From Murray Marks and his Friends
Marks knew all three members of the Solomon family, Abraham, Rebecca, and Simeon, but the two latter far better than the elder brother. They were all remarkable. Their father was a prosperous Jew, who lived in Bishopsgate, an importer of Leghorn hats, their mother, one Kate Levy, a black-eyed, black-haired woman of marked artistic genius, and from her the children derived their heritage of skill.
Abraham, the eldest (1841-62), painted many pictures, but one only, really popular, and that entitled ‘Waiting for the Verdict’, gained him great renown as it was engraved and sold by the hundred.
Copies of the print may often still be seen in cottage homes and in inns, although it was painted as long ago as 1857.
It was exhibited at the Academy, as was its companion picture, ‘Not Guilty’, but the latter was not so successful a work. His other paintings were subject pieces, mainly after scenes from Goldsmith, Scott, Washington Irving, or Molière, or from Tartuffe.
He was trained at Sass's School and at the Royal Academy, exhibited forty-five pictures, attained the position of ARA, but died at Biarritz the very day on which the Academy conferred this distinction upon him. He was never a strong man, and was not the wisest of men, with regard to his health. Rebecca, his sister, a handsome gipsy, merry at times and deep in depression at others, was a very attractive woman. High-spirited and gay, she resented constraint of any sort, and despite all the efforts of her friends, of whom we know Marks was not one of the least; she gave herself up to a life of excitement and merriment, with unfortunately the usual result.
She, also, painted one celebrated picture, ‘Peg Woffngton visiting Triplet and his Famishing Household’ and numerous other works, exhibiting at the Royal Academy very often, and in all, at that and other exhibitions, about forty works. They were marked by skilful, sound drawing, and bold, good colouring, and this praise is deserved, for she was at one time in Millais’studio as a copyist and drapery painter, and all her life a student of his work.
Several times those who knew Rebecca did their utmost to save her from trouble, but it was of no avail, she would not be constrained by any laws that were in the way of her pleasure. A short life and a merry one, was her motto, and, as she added to her other abilities that of consuming any quantity of alcohol without, at the moment, any ill effect, the result may be guessed. She died in 1886.
Simeon (1840-1905) was the ablest by far of the family, and his the most piteous end.
Like his brother and sister he began his artistic career when very young, for before he was sixteen he had a picture in the Academy.
His training was mainly acquired in his brother's studio, which he entered when only ten. He studied for a brief time at Leigh's School, and entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of fifteen, quickly making his presence felt and developing wonderful skill and an astonishing accuracy and painstaking manner, very much on Pre-Raphaelite lines. At first his pictures were all of Jewish subjects, later on mainly illustrating classical stories, but all were remarkable, and his skill as a draughtsman was profound.
Burne-Jones had the greatest admiration for his ability. ‘Solomon’, he used to say, ‘was the greatest artist of us all’.
In that wonderful period of the 'sixties there were many of his fine drawings in the illustrated magazines.
One of his pictures, that called ‘Moses’, was greatly praised by Thackeray in the Round-about Papers, others, such as ‘Amor Sacramentum’ and ‘Love in Autumn' are marked by very attractive allegory, clothed in exquisite form, and his illustrations of scenes from Ruth or Canticles have seldom been exceeded in their beauty of line and design. He exhibited over fifty works in all.
Marks met him. first of all in Rossetti’s studio, and was greatly attracted by the handsome, graceful young Jew. Later on he met him at the home of Ernest Hart, the collector who was, through his wife, a connection of Solomon, and who had a profound appreciation of his skill.
When Solomon returned from a visit to Italy in 1870 it was to Marks that he brought a portfolio of sketches and of Marks he sought advice as to what he should do with them, but by that time the troubles that brought Solomon to a sad end were showing themselves, and the man who had been an intimate friend of Walter Pater, and had, in fact, painted the best-known portrait of that wonderful writer; was fast drifting into a condition when, too seldom sober, he was not a fit companion for anyone.
A curious vein of sickly sentiment was also pervading his work, against which in vain Marks tried to persuade him, and one of his ablest critics, who had often praised his works, Sir Sidney Colvin, felt bound at last to enter a strong protest against the prostitution of marvellous genius.
Solomon was, however, still a charming and attractive companion.
Swinburne had the highest belief in his power, and compared him with the Greek poets, whom certainly he greatly resembled. Once, in fact, at Swinburne's house, he assumed Greek costume,and, with laurel wreath and lyre, sandals and long-flowing green drapery, looked a veritable Apollo, with exquisite profile and brilliant, far-seeing eyes.
He again assumed this costume one evening when a guest at Lord Houghton's, and then, suddenly altering it and changing his expression with extraordinary skill, he impersonated a Jewish prophet, and declaimed in sonorous voice long passages from the Hebrew ritual which he had learned when a boy.
Suddenly he went out of his mind in a prison cell, whither he had been taken after an escapade of more than usual excitement, and for a while was under constraint. Then, by the efforts of a few friends, he was placed under the charge of a medical man, and gradually grew better, until at last there was no more reason for his detention, but then followed his most lamentable period, during which he sank gradually lower and lower.
Marks found him once in the Brompton Road working as a pavement artist, took him home with him, cleaned him up and started him afresh. But all was to no purpose. He sold matches in Whitechapel, he associated with thieves in Houndsditch, he victimized his friends and all who would help him.
Drugs followed, and every effort to reclaim him was in vain.
The dealers in the West End gave him clothes, locked him up in studios with painting materials and ample food, helped him with money, paid for lodgings, redeemed his things over and over again, but the tragic story pursued its sure course and could not be checked.
On one occasion Marks, like other friends, bought, only to destroy, his later paintings in pastel and water-colour because they were evil in design and horrible in appearance, and yet were the work of one whose draughtsmanship at one time was well-nigh faultless in its beauty and its charm.
Towards the end of his life Mr Meynell was, we believe, exceedingly kind to him, and the generous soul to whom the world owes the moral salvation of Francis Thompson did similar acts of kindness for poor Simeon. His love of ritual and colour, and his strange interest in allegory and mysticism, attracted him to the Catholic Church and her services, and then he, poor ne’er-do-well, tried to impress upon his friends that they ought all to become Catholics at once; and Marks well remembered a solemn lecture he had from Solomon on this very subject, interspersed with stories from the Talmud, and the whole delivered in the most serious fashion, by a man, who at that very moment, was happily and contentedly drunk.
Happy he always seemed to be, and content also, having a keen sense of humour, and much merriment in his bright eyes.
He told stories well and had many of them to tell. He was well aware of his skill, but, like his sister, detested constraint and hated law and order.
All who knew him admired his ability and even admired the man, for with all his base habits(and they were many of them very base) he had a wonderful fascination, but he was not suitable for ordinary society; his life was that of a Paris Boulevard rather than an English home, and very tragic was it to see how he wrecked golden opportunities and wasted wonderful ability.* One night he was found unconscious in a passage near Holborn, was carried to an infirmary close by, and there, in August 1895, he died, and after his death amazed all who saw him by the perfect serenity of his remarkable features. His tragedy, Marks said, was the grimmest and most distressful that he ever met in real life, and far exceeded in poignant details any that had ever been put upon the stage.
Some day, by those who knew him even more intimately, a book could be written about him, and if illustrated with reproductions of his drawings and paintings, it would be a revelation to the world of the skill of poor Solomon and of the genius which he allowed to run to waste.
From Murray Marks and his Friends, George Charles Williamson. London, 1919. Marks was an art dealer and collector who knew many artists and was also prominent in the literary scene: Dante Gabrielle Rossetti drew his wife.
*While these pages are passing through the press, the publication of Swinburne's letters by Edmund Gosse and Thomas J Wise reveal how the poet, who had been friendly with Solomon, suffered from his action in later days. In a letter to Mr Gosse, dated October 13 , Swinburne speaks of Solomon as a man ‘who is now a thing unmentionable alike by men and women, as equally abhorrent to either—nay, to the very beasts—raising money by the sale of my letters to him in past years, which must doubtless contain much foolish burlesque and now regrettable nonsense never meant for any stranger's eye, who would not understand the mere childishness of the silly chaff indulged in long ago’.