Deciphering Symonds’s Coat of Arms: A Reflection

After spending time thinking about Symonds’s name and family history in my previous post (entitled What’s in a name?”), I decided to continue along the same theme with this one. Within the Johns Hopkins University Special Collections Library appears a copy of Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus that was translated by Edward FitzGerald and owned by both Symonds and William W. Gay, as evidenced by their bookplates in this copy. This book and the bookplates found within it offer several branches of research. One is Symonds’s relationship to the text itself, which has already been explored in a post by another student (visible here). Another branch explores which of these men owned this book first and thus who was given it “With the publisher’s compliments”–a manuscript inscription that appears on the front endpaper. This mystery was solved after I had the chance to read a letter, laid into this copy, from the publisher, Bernard Quaritch, to William W. Gay, dated November 5, 1912. In this letter, Quaritch explains the differences between the edition of FitzGerald’s Agamemnon that was privately printed in 1865 and the one Quaritch himself published in 1876. The fact that this letter was written nearly two decades after Symonds’s death and Gay’s need for this explanation suggest that Symonds was the original owner of this book. While this is fascinating information, as a student of art history, I was most interested in studying the bookplate itself.

The first step to deciphering this heraldic symbol was to understand the different elements represented on the bookplate. The Handbook to English Heraldry by Charles Boutell served as a resource for this research. Using this book, I learned not only the different colors and metals present on Symonds’s coat of arms but also the terms and some histories for the different heraldic symbols. To give a brief overview of terminology, coat of arms refers to “a complete armorial composition” (Boutell 1914, 109). This encompasses not only the shield of arms or shield, which derives its name from the battle-shields that would have once been decorated, but also the helm or helmet and the crest both of which are found atop the shield (Boutell 1914, 32, 133, 128-129). Any supporters, or figures that appear alongside the shield, that might exist are also considered part of the coat of arms (Boutell 1914, 152-153).

Figure 1

Bookplate of John Addington Symonds in Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus, translated by Edward FitzGerald. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1876. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kendra Brewer.

With this information, we can begin to decipher the coat of arms present on the bookplate within Agamemnon (Figure 1). The animal present in the Symonds family crest is identified as an ermine by Symonds (1894, 28-29). This ermine is standing on four paws, looking forward, a position termed statant in heraldry (Boutell 1914, 85). In its mouth appears a rose that, according to Symonds (1894, 29), should be red and have green leaves. The crown supporting this crest is called a crest-coronet in heraldry (Boutell 1914, 113). This sits atop the helm of a gentleman, which is always steel-colored and which appears with “the vizor closed, and set in profile” (Boutell 1914, 129). The next element of the coat of arms is the shield. When using proper heraldic terminology, the shield depicted in Figure 1 can be described in the following terms: per pale; sable and or counterchanged, three trefoils slipped of the second on the dexter side; azure, three fleurs-de-lys argent, passant lion or on the sinister side. In layman’s terms, that means that the shield is split down the middle into two parts. On the left-hand side, there is a black and gold checker-board-like pattern on which three, gold trefoils appear in a specific design. On the right-hand side, the background is blue and three, silver fleurs-de-lys appear alongside a gold lion. To assist in visualizing this colorful coat of arms, see Figure 2. Any heraldic symbol lacking a described color (e.g., the ermine and the crest-coronet) is meant to appear as it would in real life. Given that a stoat is only called an ermine when wearing its winter coat, its coloring is white with a tail terminating in black (“Ermine”). The crest-coronet, however, can have many color variations. Also note that the artistic flourishes to the coat of arms do not appear in color in this depiction.

Figure 2

Bookplate of John Addington Symonds. Artist rendition by Kendra Brewer.

Another element generally included in a coat of arms is a motto, which oftentimes in heraldry serves as a pun on the family name (Boutell 1914, 138). For example, while the family motto on Symonds’s bookplate is “Humi tutus,”2 Symonds wrote in On The English Family of Symonds the following:

My father invented a motto: ‘In mundo immundo sim mundus3,’ which plays upon the family name as we pronounce it. A friend of mine suggested that this might be improved into: ‘Si mundus immundus sim mundus,’ which plays upon the two pronunciations of the name.”

John Addington Symonds, On The English Family of Symonds (1894, 30)

This play on names is quite common in heraldry according to Boutell (1914, 138). Interestingly, in his adulthood, Symonds (1894, 30) “ha[d] little to say” about his family’s motto only touching upon the suggestions of his father and his friend; however, the same can not be said for a much younger Symonds. As a teenager, Symonds became interested in his family genealogy and heraldry. Symonds’s own assessment of this research and of his family motto appear in a letter to his sister, Charlotte. Symonds wrote:

My inner life has been much perturbed on genealogical subjects, owing to the booklabel which Bosanquet bought me. It is a regular heraldic enigma. How cruel our Ancestors were not to pay more attention to their colours & metals! One thing settled is that our crest is correct with the substitution of a red rose for the cinquefoil. Joshua S. the surgeon of London must have been an unaspiring individual as his motto is “Humi tutus.” I wonder whether he wished to transmit this grovelling sentiment to his descendants! If so, he has been frustrated as we have certainly made a change for the better.”

Letters 1:131 (58) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])

This excerpt is interesting for several reasons. Not only does he mention his bookplate, or at least this very first one, as being a gift—most likely from his “bosom-friend at Harrow,” Gustavus Bosanquet (Symonds 2016, 140)—Symonds also mentions that it was this bookplate that, in part, led to his interest in his family genealogy and heraldry. Further, Symonds’s early assessment of “Humi tutus” as both “unaspiring” and “grovelling” greatly contrasts with his later, seemingly disinterested stance on the subject.

Now that all the elements of Symonds’s coat of arms have been discussed, there is an interesting twist to this story: Symonds believed the coat of arms present on the bookplate to be inaccurate. In fact, Symonds (1894) dedicates a significant portion of On The English Family of Symonds not only to the history of the family coat of arms but also to a series of corrections the shield should have. In his opinion, “the proper arms and crest of my own immediate family” would have a shield designed with the following specifications:

Quarterly 1 and 4: per fess sable and or, a pale counterchanged, three trefoils slipped of the second: 2 and 3 azure three trefoils or. […] Crest, on a ducal coronet an ermine statant holding in his mouth a rose gules stalked and leaved vert.”

Symonds 1894, 28-29

According to Symonds, while the crest is accurate, the shield that appears on the bookplate would need several corrections. First, the shield should be split into four separate parts with each diagonal pair sharing the same characteristics. The top-left and bottom-right sections of the shield should have the same black and gold pattern that appears on his bookplate as well as the same three, gold trefoil designs. The top-right and bottom-left sections should have a blue background and three, gold trefoils rather than three, silver fleurs-de-lys. There is no mention of a lion in this design. Figure 3 creates one possible rendition of this “proper” coat of arms, though positioning for the gold trefoils on the blue background can be varied. Note again that the colors chosen for the crest-coronet can also vary.

Figure 3

Coat of arms according to John Addington Symonds. Artist rendition by Kendra Brewer.

The differences between the coat of arms on the bookplate in the Johns Hopkins University collection and the one that Symonds considered correct carry with them one important question: did Symonds ever change his bookplate to match the proper coat of arms? While I have only come across this one design in my own research, it does appear that at least two versions of his bookplate might exist. After all, as a teenager, Symonds wrote that there was a “cinquefoil” present on the crest of the coat of arms that should be replaced by a “red rose” (Letters 1:131 (58) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])). The bookplate in Agamemnon: A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus and in other works I have seen (e.g., The Life and Death of Jason: A Poem, in the Sheridan Libraries collection) includes this adaptation, so it is not impossible to imagine other changes occurring. Additionally, if there is not and never was a bookplate with Symonds’s corrections, that begs the question as to why the changes were never made. These questions are worth exploring in future attempts to understand Symonds’s relationship with his past and how it affected his present. 

1. My own description from heraldic information in Boutell.
2. Translated by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters as “Safe on the ground” (Letters 1:132 (58) n4 to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow January 17, [1858])).
3. Translated by author as “In an unclean world, I am clean” using Harper’s Latin Dictionary (1907) edited by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, pp. 895, 911, and 1175.
4. Translated by author as “If the world is unclean, I will be clean” using Harper’s Latin Dictionary (1907) edited by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, pp. 895, 1175, and 1688-9.

Boutell, Charles. 1914. The Handbook to English Heraldry. Edited by A. C. Fox-Davies. London: Reeves & Turner. Project Gutenberg.

“Ermine.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified June 6, 2020.

Harper’s Latin Dicitonary, ed. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. `1907. New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company.

Morris, William. 1868. The Life and Death of Jason: A Poem. London: Bell and Daldy. From Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Quaritch, Bernard. Bernard Quaritch to William W. Gay, November 5, 1912. Letter. From Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Symonds, John Addington. 1894. On The English Family of Symonds. Oxford: Privately printed. Google Books.

Symonds, John Addington. 1967. The Letters of John Addington Symonds. Edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1907, 2.2.43-44)

Though I have heard this line from the Bard many times throughout my years of schooling, I rarely stopped to think critically on the importance of names until, while immersed in The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, I noticed one important aspect: the repeated and insistent use of names. On every page of his Memoirs, Symonds names not only the people with whom he comes into contact but also the plants he finds attractive, the architectural styles he both adores and despises, the books he reads, and countless other aspects of his world–all of which bring his interest in names into clear focus. However, the name in which Symonds was above all interested was his own. While Shakespeare’s Juliet approaches the issue of names with an idealistic hope for their unimportance to society, Symonds takes the opposite view.

John Addington Symonds, Sr. and John Addington Symonds, Jr. standing behind a sitting Charlotte Byron Green née Symonds
Dr. Symonds, J.A. Symonds, and Mrs. Green by Walter Colls, in A Biography Compiled from His Papers and Correspondence by John Addington Symonds and Horatio Forbes Brown.

Within Victorian social structures, the elite was comprised of multiple social levels. This included both the wealthy but untitled members of society, like Symonds’s family; the gentry, or the members of society that often inherited land and wealth; and the peerage, who held titles and had family coats of arms. Even as Symonds was raised within the upper echelons of Victorian society due to his father’s “professional success,” he records in his Memoirs his aunt’s view that physicians “have no rank in society” (Symonds 2016, 121). The younger Symonds, therefore, remained a world apart from his titled peers, all of whom came from well-named families. Symonds felt this divide acutely. While he viewed himself as a possessor of “physical ugliness, common patronymic, undistinguished status, and mental ineffectiveness,” he considered his classmates “possessors of beauty, strength, birth, rank or genius” (2016, 122). In what can be seen as an attempt to bridge this divide between himself and his peers, Symonds began researching his family genealogy in his teens, attempting to find his family’s coat of arms. As part of this research, he even asked his sister, Charlotte, to copy passages from library books on different lines in their family’s history (e.g., Letters 1:115-116 (45) to Charlotte Symonds (Harrow, September 20, [1857])). Symonds’s concern over name and rank in society followed him into adulthood. For example, when thinking upon the early years of his courtship of his wife, Symonds wrote the following:

I deeply felt my own unworthiness of [Janet Catherine North]. […] In social position and birth I was hardly her equal. I carried an ugly surname.

2016, 258

To Symonds, names were powerful. They marked identity and therefore status within society. The perceived lack in his own name led him to question what he could bring to their union, though he decided to pursue the match regardless of these worries.

Though the teenage Symonds derided his family name as both “common” and “ugly” (2016, 122, 258), he still appeared to take pride in his ancestry. Examples of this pride are riddled throughout his Memoirs, even beyond the entire chapter he devoted to this subject (see p. 12 of editor Amber Regis’s “Introduction” for details). Within the Memoirs, Symonds wrote not only of the relatives that had a rather lasting impact on his life, such as his sister, Charlotte, but also of his ancestors with whom he never had contact. For example, while traveling through Normandy, on June 3, 1867, Symonds wrote to his wife about the supposed travels of one of his ancestors relating to a nearby town (2016, 294-295). This serves as just one such example of the presence Symonds felt of his ancestors and living relatives within his life.

But I vowed to raise myself, somehow or other, to eminence of some sort. […] My ambition took no vulgar form. I felt no desire for wealth, no mere wish to cut a figure in society. But I thirsted with intolerable thirst for eminence, for recognition as a personality.”

Symonds 2016, 122

From an early age, Symonds aspired to greatness, to make a name for himself. In fact, one of his regrets in life was that his father died before Symonds had “made [his] mark and won a name” (2016, 438, 445). Throughout the Memoirs, Symonds writes freely about their close relationship and the great influence his father had in his life. He even goes so far as to say that his father’s death provided him some level of freedom professionally, as his father’s opinions meant the world to him (2016, 439). While some relationships, like that with his father, were obviously too profound for Symonds to distance himself from as he created his own identity as an author, others could have quite easily been kept separate from his professional life. For example, his untitled, non-elite ancestors could have been left behind. Instead, Symonds chose to embrace them, even writing: “if I have any grit in me, I owe it to [the] proud humility of my forefathers” (2016, 86). In openly acknowledging and admiring his connections to these ancestors, he laid claim to that part of his history and his own identity. Symonds was only able to accept this part of his history by learning more about it. A change in perspective likely began when Symonds was a teenager as he traced his family genealogy and defined his family heraldic symbol, but the full change in perspective seems to have occurred later in his life, after the death of his father. By that point, Symonds had friends and comrades who came from all walks of life and all levels of society. While the exact reason for his change of heart is only known to Symonds himself, his new understanding is clearly visible when he describes burning the letters of his ancestors. As he puts it: “I could not bear to think of my own kith and kin, the men and women who had made me, liv[ing] in this haunted cavern” (2016, 85). Whatever his reasoning, whether a reassessment of family after the death of his beloved father or an acknowledgement that the character of a person is more important than their social rank, during his adulthood, Symonds accepted and took pride in the family history he derided in his earlier years.

I will leave the conversation about the intricacies of elitism within Victorian society and its effects on Symonds’s views of himself and others for another day. For now, I leave you with this: What’s in a name? For John Addington Symonds, Jr., a name provided connections to one’s own past and the freedom to express oneself through these connections, while simultaneously limiting one due to the expectations of a hierarchical society.

Shakespeare, William. 1907. Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Edited by William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company.
Symonds, John Addington. 1967.The Letters of John Addington Symonds. Edited by Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Symonds, John Addington. 2016.The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.