By Sue Prichard
When I agreed to give the lunchtime lecture ‘Making Love at the V&A’ I had no idea the title would generate such a flurry of anticipation, and indeed trepidation. ‘Timeout’ appeared to be a little disappointed, describing it as ‘perhaps unfortunately not what it sounds like’. One member of the audience made no bones about it ‘I hope this isn’t going to be embarrassing’. Oh dear – who would have thought that such a short word could create such havoc.
All you hopeless romantics out might want to grab an eye-wateringly expensive red rose and head to South Kensington tout suite, as our French neighbours might say. In a recent survey 20% of respondents confessed that they had fallen in love in a museum, with the V&A topping the list as the most romantic destination to find the love of one’s life. The museum is full of some of the most iconic objects associated with the rituals of courtship and marriage yet it could be argued that every object in the collection has, at some point been made, or owned, with love.
Throughout the centuries, and across cultures, love has provided the inspiration for artists, makers and designers. For the Victorians, defining love became an art form in its own right. In 1893 Frederick Greenwood published ‘The Lover’s Lexicon: A Handbook for Novelists, Playwrights, Philosophers and Minor Poets, But Especially for the Enamoured’. The unknown matter of this coverlet has followed Greenwood’s advice, creating a set of alphabetical headings which illustrates the rituals and emotions associated with courtship, with more than a hint of the melodramatic.
Cover, unknown maker, 1875-1885. Museum no. T.200-1969
As our hero and heroine career from ‘Admiration’ through ‘Hopes’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘Kisses’, ‘Refusal’ and ‘Tiffs’, we reach the climax of their rollercoaster ride with a rather splendid ‘Wedding’.
Detail of Cover, unknown maker, 1875-1885. Museum no. T.200-1969
The path to true love however does not always run smooth. William Morris fell in love with Jane Burden as she modelled for his painting ‘La Belle Iseult’ (Tate No 4999), frustrated by his inability to capture her luminescent beauty on canvas, he allegedly scrawled on the back ‘I can’t paint you, but I love you’. Jane married Morris, but it was his friend and fellow artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti who would make Jane his model, muse and, eventually, his lover.
The Day Dream, oil painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1880. Museum no. CAI.3
Morris, Jane and Rossetti lived in a ménage a trois at Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire from 1871 until the latter’s death in 1882. The enduring image of Jane will be forever associated with ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ love, a feminine ideal, elevated and deified above the ordinary and everyday.
Today, as we ponder on the power of love, and the sometimes unconventional relationships we forge, we should remember the words of Guy de Maupassant (Notre Coeur, 1890) ‘ Love is a short word, but it contains all; it means the body, the soul, the life, the entire being. We feel it as we feel the warm of the blood, we breathe it as we breathe the air, we carry it in ourselves as we carry out thoughts. Nothing more exists for us. It is not a word; it is an inexpressible state indicated by four letters…..
Love, print, Robert Indiana, 1967. Museum no. CIRC.576-1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/ARS, New York & DACS, London
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!
Print, unknown artist, about 1840 – 1880. Museum no. E.2089-1953
Sue’s lunchtime lecture Making Love at the V&A took place in the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre on 13 February 2013. For more information about other free talks and tours, visit What’s On.