Family home of Edward & Mary Clifford (1870s)

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Mary and Edward Clifford  were the two eldest children of the Rev. John Bryant Clifford and Emily Clifford. Edward was a painter, whose idealised figures of male saints and heroes interested Symonds. Mary, one of Bristol’s first women Poor Law Guardians, attended Symonds’ lectures, and became a close friend of his wife, Catherine. A younger sister, Emily Claire, was another friend of the family, and seems to have shared her painting interests with Catherine Symonds.

The connection between the Clifford and Symonds families stretches back at least as far as the siblings’ childhood: Dr Symonds attended their mother in 1849 when she suffered “an acute attack of haemorrhage of the lungs”, and lent her several of his books.1 Later, Mary recorded her interest in the “intellectual parties” held by Dr Symonds, but wondered “how far will such society agree with being decided in religion?”2 The family was devoutly Christian (their brother, Alfred, entered the priesthood) and also artistically-inclined: Edward’s father and younger sister, Emily Claire, both painted, and Symonds’ daughter Margaret vividly recalled the artistic atmosphere of their Kingsdown home:

Those were the days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Edward was of course in the thick of it. I know there was an atmosphere of peacocks’ feathers and of very good blue china, also of lovely old Chippendale chairs, and I believe (but I cannot be certain of this) that there were hollyhocks in the garden. The object, however, which remained clearly branded on my brain was the portrait of a large tiger prowling in a jungle, with most marked stripes upon his back. This portrait became to my childish mind the more amazing when I was informed that no one less than Mary’s own father had painted it ! There were sandal-wood boxes and beads, too, I think, from India ; and there were many portraits of beautiful ladies and young men and saints by Edward Clifford, who was then in the beginning of his fame as the portrait painter of the then fashionable Pre-Raphaelite set.3

Edward Clifford trained at the Bristol School of Art, later graduating to the Royal Academy in London. His early interest in the male form is captured in Mary’s letters, which charmingly record  “Dearest Edwy is painting a lovely picture of a young man with so little on except a sword and an expression.”4

Symonds was attracted by Clifford’s treatment of  “manly perfection”, and bought or was gifted several of his works. He sent Clifford samples of his homoerotic poetry, but struggled to navigate their obvious differences.5 Though he responded positively to some of the poems, Clifford was troubled by Symonds’ religious scepticism, and regarded some of his writing as troubling.  Despite their differences, Symonds continued to share his work on same-sex topics, lamenting with careful self-deprecation that his writing might not match Clifford’s ideal of “quite unselfish unseeking love”.6 It was from Clifford, too, that Walt Whitman learned the correct pronunciation of Symonds’ name: “W argued—’I am sure it is Sim-monds. You know, it was Edward Clifford, the artist, very closely allied with Symonds—who was here and told me about it.'”7 In 1892, long after leaving Bristol, Symonds wrote to his daughter that he was expecting Edward and Mary’s visit at Davos.8

Mary Clifford was not as artistic as her younger brother and sister, but she nevertheless became a close friend of Symonds’ wife, Catherine.  Her biographer described the friendship as “touched with the colours of romance for Mary”

My friendship and love for Mrs. Symonds […] I gave it to God and He has given it to me; and it has been a source of great joy and refreshment. I want to keep it in His hands, and pray for her and myself increasingly, and always that He will manifest Himself to her. She is an exquisite person, sincere and full of grace.9

Like her brother, Mary Clifford was motivated by a sense of religious duty, and involved herself in the subject of welfare. She encouraged Alice Winkworth to stand as Poor Law Guardian and advocated for better conditions in workhouses, yet opposed State Aid, protesting that “It is wrong to give the working class what it isn’t, to my thinking, honest and true to give them.”10

For more information on Mary Clifford’s public life in Bristol, see Routes into Women’s History by Heloise Brown at UWE’s Bristol Historical Resource.

Mary Clifford’s Biography at Archive.org

  1. Williams, Gwen M. Mary Clifford. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1920, p32. Available in electronic form at archive.org []
  2. Williams, p53 []
  3. Williams, p92 []
  4. Williams, p65 []
  5. Whitney Davis, Image in the Middle: John Addington Symonds and Homoerotic Art Criticism in Elizabeth Prettejohn (ed), After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999) p.188 – 216
    discusses the careful negotiation between Symonds and Clifford around the implications of their works.  []
  6. John Addington Symonds, The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Vol 2, ed. by Herbert M. Schueller & Robert L. Peters (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968), p. 210 []
  7. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol 6, (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), digital edition at The Walt Whitman Archive, p.35 []
  8. Schueller, Vol 2, p 681 []
  9. Williams, p.88 []
  10. Williams, p. 126 []