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It’s a tragedy worthy of Victorian melodrama – a gifted trio of siblings rise from the East End, but their careers as painters are cut short in tragedy and shame. Abraham Solomon’s life would be curtailed by illness and an untimely death. Rebecca Solomon would be written out of history after her tragic demise under the wheels of a London cab. And Simeon Solomon, perhaps the greatest of them all, would be destroyed both by alcoholism and a moral stain almost unspeakable in Victorian times.
During the mid-1800s, the Solomons became stars of the London art world, alongside Millais, Rosetti, Holman Hunt and the others of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was remarkable that a single Whitechapel family would produce not one, but three such figures … but then the Solomons were a remarkable family.
Father Meyer Solomon (who would Anglicise his name to Michael) was the scion of a Jewish clan which had arrived in Whitechapel, probably from Holland, at the end of the 1700s. Meyer made his fortune manufacturing hats, principally the fashionable ‘Leghorn’ straw boater. Wealth overcomes a multitude of prejudices and Meyer was among the first Jews to be made a freeman of the City of London. In those days, when the City livery companies wielded real power by keeping people out of the Square Mile, the honour allowed Meyer to become richer still. In turn, money allowed the ever-growing Solomon brood certain freedoms.
Meyer had married Kate Levy, herself a gifted painter of miniatures, and the couple had eight children. And at the family home, 3 Sandys Street in Bishopsgate, artistic expression and experimentation were encouraged. Abraham was the couple’s second son, born in 1823, and he was prodigiously gifted. At 13, Abraham became a pupil at Sass’s school of art in Bloomsbury, and in 1838 won the Isis silver medal at the Society of Arts for his drawing. In 1839 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy. That same year he won a silver medal for ‘drawing from the antique’, and in 1843 another for drawing from the life.
Abraham carved out a solid career producing those mainstays of Victorian art – biblical studies, such as his first exhibited work, ‘Rabbi expounding the Scriptures’, depictions of scenes from popular literature (including tableaux of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Vicar of Wakefield’) and of course those sentimental and moralising subjects so beloved of the Victorians – ‘Waiting for the Verdict’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Doubtful Fortune’ and many more. The titles would appear horribly prescient in the light of what was to come for the Solomons.
By now he was teaching art to little sister Rebecca, born in 1832. She also attended classes at the (now long gone) Spitalfields School of Design, and would then share Abraham’s studios at 50 Upper Charlotte Street, from at least 1851 to 1856 and at 18 Gower Street from 1857 to 1862. So talented was she that she worked with the great John Everett Millais, exhibited around Britain for nearly two decades and was called ‘one of the great women of the age’.
Now youngest sibling Simeon joined the family firm. Born in 1840, he started taking lessons in drawing and painting from Abraham in childhood and showed astonishing skills of draughtsmanship. He started attending Carey’s Art Academy in 1852, the same year big sister ‘Beckie’ first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Now Simeon went on to the Royal Academy Schools, a route barred to Rebecca because of her gender (she joined other female artists in protesting furiously and fruitlessly against the ban).
Tragedy was to strike the Solomons for the first time in 1862, when Abraham died suddenly of a heart attack in Biarritz. He was just 39. The two younger siblings now drew closer together, sharing a studio at 106 Gower Street from 1865 to 1867. As well as making her own paintings, Rebecca acted as Simeon’s agent, and organised lucrative commissions, including one for Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Denied equal status with male painters, Beckie was showing a flair for marketing her own work, with her illustrations appearing in popular prints such as The Churchman’s Family Magazine and London Society, Art Journal and the Illustrated London News.
Simeon was now mixing with the great artists of the age, the pre-Raphaelites who were outraging the art establishment by dismissing the great painters of the day. They reserved their particular loathing for the painterly style of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who they dubbed ‘Sir Sloshua’, but in fact were dismissive of most of the art of the preceding 400 years, believing the rot had set in with Raphael (hence their name).
Burne-Jones, Rossetti and rest were dazzled by Simeon’s superb draughtsmanship, and he was now moving in the highest artistic and aesthetic circles, becoming a friend of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. As well as the literary subjects favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon was (at Rebecca’s instigation) painting scenes from the Hebrew Bible, and genre paintings showing Jewish life and rituals. But in 1873 his glittering career stopped dead when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street and charged with attempting to commit sodomy. Simeon was fined £100 and fled in humiliation to Paris where he was again arrested the next year, spending three months in prison.
The young star was now cast out. Lucrative commissions disappeared overnight and Simeon began to drink heavily. By 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse. He would produce work sporadically for the next 20 years, but would never again be admitted to the London art establishment.
Rebecca disappeared almost simultaneously. Though she was still painting into the 1880s (the 1881 census shows her listed as an ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street) her association with Simeon seems to have destroyed her saleability as an artist. Some stories have her drifting into alcoholism alongside Simeon, but facts on her later life are hazy – not a single photograph remains of Rebecca. On 20 November 1886, tragedy struck the Solomons once more, when Beckie was run over by a hansom cab in central London. She later died of her wounds in hospital.
She swiftly vanished from history, resurfacing only in recent years. Few of her paintings are now exhibited (her copy of Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents, sold at auction in 2008 for more than £600,000 and disappeared straight into a private collection). Simeon, meanwhile, would linger on for two more decades, finally dying in 1905 from illnesses brought on by his alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.
Map of the story:
‘Wounded Dove’ by Rebecca Solomon
‘The Acolyte’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Two Girls With Their Governess’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Reverie’ by Simeon Solomon
A Leghorn hat
Two pictures of Simeon