A casualty of circumstance

Victorian art - Simon Poe looks into the sad tale of Simeon Solomon, at last given his due as an art

On 24 February 1873, a young Jewish artist was prosecuted at Clerkenwell Sessions for "unlawfully attempting feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery", having been caught in flagrante with a chance-met companion in a public lavatory a fortnight earlier. This was Simeon Solomon, the rising star of the Aesthetic Movement - and his career was over. "Friends" such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was a drug addict and paranoid recluse) and Lord Houghton (whose favoured guests at Fryston Hall in Yorkshire were invited to peruse his famous collection of erotica on Sundays while more fastidious visitors were at church) dropped him overnight.

The poet, Swinburne (an alcoholic sado-masochist who wrote pornographic verses about schoolboy floggings for circulation among like-minded acquaintances), said that he had become "a thing unmentionable alike by men and women, as equally abhorrent to either - nay, to the very beasts". It seems very unfair that Oscar Wilde has become a gay martyr and a secular saint, while poor Solomon is virtually forgotten. But then the infinitely quotable Oscar famously "put [his] genius into [his] life and . . . only [his] talent into [his] works".

Solomon's genius went into his paintings, which are unlike anyone else's. A hundred years after his lonely death in the St Giles workhouse in Seven Dials, a major exhibition of his work has finally opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

Solomon was the youngest of eight children whose father was a Bishopsgate hat manufacturer. Two of his siblings, Abraham and Rebecca, were also artists and he had his first training in Abraham's studio. After further study at Leigh's Art School and Cary's Drawing School he arrived, aged only 15, at the Royal Academy Schools. Three years later he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, and was a regular exhibitor until his downfall.

During the late 1850s and 1860s, he produced illustrations for books and magazines, decorative work for the architect William Burges, and stained-glass designs for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. He drew on his Orthodox Jewish heritage for paintings such as Carrying the Scrolls of the Law. In 1866, he went to Italy for the first of three visits. In Florence, under the new influence of painters such as Botticelli, Luini and Sodoma, he painted Love in Autumn, one of his finest works, which shows a beautiful adolescent cupid buffeted by a cold wind amid flying leaves and lashing trees. A reviewer described it as a "mythological conceit so enigmatical [sic] as to leave us in doubt as to its reading", but it is hard now not to see a reference to the increasingly inhospitable sexual climate in which men such as Solomon found themselves. It is a visual equivalent of Lord Alfred Douglas's phrase "the love that dare not speak its name".

In 1865, he began exhibiting at the Dudley Gallery, home of the avant-garde "poetry without grammar" school. He joined the New Club (later known as the Savile), founded in 1868, whose members included Lord Houghton, Walter Pater and Oscar Browning.

Pater, an ugly little man with a soup-strainer moustache, was an Oxford don, a furtive homosexual, and the prophet and theoretician of Aestheticism. Beauty was the supreme virtue and lacking it so completely, while surrounded by the glorious young men of the university, was a torment. "I would give ten years of my life to be handsome," he once said. Browning was altogether more ebullient. He wrote an ode in alcaics to his penis. He once introduced himself to the poet laureate: "Hello, Tennyson. I'm Browning." "No you're not," snapped Tennyson. He was a housemaster at Eton when Solomon knew him, but was sacked for his dubious friendship with one of the boys, George Curzon, and returned to King's College, Cambridge, as a Fellow. Curzon (foreign secretary by this time) obviously bore him no ill will, and wangled him an OBE when he retired.

Pater introduced Solomon to the anguished homosexual poet and Catholic convert Gerard Manley Hopkins, who kept a diary of his sins. During one ten-month period he counted 1,564 - 238 of them sexual. Men such as these would not have been shocked by Solomon. His "crime" was to get caught.

During the long second half of his life, with no studio to paint in and no gallery that would show his work, occasionally reduced to supporting himself as a match-seller and pavement artist, Solomon continued to make pictures. Herbert Horne (the poet and editor, who wrote a very good book about Botticelli) acted as his unofficial agent. Robert Ross (the art critic, one of the few friends who kept faith with Oscar Wilde after his downfall) remembered that these works, often chalk studies of beautiful androgynous youths, were popular with a certain sort of Oxford undergraduate. Wilde had some in his rooms at Magdalen.

In 1905, the 18-year-old Rupert Brooke wrote to a friend: "Did you ever hear of S. Solomon, painter? He died the other day, and I read an article on him in the Westminster [Gazette]. He was a delightful painter of 1850-70-about; but he succumbed to drink, etc, and became 'impossible' . . . He died in the gutter . . . Why haven't I ever heard of him?" Why indeed?

"Love revealed: Simeon Solomon and the pre-Raphaelites" is at The Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 15 January (0121 303 1966)