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).

Symonds /Clifton Hill House Open Garden 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.

Title page, Pierre-Francois Hugues D’Hancarville, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble William Hamilton (Naples: 1766-1767). Image 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.

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.