Item of the Week: O.B.'s Aesthetic Reflections

Published: November 19, 2010

The Clark has recently acquired a small collection of 5 letters from legendary British educator and character Oscar Browning to British-Jewish critic and translator Joseph Leftwich.  These letters, which include 4 handwritten letters and one typewritten letter (with manuscript corrections), discuss Browning’s friendship with artist Simeon Solomon and his opinions of other figures within the aesthetic movement. Leftwich, who translated many Yiddish authors into English, published at least one article on Solomon in The Jewish Forum in 1922, and it is probable he wrote to Browning in hopes of soliciting additional information from him about Solomon.

Browning and Solomon had been good friends from 1868 until the time of Solomon’s arrest in 1873 for indecent acts with another man in a public restroom, when most of his friends severed connection with him.  Solomon had been a young artist of great promise, who was good friends with many important figures in aesthetic circles, including the Burne-Joneses, Walter Pater and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the last of whom many (including Browning) saw as at least partly responsible for Solomon’s decline.  In these letters, Browning refers to Swinburne as a “filthy little beast” multiple times for his leading Solomon into a life of drunkenness, and describes their friendship as one founded on lust, dissipation and the Sadic.  He believes that apart fro other artists, Solomon’s only real friends were Walter Pater and himself.

"His only real friends apart from artists were Pater and myself whom he really loved and we loved him."

Browning’s letters to Leftwich also include some discussion of Greek love as an important key for understanding the aesthetic movement as a whole, as he writes in the excerpt below:

Few people know that the aesthetic movement which had so much influence in England from Ruskin to Oscar Wilde has as one of its characteristics a passionate desire to restore ‘Greek Love’ to the position which its votaries thought it ought to occupy.  They believed that bisexual [here meaning heterosexual] love was a sensual and debasing thing and the love of male for male was in every way higher and more elevating to the character. I was interested, but did not agree with them and, as I was at that time a schoolmaster, it was absolutely impossible that I should take their view of things.

Whether or not this was really the case with Browning is a matter of debate (his affairs, both physical and emotional, with proteges and students were the cause of multiple upheavals in his life). He goes on to explain how he doesn’t believe that Simeon Solomon’s own interest in “Greek love”  actually ever manifested itself in any physically consummated homosexual experiences, though Solomon’s fall from grace and the rapidity with which he was repudiated by his friends seem to contradict this argument.  The fact that Browning was one of those friends who dropped Solomon makes his belated defense of the artist in these letters — written nearly 15 years after his death — quite sad.

We are really excited about these new additions to our collection, and we hope that you will come by to visit them!

Oscar Browning, Letters to Joseph Leftwich, 1919-1920. ba MS.2010.027.


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Joseph Bristow on

This is a terrific post, Becky. I hope to draw in these letters in a new essay on Walter Pater’s reputation in the 1920s and 1930s. Very best, Joe

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