Museum Love Stories — tales of devotion that endure in the heart of North East England
By Victoria Page, Communications Officer, Discovery Museum and Tyne & Wear Archives
Courtly love, maternal love, Goddess love, doomed love — and a bit of cheekiness — characterise the collections of museums and galleries on Tyneside when it comes to affairs of the heart.
From Egyptian statues of Venus to delicate Victorian Valentines, love stories span continents and generations.
This synthetic heart shaped ruby is on display in Newcastle University’s Great North Museum: Hancock. Rubies are the red variety of the mineral corundum, their colour resulting from the presence of chromium. These gems have historically been associated with love, passion and power. The earliest synthetic rubies were created toward the end of the 19c.
The well documented Roman legacy of Hadrian’s Wall in the North East is not just military in nature. The golden Aemilia finger ring in the Great North Museum: Hancock, was found in Corbridge, Northumberland. From the late 2c early 3c, it was a love token or betrothal gift. Inscribed with the Greek motto AEMILIA ZESES — ‘Aemilia may you live’, it displays an exquisite level of craftsmanship for the time.
This Roman tombstone with the inscriptions ‘To the spirits of the departed; Aurelia Aureliana lived 41 years. Ulpius Apolinaris set this up to his very beloved wife’ was discovered in Carlisle.
A Roman relief from a water tank from High Rochester Fort shows Venus, the Goddess of Love, bathing with two of her attendant nymphs. One holds a towel, the other a water jug.
At Arbeia, South Shields’ Roman Fort there is an intricate intaglio (intaglio is a style of printmaking) of Cupid ; Cupid was the God of Love, who could make people fall in love with each other. Some Romans cynically said he was depicted as a young man with wings because love can be fast, foolish and irrational. The print on display shows him riding a galloping horse, which perhaps represents the speed and excitement of love.
Another statue at Arbeia, from Egypt shows Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty. During a festival in honour of the Goddess Venus in Rome itself women would give flowers including roses and myrtle (a symbol of everlasting love), asking to be popular, pretty, charming and witty.
One of the UK’s most significant Roman tombstones (a copy resides in the British Museum) is at Arbeia. The high-quality tombstone is dedicated to Regina, a former British slave who was freed by, then married to, her former owner Barates from Palmyra (Syria). Uniquely, it has inscriptions in both Latin and Aramaic — ‘Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas.’
The love story from classical mythology of Cupid and Psyche is immortalised in marble at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery, by North East sculptor John Graham Lough (1798–1876) — the artist responsible for the iconic Stephenson monument at Newcastle Central Station.
After a series of trials, Cupid, the God of Love, and Psyche, were married in heaven. The piece can usually be seen on display in the Hatton Gallery building’s atrium, along with three other examples of John Graham Lough’s work, all donated by the Duke of Northumberland in 1953.
Joseph Crawhall’s (1821–1896) ‘Ffrendes With Newe Faces’ Chap-Books in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library offer a light hearted view of love from the early Victorian era , with colourful and humorous illustrations. Crawhall was born in Newcastle to an established political and artistic family. Chap-books were produced cheaply and considered low brow, but valuable as folk literature.
In the collections of Newcastle’s Discovery Museum a ‘Gay Love’ button badge represents the LGBTQIA community.
Discovery Museum holds a charming selection of Edwardian Valentine cards, and South Shields Museum & Art Gallery hold a range of Victorian Valentine cards, from whimsical illustrations to intricate hand stitched cards.
A postcard in Tyne & Wear Archives shows a racy side to the Edwardians. This postcard, sent to Mr G Sowerby of 24 Simpson St, Felling-on-Tyne in 1912 says [sic]:
Many thanks for letter, you will think I am a very long time in writing to you. How is George I sent him a card about a fortnight since & he has never answered it. You wouldn’t do that I am sure. Write soon and let me know how all the boys are getting on
How does this card suit It’s rather nice isn’t it. Bow wow”
In the pre-digital age, postcards gave an insight to people, places and events, documenting landscape, the fashions, and the way we lived. They can give us a fascinating glimpse into people’s lives. More examples can be seen here.
In Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, we see maternal and familial love; Mother and Child, 1873, by Haynes King (1831–1904) emphasises the importance of family life. The young mother gazes lovingly at her new baby.
The Family, 1935, by Tynemouth born Ernest Procter (1886–1935), shows the love and closeness of the whole family, the mother, father and baby. Many paintings only show a mother and child, while the father is often ‘left out of the picture’.
Courtly love is depicted in The Potter’s Courtship, by Arthur Hughes (1832–1915), 1886. The potter has made a statue of the woman he loves — he’s nervous, but the young woman’s face shows she’s is touched by his efforts.
At the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, The Love Letter, by John Wood (1801–1970) depicts a fashionable young lady holding a pendant with a portrait of her beloved. Romantic subjects such as this were very popular at the time.
Lastly, a macabre tale of doomed love. One of the most famous and well-loved paintings in the North East region, Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) hangs in the Laing Art Gallery, and can be seen reproduced on the gallery’s outside wall. Inspired by a John Keats poem, Isabella, at her shrine to her murdered lover, holds the pot of basil which contains his severed head.
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