Reexamining the Lost Library

One of the lab’s tasks for this semester included extracting data for the Lost Library from the letters of John Addington Symonds. Working with this new source of evidence has raised new questions: How can we determine degrees of book ownership? How can we be certain Symonds owned a specific edition of a work? Can different non-book printed materials such as a photograph or a libretto count as a new entry? All these matters have prompted us to reexamine how we add evidence to the Lost Library and how we justify our decisions.

For earlier lab cohorts, the main sources of evidence for books to include in the Lost Library included the entries from auction catalogs (created when books from Symonds’s library were sold) and titles Symonds mentioned in his Memoirs. A few works were also recorded by analyzing a large-scale photograph of Symonds in his study and reading the titles from the book spines. These methods allowed for strong confidence in our knowledge regarding the books Symonds owned or read.

Extracting data from the Letters has posed new challenges that our cohort has worked through. Students read through each letter and recorded titles mentioned, relying primarily on the footnotes provided by editors Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters for details. Some footnotes provided enough information for a researcher to find the work that was in Symonds’s collection or that he read. However, sometimes we encountered titles mentioned in passing within a letter with little to no information with regards to edition, publication, or ownership status–raising questions about the best practices for recording such works and how, or whether, to include them in the Lost Library. As mentioned, our new inquiries include deciding which edition of a work to list if it is unclear, defining the boundaries of the types of materials in the library, and deciding on the degree of ownership and importance a given work has.

The group has articulated a few standard practices regarding the choice of an edition if one is not listed in the footnotes. Students originally adopted the practice of locating the first edition of the work we could find (choosing an edition published in London over an American publication), though recent practice has been to prefer instead the prior edition closest to the date of the mention. There were also issues about choosing editions for famous works in the literary canon, such as a Shakespeare play or books of the Bible. In these cases, we are still not sure if Symonds had a specific Shakespeare collection or Bible he frequently read. In some cases, we can narrow down the options. For example, we can deduce that the family Bible the Symonds household most likely read was the King James Version. We have left such works to the side for now, and we hope to find more evidence in the future that will point towards which editions of these works the author most likely owned.

Another subject that frequently came up was what material types are allowed in the Lost Library. A student might find a reference to a photograph or painting that seemed important to Symonds, but prompted greater questions about how we define the scope of the library. In one discussion, a student brought up a question about a libretto for Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (composed in the 1790s) that Symonds wrote about in a letter. The student recorded that Symonds saw the renowned British soprano Clara Novello perform the oratorio. After discussing the work with the team, the researcher couldn’t confidently deduce that Symonds owned a physical copy of the libretto. However, questions remain about the influence that this and other artistic or musical works had on the author. The Creation surely must have had a great effect on the author for him to mention it. If he had a copy of the libretto, he very well could have stashed it in his physical library. These uncertainties about different material types make us re-think what the Lost Library is. Should the collection include any work that we think was important to Symonds? We defined the boundaries of the library to focus mainly on books that we know he owned or that we can justify were important to him. However, the significance of other mediums such as music, art, and photography are interesting subjects that can be explored in depth in the future.

Franz Joseph Haydn's libretto for The Creation
Cover of Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation with libretto by Gottfried van Swieten. London: Novello; New York: H.W. Gray Co., 1859, via the Internet Archive.

Lastly, some of the most interesting conversations arose around questions about degrees of ownership and the importance of a book to Symonds. Is his ability to quote excerpts from a work by heart a sign of ownership? Does this ability mean that the work had a profound impact on him? Is his expression of interest in purchasing a book from the shop an indication of potential ownership? When grappling with such questions, students had to find convincing evidence in the letters that made us think he owned a book or if it greatly impacted him in some way. The justification of our decisions whether to include a work or not has sparked many conversations about addressing the question of ownership as we have generated data for the library.

Symonds in his study
Photographer unknown. John Addington Symonds in his library at Am Hof, Davos, Switzerland. From the John Addington Symonds papers, 1801-1980. University of Bristol Special Collections. GB 3 DM 109.

Despite these challenges, examining the Letters gave our group a nuanced view of Symonds’s literary interests and influences. As our team talked about during our final discussion, studying them has allowed us to truly appreciate the variety of works the author engaged with during his lifetime. Reading a firsthand account of books he found interesting during a trip or what was popular in his day has allowed us to value the rich diversity of his library, beyond what an auction catalog can offer. Our group of researchers was able to join Symonds on his literary journey as we read through his letters. We found works ranging from serial magazines to schoolbooks that he engaged with as a young man and growing author. Finally, the efforts of our cohort to define best practices when investigating the Letters should prove helpful to future researchers and should give readers an understanding of our process. We look forward to finding what insights into the literary life of John Addington Symonds the remaining volumes of the Letters have to offer.

Symonds and Boccaccio’s “Artistic Inferiority”

Over the course of his career, one curious writer Symonds referenced frequently was Giovanni Boccaccio, a fourteenth-century Italian poet and prose writer famous for works such as The Decameron. Not only is Boccaccio discussed among other famous Italian authors, Dante and Petrarch, in the “Italian Literature” volume of his Renaissance in Italy series, but Symonds also wrote an essay about Boccaccio titled “Giovanni Boccaccio as Man and Author.”

This essay in itself is curious, its earliest publication being a posthumous 1895 edition. The only reference to the manuscript in Symonds’s Memoirs is a “long introduction to Boccaccio for Vizetelly” that he wrote in 1888 (Memoirs, 444). According to the footnotes, this was ultimately published by John C. Nimmo, not Vizetelly (Memoirs, 460 n135).

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, John Addington Symonds, published by John C. Nimmo, London 1895. Image via HathiTrust.

Bibliographic details aside, Boccaccio, ending the “first and most brilliant age of Italian literature,” was, alongside Dante and Petrarch, one of the writers ushering in a modern form of Italian literature (Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 3). Symonds states:

Dante took for his province the drama of the human soul in its widest scope; Petrarch takes the heart of an individual man, himself; Boccaccio takes the complex stuff of daily life, the quicquid agunt homines of common experience.

Giovanni Boccaccio As Man and Author, 3

In addition to their different subject matters, the men themselves had drastically different upbringings: Dante grew up as Florentine nobility, Petrarch grew up middle class, and Boccaccio was born into the lower class from parents of no consequence, although Symonds notes that his class became the ascendant class in Florence (As Man and Author, 4-6).

This considered, then, the differences between them are clear. Symonds made his interest in Dante and his Inferno clear in the Memoirs, but his interest in Boccaccio is rather curious. In his essay on Boccaccio, he ranks Boccaccio below Dante and Petrarch in “force and character and quality of genius” (As Man and Author, 6). While Symonds gives praise to the originality and descriptiveness of his writing, he notes:

…judged as poems, they leave much to be desired. The style is never choice, and often simply vulgar. In some parts the execution is unpardonably slovenly.

As Man and Author, 50

He goes on to mention that Boccaccio’s work often feels rushed and there is an “absence of loving care” (As Man and Author, 51).

This critique reveals a marked contrast to Symonds’s own approach to writing, which he details as:

Concentration lies beyond my grasp. The right words do not fall into the right places at my bidding. I have written few good paragraphs, and possibly no single perfect line. I strove, however, to control the qualities I knew myself to have, to train and curb them, to improve them by attention to the details of style.

The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 418

Symonds consistently reveals himself to be a writer concerned with details and giving his writing due attention (which can be seen in the footnotes to the Memoirs, let alone his poetry). This raises a question: why did Symonds devote an entire essay to an author whose work he is often very critical of?

It’s worth noting that, while he claims Boccaccio fails to be an artist when it comes to his poetry, he also says that he himself lacks the “inevitable touch of the true poet, the unconquerable patience of the conscious artist” (Memoirs, 418). In other sections of the Memoirs, he notes times he doubted his own artistic abilities. This seems to demonstrate a lack of superiority or hypocrisy when critiquing Boccaccio’s work; the qualities he claims Boccaccio lacks are qualities he himself tries to achieve in his own writing. 

Despite these critiques, Symonds does give praise to Boccaccio’s finer qualities. To return to his comparisons between the three authors, despite Boccaccio’s ranking, he was the most influential of them:

He alone grew with the growing age, in his substitution of sensual and concrete for mystical and abstract ideals, in his joyous acceptance of nature and the world…

As Man and Author, 7

This statement alone offers some insight into the appeal of Boccaccio for Symonds, as Symonds establishes himself frequently in his writing as someone wont to be appreciative of nature and beauty, evident by diaries he carried during his travels, who aims to write vividly enough to fully utilize “such certainty of touch” and create perceptions for a reader (Memoirs 417).

In addition, he says of Boccaccio’s sonnets:

Their artistic inferiority secures for them a certain air of correspondence with the truth.

As Man and Author, 26

This is interesting because truth is something Symonds grappled with in his literary pursuits, particularly when crafting his Memoirs, where he creates a balance between his examinations of self and the minor day-to-day details. When he discusses his work in the Memoirs, he says:

It has been my destiny to make continual renunciation of my truest self, because I was born out of sympathy with the men around me, and have lived a stifled anachronism.

Memoirs, 418

The desire for truth juxtaposed with the frequent personal unattainability of it for Symonds might also suggest why Boccaccio’s own achievement of veracity in his work was interesting to him.

Symonds’s literature on Boccaccio is fascinating because, on the surface, it may appear that Boccaccio’s work might be too far removed from Symonds’s own to have been of any interest to him. It’s clear, however, that the critiques he offers are not particularly damning, as he himself is not a perfect writer. It’s possible that, besides making Boccaccio the subject of an essay due to his fame and influence, he saw Boccaccio’s work, as flawed as it was in Symonds’s eyes, as a tool through which he could analyze his own flaws as a writer. These comments that Symonds has made, about Boccaccio’s work and his own, can be used to reveal more about him as man and author.


Symonds, John Addington. Giovanni Boccaccio As Man And Author. London: J.C. Nimmo, 1895.

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

Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance In Italy: Italian Literature: In Two Parts. London: Smith, Elder & co., 1881.

British Ballads and Symonds’s Spiritual Terrors of Childhood

In his childhood, John Addington Symonds constantly suffered from “spiritual terrors” (Memoirs, 71). He identified several works that took hold of his imagination, including “a book of old ballads in two volumes” (ibid.). A copy of one likely candidate, The Book of British Ballads (edited by S. C. Hall and published between 1842 and 1844), is in the Special Collections of Johns Hopkins University’s library. When I first saw the book, my first instinct was to search for the pictures for three specific ballads Symonds mentions––“Glenfinals,” “The Eve of St John,” and “Kempion”––because they had brought emotional distress to young Symonds and had left him with deep impressions which were so long-lasting that he could clearly recall the exact names of all three ballads when he wrote his memoirs in his 40’s (ibid.). However, I only saw “Kempion” in the index and soon realized the book in our library was one of two published volumes.

In fact, the book in our library does not appear to be an original version, because it is obvious that the pages were removed from the original book and pasted on larger-sized pages (see the image below).

The title page of The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1.
The title page of The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

Also, near the end of this book, I observed the traces of several torn pages. Therefore, I suspected that the book in hand was not complete.

Traces of torn pages in The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1
Traces of torn pages in The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

By referring to a digital version of the first volume of The Book of British Ballads, I discovered that the current version in our library leaves out a page from the original book with the text, “A SECOND SERIES OF THIS COLLECTION IS IN PROGRESS, AND WILL BE COMPLETED BY CHRISTMAS, 1843.” Therefore, I searched for the second volume of The Book of British Ballads online and discovered that the second volume had the complete index to the whole collection (both volumes), which includes all three ballads that Symonds mentions. “Glenfinals” and “The Eve of St. John” are in the second volume. Given that Symonds was born in 1840, the publication date, paired with Symonds’s explicit description of the book “in two volumes,” makes it a plausible candidate for the book of old ballads that evoked horrible imaginings in his young self, though he misremembers Daniel Maclise as one of the illustrators to this book (Memoirs, 92). (A Maclise illustration was used as the frontispiece to a later edition published in 1879, but not in the original volumes.) Finally, I managed to put together all the pictures in an attempt to find what they share and why they may have made Symonds “uncomfortable” (ibid.). Due to Symonds’s preoccupation with “spiritual terror,” my analysis will focus on analyzing pictures with supernatural components.

Although The Book of British Ballads is a collection of ballads by different authors, all three poems that impressed Symonds were by Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist and poet. In “Kempion,” the heroine is turned into a beast (illustrated as a dragon) by her stepmother, who curses her to remain so until the king’s son, Kempion, comes to kiss her three times. After knowing the beast is in his land, Kempion comes to see her with his brother. The beast lures Kempion to a crag and persuades him to kiss her three times. After the third kiss, she turns back into a lovely woman and accuses her stepmother of cursing her. There are four illustrations to this poem, all of which contains supernatural elements: 1) the wicked stepmother casting a spell on the heroine in order to turn her into a beast; 2) the beast breathing out fire towards Kempion and his companion; 3) Kempion kneeling by the edge of the crag and kissing the beast; 4) the stepmother becoming a beast walking on four feet, staring at Kempion and her stepdaughter.

Illustrations to “Kempion”
Illustrations to “Kempion,” designed by W. B. Scott and engraved by Smith and Lintos, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 1. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yuhan Deng.

In contrast, the remaining two poems contain real names and appear to be more reality-based. “Glenfinlas” narrates a story happening in Glenfinlas, “a tract of forest-ground, lying in the Highlands of Perthshire, not far from Callender, in Menteith” (The Book of British Ballads, 242). In the ballad, the Highland chieftain Lord Ronald and Moy, another chief from a distant Scottish island, go on a hunting expedition in the wilds of Glenfinlas. Telling Moy that his sweetheart Mary is also hunting with her sister Flora, Ronald leaves Moy in the cabin and goes to a tryst with Mary in a nearby dell, yet never comes back. At midnight, a huntress appears and attempts to lure Moy out, but he refuses. The huntress, revealed as a spirit, flies away, and brings a rain of blood and body fragments upon Ronald. Besides the first illustration depicting a romantic implication of hunting through interactions among a group of god-like figures (they are standing on clouds), there are six pictures with a supernatural element, the huntress spirit. Unlike the ugly beast in “Kempion,” this female figure appears to be a beautiful young woman in all illustrations. However, one picture reminds the reader that her beauty is a disguise for her fatal threat, by placing the corpse of Ronald under her perfect nude body.

Illustrations to “Glenfinlas” depicting a huntress spirit and a man’s corpse
Illustrations to “Glenfinlas” depicting a huntress spirit and a man’s corpse, designed by H. J. Townsend and engraved by G. P. Nicholls, F. Branston, & J. Walmsley, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 2,

“The Eve of St John” refers to the battle of “Ancram Moor” that took place in 1546. In the poem, the Baron of Smaylho’me has just come back from the battle and learns from his attendants that his lady has fallen in love with a knight and has scheduled a tryst with him on the eve of St. John. However, after knowing the knight’s name, the lord is frightened, because the knight has been killed and buried. At midnight, when the Baron has fallen asleep, the spirit of the knight comes for his lover and tells the truth, leaving his fingermark on her wrist. Since the fact that the knight is a spirit is revealed at last, most illustrations to this poem, except for the last one, appear to be normal. Nevertheless, the last picture, depicting the visit of the knight at midnight, presents a nightmarish scene.

illustrations to “The Eve of St. John” depicting a night visit of the knight spirit
Illustration to “The Eve of St. John” depicting a night visit of the knight spirit, designed by J. N. Paton and engraved by Fred Branston, The Book of British Ballads, Volume 2,

Juxtaposing all three poems and their illustrations, it becomes clear that they convey interchangeability between mankind and supernatural beings. In “Kempion,” the heroine and her stepmother appear as normal humans in the first picture. However, in the next three pictures, they turn into terrifying beasts. In both “Glenfinlas” and “The Eve of St. John,” there is a figure who takes the form of a human being (the huntress in the former and the knight in the latter) but ends up being a spirit. I suspect this interchangeability strengthened by those illustrations could have fostered a sense of distrust towards one’s perception of daily matters, with an intrusive doubt in mind: is what I see real? The boundary between reality and imagination was further blurred by dreams and visions. Symonds writes,

Dreams and visions exercised a far more potent spell. Nigh to them lay madness and utter impotence of self-control.

(Memoirs, 70)

Therefore, the spiritual terrors that Symonds used to experience might have influenced his early personality, which he recognizes as “[b]eing sensitive to the point of suspiciousness” (Memoirs, 68). Meanwhile, Symonds was fully aware that, as opposed to powerful supernatural beings, he was one of the human beings, “things of flesh and blood, brutal and murderous as they might be, [which] could always be taken by the hand and fraternized with” (Memoirs, 69-70). This terrified him.

Also, it is noteworthy that the horrible scenes in “Glenfinlas” and “The Eve of St. John” happen at night. In the Memoirs, Symonds explicitly recalls various things that he used to fear at night: “phantasmal noises, which blended terrifically with the caterwauling of cats upon the roof,” the fancy of “a corpse in a coffin underneath [his] bed,” a recurrent nightmare about a little finger, only visible to him, creeping slowly into the room, etc. (Memoirs, 68). The illustrations might have served as confirmation for Symonds that horrible things tended to happen at night. According to Symonds’s imagination, another spirit dwelling in his childhood home was “the devil [living] near the door-mat in a dark corner of the passage by [his] father’s bedroom” and “[appearing] to [him] there under the shape of a black shadow” (Memoirs, 69). The last illustration of “The Eve of St. John” corresponds to this black shadow, likely triggering Symonds’s fancy of the devil.


Hall, Samuel Carter, ed. The Book of British Ballads. London: Jeremiah How, 1842-44.

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

The Case of the Missing Marginalia

Clifton Hill House loomed large over the life of John Addington Symonds. This structure, with its bright neoclassical facade and its dark Victorian interior could stand in for Symonds himself. The scholar’s luminous career also hid a brooding and tortured inner life. Clifton Hill House’s paneled living rooms full of curiosities formed the backdrop for the development of Symonds’ unique aesthetic sense, as well as his first introduction to the beauty of the male body in the art books of his family’s library. It is no surprise then that, when he sold the house his father had bought years ago, he let go of rather more than he bargained for.

An example of marginalia: manicules from an edition of Gilbert Burnet’s An exposition of the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England (1700) at the University of Cardiff (source: the University of Cardiff special collections blog)

So begins our archival mystery. In the finding aide to the John Addington Symonds Archive at Bristol University, a chimeric document made piecemeal from handwritten inventories, typescript accounts, and small computer files describing donations of Symonds’ ephemera to the college after his death, we find a curious item on page 122:

Scan of page 122 in the Bristol University Finding Aid

3) Letter, MS.28.6.1881. Davos-Platz, Hotel & Pension Buol. JAS to Mr George, Bristol, asking for the return of certain annotated and association copies of books formerly offered for sale, presumably after Clifton Hill House was disposed of (1880)

Bristol University Finding Aid

Unraveling the complex poetics of this archive gives us a series of clues:

1. This piece of paper is the third item in a larger box containing documents related to Symonds.

2. It was handwritten on the twenty-eighth of June, 1881.

3. It was not written in England, but rather across the sea in Switzerland.

4. The letter is addressed Mr. George, a bookseller in Bristol, asking for the return of some books that were mistakenly sent out for sale. The modern archivist at University of Bristol conjectures based on the date of the letter that they were part of Symonds’ library at Clifton Hill house, and were given to the bookseller as the rest of the Symonds property was being “disposed of.”

This disposal held great significance for Symonds, as he recounts in a letter to Henry Sidgwick on July 8, 1880:

‘I have parted with my past by destroying nearly the whole of my correspondence…It was rather pretty to see Catherine and my four children all engaged in tearing up the letters of a lifetime! We sat on the floor and the old leaves grew above us mountains high. By the same fell stroke I destroyed the correspondence of my forefathers from the 17th century–from an old Independent Minister who had known Bunyan–downwards…I feel rather like a criminal to have burned the tares and the wheat together of this harvest. I was driven to do so by having to break up this our home, and to go forth homeless. Old letters must have been put into a box to be rummaged and destroyed by my executors. I preferred a solemn concremation in my garden underneath the trees, attended with the conclamatio [shouting] of my spirit as I said to the flaming pages “Avete atque valete.” [“Goodbye and farewell.” ref. Catullus, Carmina 101] So you see we are about to leave Clifton Hill house: “To be let or sold”!’ (Letters 1186)

Symonds, Letters 2:639-641, to Henry Sidgwick (Clifton July 8 [1880]).

When he lit the match in the garden that day, Symonds freed himself from his own past. However, he says goodbye with pointed reference to another, more remote past, that of the ancient Roman poet Catullus. The phrase “avete atque valete” directly recalls the final line Catullus Carmina 101 (linked above), which portrays the poet returning to Rome for the funeral of his brother and weeping over the “mute ash” of the funeral pyre. With Catullus in mind, Symonds’ bonfire is more than a documentary concern to him. This reference shows that the Victorian viewed the pieces of paper that made up his heritage as a body to be consumed by the flames, as a collection of voices to be made silent. Disposing of the remains of Clifton Hill house, then, was for Symonds a funeral rite, an act of mourning that perhaps would allow him to move into a new chapter of his life.

Advertisement from the March 26, 1881 edition of the 19th century periodical The Academy by William George Booksellers: 26 Park Street, Bristol. (source: Google Books)

5. In the letters throughout the following months, Symonds discusses auctioning off his father’s valuable collection of books and art objects. Although he doesn’t mention George by name, this advertisement in The Academy is presumably for the sale of at least a piece of the Symonds estate from Clifton Hill house. It identifies our Mr. George as William George, founder of William George and Sons bookshop in 1847. This shop, having been bought by the chain store Blackwells in the 1920s, still sold books on Park street in Bristol until 2012, when the Blackwells location was bought by Jamie Oliver’s fast casual restaurant “Jamie’s Italian.” (Image of the shop’s new look available here. For an entertaining review of “Jamie’s Italian” click here.) What will become of the building after the ignominious demise of Oliver’s foray into the restaurant business remains to be seen.

This leaves one pressing question: What was Symonds’ letter to William George really about? If Symonds was trying to make a new start, why did he need these books back so badly?

6. A perusal of the year 1881 in The Letters of John Addington Symonds, edited by Schneller and Peters, reveals that this letter to Mr. George is conspicuously absent. However, he is mentioned by Symonds one other time, and what he says about him and the missing books provides at least a partial solution to our question above:

I have been receiving letters from Mrs Wilson (School House) about a book wh once belonged to me & is full of Ms notes–how many of such indiscretions had got into circulation I am afraid to think. The Wilsons bought it of George the bookseller [in Bristol].

Symonds, Letters 3:365 (1709), to Henry Graham Dakyns (Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland: March 27, 1889).

From this we can conjecture that it wasn’t the loss of the books themselves that had upset Symonds, but the exposure of the handwritten notes left in the margins. To someone that reads with pen in hand, the things written in a book are an extension of the mind. We can only imagine the horror that gripped Symonds, who thought he had made a definitive break with his English past, at the thought of his private thoughts spreading through the bookshops of England like a slick of oil on a London puddle. What would he feel now, given that our task, as not only detectives but historians, is to track down those very thoughts and lay them bare?

So where did the books go? Is the solution in the estate of Mrs. Wilson, wife of the head of Clifton College at the time, or perhaps in some catalogue kept by Mr. George and lying in wait for us in a digital repository somewhere? The truth remains to be seen, and the Symonds lab is on the case!

First budding of the down: Symonds’ encounter with Sir. William Hamilton’s collection of antiquities

Imagine dwelling in your father’s library for the whole day, devouring Greek literature. When your eyes need a break, you look out from the windows of Clifton Hill House. The city’s towers, the River Avon, and the sea-going ships are gleaming. Or, you feast your eyes with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated books about Greek sculpture. The adolescent Symonds nurtured himself in these ways. Symonds is dreamy and whimsical. He frequently appears to his friends as “languorous” in real-world pursuits as he explains that he “live[s] into emotion through the brooding imagination” (Memoirs, p. 181).

Clifton Hill House, childhood home of John Addington Symonds. Photograph by Chris L via

Before Symonds’ imagination could take flight, he needed images that could inspire and suggest. The actual images he took in became elements with which to build sceneries and characters in his fantasy world; no one but himself was able to enter this world of imagination. Nevertheless, it is possible for us to get closer to his fantasy world by looking at images that might have had an impact on him. Doing so, we can begin to visualize his imaginative world using our own imagination. In this blog post, I am going to experiment with this idea by presenting one image from Symonds’ visual library.

Hamilton Antiquities title page
Title page, Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble William Hamilton. Naples: 1766-1767. Birmingham Museum of Art via

Among Symonds’ favorite picture books was a book of engraved reproductions of the collection of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803). Hamilton was famous for his large collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities. As the Envoy Extraordinary to Naples for the British empire, Hamilton possessed a charismatic personality that attracted patrons who help with his collecting project, enabling him to amass and study in depth a large number of antiquities. He stood out from his peers, upper-class, rich Englishmen, mainly for his scholastic pursuits in antiquity and, surprisingly, volcanology. With his scientific observations of volcanos, he intended to “convince the world that volcanoes should not be seen as destructive, but on the contrary as extraordinarily productive natural phenomena” (Pierre-Francois, preface). Similar things can be said about Hamilton’s love of antiquity. His motivation went beyond a simple collecting frenzy. As Pierre D’ Hancarville noted in his introduction to the book, Hamilton’s collection merited reproduction because it was “useful to Artists, to Men of Letters and by their means to the World in general” (Pierre-Francois, preface ). So it was not unnatural for Symonds to be drawn to Hamilton’s collections, which would have appealed to him not just because of its contents, but also for its painstaking dedication to a comprehensive understanding of art and culture.

Artist unknown, engraved reproduction of image on Attic bell-krater III-36 depicting Nike leading a bull surrounded by six youths. From Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, The Collection of Antiquities from the cabinet of Sir William Hamilton. Köln: TASCHEN, 2004. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Yiyang Xu.

The picture here (on the left) is from an Attic, a region of Greece that contained Athens, bell-krater, labelled III-36 from Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon.W. Hamilton. I chose this image to analyze as the flexible bodily gestures of six half-naked youths here immediately remind me of some similar scenery descriptions I have frequently come across in Symonds’ memoirs. The image is captioned “Surrounded by six youths (five torch-bearers), Nike leads a bull towards a base with two steps.” In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory. Unlike many other Greek goddesses, Nike is not given many personal histories and characteristics. In other words, she appears more as a symbol than a person. This makes the theme of the image less clear: there are no prominent figures such as Achilles or the brothers Castor and Pollux here that readers could relate to a background story. Paintings like this entail a lesser sense of story-telling, which allows the reader to focus solely on the aesthetics. In other words, since there is not an established setting, it is open to the reader’s interpretation.

Several aspects of this picture stand out to me; the first one is the masculine bodies. The six nude youths in the picture are similar, as they are all well-built with a sheet of muscle between the abdomen and chest. This painting therefore serves as a perfect exemplar for demonstrating Symonds’ own description of his viewing of pictures, aimed at satisfying his desire for “the love of a robust and manly lad, even if it had not been wholly pure.” Such visual experience, he adds, “must have been beneficial to a boy like me [him]” (Memoirs, p.118). Another notable feature of this painting is that it depicts six masculine youths, rather than one or a couple. More than anything, the painting strikes me first as a reminder of Symonds’ account of how he “used to fancy” himself “crouched upon the floor amid a company of naked adult men: sailors.” It is worth noting that the awakening of Symonds’ erotic imagination here entails scenes of a group of masculine youths (sailors) rather than a single one. The painting at hand would satisfy exactly this secret desire.

Nike, the only female here, is placed in the center of the painting. Nike’s covered body, tender gesture, and her state of being protected by the brawny youths around her might very well have tempted Symonds to fantasize in the same way that he did about Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, about which he reflected, “those adult males, the shaggy and brawny sailors, without entirely disappearing, began to be superseded in my fancy by an adolescent Adonis…She [Venus] only expressed my own relation to the desirable male.” (Memoirs, p.101). In this case, Nike would be in the position of “Venus” for him, a symbol that only intensifies his yearning for the nearby youths.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the picture is more than a graphic representation of Symonds’ erotic ideal. The torches in the hands of the youths around Nike indicate that it is night time. Oddly enough, in the painting, Nike doesn’t hold a torch herself, which suggests that she is not just guarded, but is also guided by the six young men; they are leading the way for her to travel in the darkness. In return, Nike brings victory to the youths. Such a relationship itself resembles the comradeship that Symonds often mentions, which surpassed the realm of sexual imagination. The relationship of guarding, guiding, and eventually needing one another is akin to what Symonds craved in a romantic relationship, independent of bodily desire. As Symonds rested his eyes on the painting, both his romantic and erotic imaginations would have been inspired; these two elements worked in tandem to enhance his sensual pleasure.

Works Cited:

  1. Regis, Amber K. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: A Critical Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK , 2016.
  2. Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, The Collection of Antiquities from the Cabinet of Sir William Hamilton. Cologne: TASCHEN, 2004.