Clifton Hill House

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Clifton Hill House, Lower Clifton Hill.

Symonds’ family home from late childhood until marriage, and again after his father’s death. In later years at Clifton Hill House, Symonds began to publish his works on the Renaissance, and worked on his historical defence of same-sex feeling: “A Problem in Greek Ethics.” Symonds also began his long correspondance with Walt Whitman, in which he pressed the poet to define what was meant by “the love of friends”.

Symonds was ten years old when he and his sisters were brought to view their new home in Clifton:

On that eventful June morning, I entered the solemn front door, traversed the echoing hall, vaulted and floored with solid stone, and emerged upon the garden at the further end. An Italian double flight of balustraded steps, largely designed, gives access to the gravelled terrace which separates the house from the lawn. For us it was like passing from the prose of fact into the poetry of fairyland. […] Four great tulip-trees, covered with golden blossoms, met our eyes at four points of vantage in the scheme. Between them, on either hand, rose two gigantic copper-beeches, richly contrasted with the bright green of the tulip-trees. Eight majestic elms, four on each side, guarded the terrace.1

Symonds left Clifton after his marriage in 1864, later returning to live in nearby Victoria Square. When his father died in 1871, he fulfilled his promise to return with his family to live in Clifton Hill House. A number of his works were published or written during this time at Clifton Hill, including his Introduction to the Study of Dante, Studies of the Greek Poets, and the first volume of The Renaissance in Italy.

During the 1870s, Symonds’ illness made it increasingly difficult to spend time in England. In 1880, the family’s remaining belongings were packed up for removal to Davos, Switzerland, and the decision was made to let the house. Amelia Edwards wrote to Symonds’ sister-in-law, Marianne North, describing the last few days in Bristol:

Poor dear fellow! The last day I called at Clifton to bid them goodbye, he was in bed, & we had afternoon tea at his bedside. He looked like a lad of eighteen or twenty or so–so young & boyish & delicate. I kissed him when I went away–the first time–perhaps the last. It gave me a heartache to say goodbye. I could not help asking myself if I should ever see him again It was all very sad–the dismantled house, the packing cases in the hall–the heavy feeling of parting & breaking up old ties & associations.2

Following Symonds’ death, Clifton Hill House became a hall of residence of Bristol University, initially dedicated to women students. Former warden and Bristol alumna Annie Burnside worked to preserve the history of Symonds and his family as part of the halls, and in 2009 published Clifton Hill House:  Palladian Villa in Bristol describing the house, and the people who inhabited it.

  1. H. F. Brown, John Addington Symonds: A Biography, Compiled from His Papers and Correspondence, 2nd edn (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1903) p. 28 – 29 []
  2. Letter formerly in the collection of J. R. Yamamoto-Wilson, quoted with permission. []