art Memorials, whose workshop is on the Sterling Industrial Estate, has just completed a commission to replace the gravestone of Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, following an appeal to raise funds for its restitution.
The grave of this talented but largely forgotten artist lies abandoned, the headstone fallen with the writing effaced by time, in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Solomon Simeon’s story is one of personal tragedy. Born in 1840, into a prominent Jewish family of artists in London, he was highly-gifted and first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 18.
In the 1850s Rossetti introduced him to the Pre-Raphaelite group, including Holman Hunt, Millais and Burne Jones, who by the 1860s and early 1870s – his key period of work – acknowledged his skills. He was very much at the centre of the group. Burne Jones said: “Solomon was the greatest artist of us all”. His work moved through mythological, classical and symbolist phases. In addition to the literary paintings favoured by the Pre-Raphaelite school, Solomon’s subjects often included scenes from the Hebrew Bible and genre paintings depicting Jewish life and rituals. His association with Swinburne led to his illustrating the poet’s Lesbia Brandon in 1865. He experimented with several styles and in his work there are glimpses of expression and style that were to become famous in artists such as Lord Leighton, Alma Tadema, Beardsley, Klimt and Chagal. He was a shape shifter and at the height of his fame, reproductions of his works were to be found in many Victorian homes. In Oscar Wilde's long prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, Wilde writes of his bankruptcy: “That all my charming things were to be sold: my Burne-Jones drawings: my Whistler drawings... my Simeon Solomons...”.
It was Swinburne’s hedonistic and scandalous lifestyle that led Solomon astray. In the hothouse of avant-garde circles in which he moved, he found himself on the margins of society, both as a Jew and as a homosexual. A significant body of his work was often seen as having homoerotic undertones, heavily hinted at by some of his less supportive critics. In 1873 Solomon was arrested with another man in a public toilet off Oxford Street, prosecuted and found guilty. The scandal destroyed his reputation, career and personality. Most of his friends and associates dropped him and the galleries that had exhibited his work refused to show it. Aged 33, he fell into poverty and alcoholism and became an outcast, although he continued to paint and produced some very fine pieces including some excellent portraits, work on Christian themes and a significant number of symbolist paintings. He drifted in and out of St Giles workhouse, but his output became unreliable owing to his bouts of alcoholism and he spent the rest of his life in a downward spiral, still producing work, but shunned. He died in the workhouse in 1905.
Stonemason Joss Nankoo, from Stone Art, designed the new memorial to the given brief and carved the illustration and script, including Hebrew characters, in Welsh slate. The finished memorial is now set to be installed at Willesden Jewish Cemetery.