John Addington Symonds (1840 – 1893)

John Addington Symonds was a writer, art historian and forerunner of the 20th century liberation movements. His pioneering work to free homosexuality from religious and moral distortions is of world significance.

John Addington Symonds 1840-1893 writer historian

John Addington Symonds in 1889

John Addington Symonds was born on October 5, 1840 at No. 7 Berkeley Square, Bristol. His father, who bore the same name, was a highly cultured academic and a respected doctor. In 1851 the family moved to Clifton Hill House off Constitution Hill. He grew up in an intellectual hothouse visited by some of the most celebrated names of Victorian society including Edward Lear, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Jowett (master of Balliol College, Oxford), and the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. John junior was nervous, sickly and highly strung.

After school at Harrow he entered Oxford, graduated in 1863, married in November 1864 and for a few years practised law in London. He returned to Bristol in 1868, where he lived at No. 7 Victoria Square. On his father’s death in 1871, Symonds moved into Clifton Hill House where he and his wife raised their four daughters. His consumption (tuberculosis) diagnosed in 1867 eventually caused him in 1877 to move with his family to Davos in Switzerland, where he died in 1893.

Symonds was aware of his sexuality from childhood and at 18 he fell in love with a 15-year old chorister at Bristol Cathedral, Willie Dyer. Their year-long relationship advanced no further than embraces and kissing, and ended on the advice of Symonds’s father because of their class difference. Symonds’ friendships with men such as Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter were crucial in his sexual development and understanding. His sexuality developed from a cerebral love based on Platonic ideals of male comradeship to fully expressed sexual love from about the age of 36. His wife knew of his feelings and reached a sort of acceptance; in Davos, Symonds’ Venetian lover lived with the family in the role of valet.

Photo: John Addington Symonds on a sledge at Davos

Symonds on a sledge at Davos.
University of Bristol Library, Special Collections (DM377)

Symonds wrote important art historical works on the Renaissance and translated Michaelangelo’s love sonnets, restoring the male pronouns (referring to his lover as ‘he/him’ rather than ‘she/her’). But his influence on the history of sexuality was established by works such as A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883) and A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891) in which he argued for a rational scientific approach to homosexuality and for law reforms. With Havelock Ellis he co-wrote the ground-breaking book Sexual Inversion (1897). Only the first edition carried his name, because of his family’s fears for his reputation. It includes an anonymised account of Symonds’s own sexuality (Case History XX). This ends with the radical statement:

“he is convinced that his sexual dealings with men have been thoroughly wholesome …, largely increasing his physical, moral, and intellectual energy, and not injurious to others. He has no sense whatever of moral wrong in his actions, and he regards the attitude of society toward those in his position as utterly unjust and founded on false principles.”

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Online copy of Havelock Ellis and J.A.S., Sexual Inversion (1927 ed.)
Wikipedia: John Addington Symonds
Rictor Norton: The Life and Writings of John Addington Symonds
Symonds in Bristol: a website mapping Bristol locations related to Symonds

Andrew Foyle
Last edited: 12/11/2015

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