‘A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep’

Simeon Solomon, Self-portrait, 1 June 1859. Graphite on paper. Tate. At the time of this drawing, Solomon was 18.

This post will be more personal than academic. I can’t remember exactly how or when I discovered Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), but it was certainly during my first year of university, when I was realising my homosexuality. Here was an artist in the Pre-Raphaelite circle (he was not an original member of the PRB, but a later associate), who, even after being prosecuted for ‘homosexual offences’ in 1873, produced paintings and drawings that daringly visualised same-sex desire in an era when private sexual activity between consenting males was punishable by law. Being Jewish, he also produced scenes of Jewish religious ceremonies and illustrations of the Hebrew Bible. He can even be credited with writing an important early gay text, the prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, which was privately published in 1871 – two years before his arrest in a public lavatory for attempting to commit sodomy with an unemployed stableman. I would direct readers to the brilliant Simeon Solomon Research Archive for a comprehensive account of his life and work. Yesterday evening I went to Tate Britain to watch a performance of Neil Bartlett’s Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, based on Solomon’s book.

Frontispiece and title-page of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep by Simeon Solomon, 1871. The illustration is captioned ‘Until the day break and the shadows flee away’, a quotation from the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), 2:17.
Simeon Solomon, Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice, 1859–63. Ink, watercolour and gouache on paper. Tate. This drawing is a fine example of Solomon’s early style, influenced by D. G. Rossetti.

I quote from the information leaflet that was handed out before the performance: ‘A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, Neil Bartlett’s one-man homage to the life and work of Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, was originally created and performed at the height of the first wave of the British AIDs epidemic in 1987. To celebrate the inclusion of Simeon Solomon in the Queer British Art: 1861–1967 exhibition, Bartlett has revived the piece for one night only in a collaboration between Tate Britain and the Live Art Development Agency. This solo version of A Vision of Love was originally commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, and was first performed there as a one-man show in 1987. It moved to a derelict warehouse at Butler’s Wharf, London, where it was presented by the ICA, and then went on a British and European tour in 1988. In 1989–90 the show was expanded to include four further performers and played at The Drill Hall, London.’

Neil Bartlett in A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, 1988.

After the performance, Bartlett addressed the changed tolerance towards homosexuality in Britain since 1987, and how this might affect the play’s relevance – although, crucially, his monologue was for the most part unaltered, and resonated, I felt, just as strongly. Essentially, Bartlett’s Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep interwove direct readings from Solomon’s ‘proem’ with the playwright’s own reflections on being gay in the late 1980s, shifting seamlessly between the two. Sometimes it was difficult to know when Bartlett was quoting from the text or speaking his own words. The performance lasted about 70 minutes, but it didn’t feel as long as that. It took place in Tate Britain’s high-ceilinged ‘1840’ gallery. Bartlett occupied a small platform at one end of the space, lit only by two lights from below; behind him, in the shadows, loomed Waterhouse’s Saint Eulalia and Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – tall, mythological canvases by two lions of the Victorian art world. Another spotlight illuminated Solomon’s A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies, hanging to the left of the gallery. While we were finding our seats, Bartlett stood silent, motionless, and shirtless (in 1987 he performed in the nude). He held aloft a large glowing lightbulb in his right hand, and a rectangular object draped with a long red cloth in his left hand. The cloth obscured his feet, so he looked to be levitating. His gaze was lowered like a priest in prayer, an attitude borrowed from Solomon’s paintings of beautiful men absorbed in religious rituals. When we were settled, he raised his head and spoke.

Simeon Solomon, Dawn (Head of Hypnos), after 1870 (1901?). Coloured chalks on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Simeon Solomon, The Mystery of Faith, 1870. Watercolour on paper. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Aware of the play’s original contexts, I entered the performance with a question that troubled me: how could I, being born in 1993, ever know or understand the trials and fears of so many homosexuals in Britain in the previous decade? The AIDs epidemic was never a reality for me; I hear about it only through retrospective accounts. It’s as removed from my own experience as the Second World War or the Thatcher years. As if to reflect this, I was among the youngest members of the audience – the majority, I would say, were middle-aged and older, and several had probably watched the play when it was first performed 30 years ago. I was conscious of my youth. To watch the piece alongside men who had might have lived the sorts of experiences Bartlett was addressing, was a reminder of how fortunate I have been to come out in a generally tolerant, post-millennium society. (I had a similar feeling when watching the film Pride in 2014, based on true events from 1984.)

Simeon Solomon, The Annunciation, 1877. Oil on fabric on board. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.

Then again, Bartlett’s play – or the particular, ever-so-slightly-modernised manifestation of it that was ‘revealed’ to us that night – is a reminder that there is no single way to be gay, and that what it means to be gay changes over the decades; performing it 30 years later, on 7 July 2017, the present moment became layered over the reality of the 1980s, which was in turn layered over the nineteenth century. Bartlett’s (and Solomon’s) words have therefore been enriched by the shifts in social, political and cultural attitudes since they were first written and spoken. At several points in the performance, Bartlett addressed us directly with the phrase ‘History, eh?’ – an addition, he said afterwards, which came to him only when he was rehearsing the piece in 2017, and looking back on 1987 from a different century. He meant not only the Victorian history of Simeon Solomon, but also the place in history that the 1980s now occupies.

Simeon Solomon, Creation, undated (c.1890). Watercolour on paper. V&A.

I was deeply moved on a personal level by Bartlett’s performance. I attended it alone, and much of the monologue addressed the feelings of isolation and loneliness specific to gay men. At one poignant moment, the quotation from the biblical Song of Songs that provided the touchstone for Solomon’s book, ‘Until the day break, and the shadows flee away’, was cried out by Bartlett as a mantra not just for gay suffering and endurance during the AIDs crisis, but also for the ill-treatment of LGBT individuals then and now. Solomon’s art, as well as the original Vision of Love (found in an anthology of gay writing in my university library), had been instrumental to my coming-out process. I’d been too young for the major Solomon retrospective at Birmingham in 2006 (Visions of Love: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites), but I bought the catalogue secondhand and pored over it. Incidentally, the 2006 exhibition represented the culmination of a renewed interest in Solomon’s oeuvre in scholarship on Pre-Raphaelitism and Victorian art more generally, having been neglected for much of the twentieth century.

Installation view of the first room of Queer British Art: 1861–1967 at Tate Britain, featuring a wall of Solomon paintings, drawings and watercolours against Frederic Leighton’s The Sluggard sculpture. Photo: The Times.

Solomon’s inclusion in Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition this year solidifies his importance as a homosexual who defied convention and punishment by openly expressing his desires in his work. It lost him many friends in his lifetime, but it gained him many more in the present. At the end of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, as the audience applauded and the lights came up, Neil Bartlett raised a small portrait of Solomon over his head (the red cloth had covered it), so that in that moment we were cheering the latter as much as the former. I sensed the long-dead artist’s presence in the electrified air of the gallery, hovering like one of his own winged beings of Love.

Simeon Solomon, The Bride, the Bridegroom, and the Friend of the Bridegroom, 1868. Pencil and conte on paper. Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.
Simeon Solomon, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, 1896 (aged 56), from the series Portraits of Many Persons of Note. V&A.
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‘Tractarian Tendencies’: The Pre-Raphaelites and Anglo-Catholicism

Another aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism which has recently fascinated me is its links with the Tractarians, the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. Whilst I am by no means an expert in theology, and am rather murky in my religious beliefs, I am still deeply fascinated by the mystique of churches, cathedrals and ritualism. I have often got the impression that there is a certain dreamy mysticism surrounding Anglo-Catholic practice which rather appeals, even if I do not necessarily believe staunchly in its doctrines. Note that my explanation of the Pre-Raphaelite associations with Anglo-Catholicism barely scratches the surface of what is potentially a whole dissertation’s worth of research and speculation!

I shall attempt to explain the origins of Anglo-Catholicism as succinctly as possible (and feel I should apologise to any practising Anglo-Catholics readers if there are errors in my explanations!). Anglo-Catholicism itself is still technically part of the Church of England, despite its close links with the ‘Romish’ branch of Christianity, and its followers were criticised for sympathising with Roman Catholicism, rather than for actually being Catholic. In Oxford in the 1830s a group of Anglican academics and clergymen became increasingly unhappy with the Church of England’s lack of appreciation for its pre-Reformation, medieval, Catholic heritage. One of their primary aims was to reintroduce elements of Catholic church ritual into Anglican services, reviving the use of incense, bells, Latin hymns, elaborate vestments and gilded altar furniture in ‘bells and smells’ fashion. They also gave a supremacy, as in Catholicism, to the receiving of the Sacrament as a necessity in church services. Notable figureheads of this ‘Oxford Movement’ included John Henry Newman (painted in a portrait by Millais, below), Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Keble, after whom Keble College, the Oxford University college established in the Gothic Revival style in 1870, is named. From 1833 to 1841 they published a series of Tracts for the Times expounding their revivalist ideals, hence their being labelled ‘Tractarians’. It is worth noting that Tractarians were perceived as deeply nostalgic for the Middle Ages, a time when Catholicism was the ruling denomination and an age which produced religious buildings and objects of great beauty. Of course, all this medievalism sounds very familiar when one remembers the Pre-Raphaelites, and the notion of a ‘brotherhood’ of men dissatisfied with the establishment and banding together to reform it has echoes in the founding principles of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Perhaps the Oxford Movement’s emphasis on the beautiful, sensual elements of worship, with a focus on sounds, scents and ornamentation, could even be regarded as anticipating the Aesthetic Movement. It is also worth remembering, too, that some of the Movement’s leaders, particularly Newman and Keble, were poets as well as priests: the Bible was viewed poetically (think of the poetry of the King James Version), and faith could be expressed divinely through verse.

John Everett Millais, 'Portrait of John Henry Newman', 1881
John Everett Millais, ‘Portrait of John Henry Newman’, 1881. Newman actually converted to Catholicism in 1847, hence the red cardinal’s robes.

The early work produced by the Brotherhood caused some concern amongst contemporary observers for displaying Catholic and/or Tractarian tendencies and sympathies. A number of important early works are religiously themed: Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais (1849-50), the elaborately-titled A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1850) by Holman Hunt, and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50) by Dante Rossetti, are all notable examples. Much has been written of the hostile reception Millais’s painting received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy; even Charles Dickens, famous as a realist, scathingly criticised the picture’s ‘loathsome minuteness’ being too close to truth! It was the undisputed norm for the Holy Family to be portrayed idealistically, yet Millais paints them in minute detail, ‘warts and all’, and, scandalously at the time, gives the young Christ red hair. Perhaps these critics also took against the painting’s rich religious (and thus, for them, specifically Catholic or High Church) symbolism. Indeed, Alastair Grieve theorises that the composition of Millais’s painting mirrors or suggests the layout of a church and specifically references High Church practices: the workshop bench is the altar at the east end of the church, and the back wall is a kind of rood screen (favoured by Tractarians) separating the priests and the altar from the congregation, the literal ‘flock’ of sheep. Anglo-Catholicism’s deep concern with the importance of the Sacrament is possibly represented by the ‘blood of Christ’ on his little open palm at the exact centre of the canvas (also foreshadowing the Crucifixion). Certainly an interesting theory!

John Everett Millais, 'Christ in the House of His Parents', 1849-50
John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', 1848-49
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’, 1848-49

The Brotherhood’s lifestyle and behaviour was also problematic for some contemporaries. Their decision to label themselves a ‘Brotherhood’, which initially signals monks rather than painters, and the presence of an Italian surname among its members — Rossetti — aroused suspicion. It probably didn’t help that Rossetti dubbed himself an ‘Art-Catholic’ in his pre-Pre-Raphaelite days and wrote a series of religious-themed poems such as ‘Ave’, ‘My Sister’s Sleep’ and the Latin-titled hymn ‘Mater Pulchrae Delectionis’, which he planned to publish in a volume entitled Songs of the Art Catholic in 1847. In my opinion, however, the young Rossetti’s attraction to Catholicism and High Anglicanism was purely aesthetic and did not arise from any sincere faith — in later years he never subscribed to any religious dogma and even attempted to go back and erase his Art-Catholicism from his poetry, presumably out of embarrassment. Still, it is undeniable that his first major oil painting, his first significant Pre-Raphaelite work, is distinctly Catholic (or perhaps faux-Catholic) in feel, with its unusual focus on Mary before the Annunciation (above). As with many of Rossetti’s paintings it is paired with one of his poems: two sonnets titled ‘Mary’s Girlhood (For a Picture)‘ inscribed on the frame itself which explain the picture’s web of symbols to the viewer — the lilies, the books, the cross-shaped trellis, the red cloth Mary embroiders, among others. Rossetti’s sister Christina, who was herself closely involved with her local Anglo-Catholic church in London and wrote a great deal of devotional poetry and prose, modelled for Mary in both The Girlhood and its sequel Ecce Ancilla Domini! (below), Dante recolouring her hair from brown to auburn. Because of all this, Dante Rossetti was suspected of ‘Mariolatry’, an excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (The Annunciation), 1849-50
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (The Annunciation), 1849-50

Critics of the Brotherhood’s ‘monkish follies’ were also concerned that it hinted at unmanliness. Certainly, Tractarianism/Anglo-Catholicism’s concentration on aesthetic beauty and the more theatrical elements of liturgy would have indicated a kind of effeminacy in its practitioners which contrasted with so-called ‘Muscular Christianity’, a movement which promoted good health and a strong body to reflect good morals and a strong faith. The use of bells, incense, flowers and golden garments, as well as the PRB styling themselves on the intensely cloistered, all-male world of Catholic monasteries, would likely have been viewed with suspicion by the Victorian public, and at some point the sexuality of male Tractarian sympathisers was called into question. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of important figures in the Aesthetic Movement, most notably Oscar Wilde and John Gray (the inspiration for Dorian Gray) actually converted to Catholicism in later life. Simeon Solomon (to whom I intend to devote a separate post), a Pre-Raphaelite associate persecuted for his homosexuality, portrayed church ritualism in paintings such as Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost, which includes a thurible, lilies, candles and rich vestments. It also, I believe, allows the viewer to admire the handsome and delicate beauty of the two acolytes; the longer-haired man on the left is probably English, while his companion has a more Italian look.

Anglo-Catholicism is still practiced today in many churches throughout England and has even spread internationally, though I often wonder — perhaps unfairly — whether or not its ornate, semi-Catholic aura is still met with the same distrust and confusion as it was in the nineteenth century. I feel it would be a shame, if so.

Simeon Solomon, 'Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost', 1863
Simeon Solomon, ‘Two Acolytes, Censing, Pentecost’, 1863

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Further information

  • Convent Thoughts, painted by Charles Allston Collins (not an original member of the Brotherhood, but very closely associated) in 1851, is another example of early Pre-Raphaelite religiosity. Its convent setting, Christian symbolism and ornate gold frame decorated with carved lilies and inscribed with the Latin ‘Sicut Lilium’ (‘As the lily among thorns’), led to accusations of Roman Catholic sympathies. It is also breathtakingly detailed, much in the manner of Millais’s meticulous realism, and well worth seeing in situ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
  • Rossetti Archive entry for another Mary-themed painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary in the House of St. John, which was originally planned to form a triptych with Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!
  • Rossetti’s unsuccessful publishing project Songs of the Art Catholic in the Rossetti Archive. Links to texts of the poems can also be found here.
  • Video commentary on Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents by the wonderful Smarthistory.
  • Video about Keble College, Oxford, which was a monument to the Gothic Revival and a product of the Oxford Movement.