Curated by Dr. Angela Hesson, Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800 at the National Gallery of Victoria presents over 240 diverse works drawn from the Permanent Collection of European art.1
Under sulking clouds, as the winter weather in Melbourne grows increasingly malevolent, locals and visitors alike are drawn to the reassuring façade and tranquil environs of the National Gallery of Victoria as a respite from the inclement. Designed by Sir Roy Burman Grounds (1905-81), and opened in 1968, the building was extended and redeveloped (1996-2003) by the Italian architect Mario Bellini. Curator Dr. Angela Hesson aims to warm the cockles of the heart with a new exhibition, Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800, drawing on over 240 diverse works drawn from the NGV’s Permanent Collection of European art. Exhibition designer Kathleen Duffy has created a dark, enveloping interior throughout the two spaces with subtle lighting throughout, making the works seeming to lift off the black walls.
Produced in collaboration with the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800), and the University of Melbourne, the exhibition explores how this most universal of sentiments is represented within the art and objects produced over a four-hundred-year period. Broadly grouped into the themes of Anticipation, Realisation and Remembrance, the works encompass distinct variations within the overall theme such as classical personifications of love; passion, infatuation and the illicit; filial piety; religious devotion; maternal love; loyalty and sacrifice; depictions of idealised relationships within the literary canon (Apuleius, Ovid, Shakespeare); vanity and self-love (narcissism); charity and friendship, including the importance of pets to the lives of many people.
From the studio of Antonio Vivarini (fl. 1440-80) comes the intriguing painting The Garden of Love (c.1465-70). Here, five sumptuously dressed figures are grouped around a white marble fountain, decorated with mythological creatures, at the centre of a dense rose arbour. (The rose trellis motif is repeated in monochrome on the floor and walls of the ante-room between the exhibition spaces). Secluded groves, garden follies, mazes and grottoes functioned as sites for romantic trysts and amorous pursuits, a brief respite from the highly prescribed and closely chaperoned rituals of interaction between the sexes. Within the pleasure gardens of the social elite, water could be used as an element of surprise and play to amuse guests, often deployed via hidden sprinklers and extravagant water features. The narrative of the composition suffers from various changes wrought upon the original panel over the centuries that may have altered its meaning. An inscription on an underlying layer indicates this was the second work in a series about love; the painting has been cut down at the top and bottom, truncating both the figures and the fountain’s stem; originally there was a sixth figure (a third male) at the right of the composition which would have provided symmetry and created a gender balance.2
Perhaps there are other elements, now missing, that might have aided us to decode some of the more baffling ciphers and inscrutable symbolism within the work. The figures closest to the fountain (an allegorical representation of eternal love) participate in a flirtatious episode: a lady fills a phallic-shaped syringe with water, as a gentleman at the other side doffs his hat as he prepares to be blindfolded by his female companion. In classical art, Cupid is often depicted blindfolded to convey love’s arbitrariness. Perhaps a coquettish game of Blind man’s buff will ensue in which the gender roles are reversed: the idea of the lady directing a fluid towards the “weakened” man has a clear sexual connotation. The lady at the far left of the frame holds a lap-dog wearing a gold collar, which could be read as a traditional reference to marital fidelity and loyalty. Or, in connection with the “feminised” emission of liquids suggested here, it might also be an audacious visual pun about marking one’s “erotic territory”. Such courtly diversions, with their suggestive subtext, could be viewed as expressing the unfulfilled desires and yearnings of those whose mutual fancy was thwarted by the “business” of matrimony.
Other exhibits tell a more conventional story of courtship and marriage, one usually determined by family alliances, social standing and financial considerations, rather than mutual romantic attachment or attraction. The wedding contract between the families of the bride and groom was usually marked by various rituals, and solemnised by the Church. The exchange of gifts and the material objects purchased or commissioned to mark the event, served to legitimise a marriage and reinforced the bonds between the two families, and the respective couple. During courtship, a lady might expect to receive a token from her intended, such as the Casket (early fifteenth century), in which she could keep personal items and trinkets from him. This example, with carved bone panels and alla certosina work (inlay of wood, bone and metal on dark wood ground), is associated with the Northern Italian Embriachi workshop.3
The Casket is adorned with assembled component panels depicting pairs of women in the tradition of the bella donna (“beautiful women”) genre, whereby the suitor likened his lady to the pantheon of historic beauties. It is one of nineteen works in the exhibition to come from the 1939 bequest of Howard Spensley (1870-1938) of Westoning Manor, Bedfordshire, where he served as High Sheriif (1918). His father, Hon. Howard Spensley (1834-1902), was Solicitor-General of Victoria (1871-72), before returning to England and becoming the MP for Finsbury Central in 1885. The younger Spensley was very much the roving “gentleman collector”, but one who was disposed to remember his old home in Melbourne. His eclectic collection comprised over 800 items, and included many fine groups of bronzes, plaquettes and mortars and Italian maiolica, many bought directly during his frequent European travels.4
The bride’s dowry, including her wedding trousseau, was an expensive obligation for her family and one carefully assessed by the parties concerned. In Italy, large wooden chests called cassone were used to house dowry items, which were then transported to her new home as part of the nuptial procession. These important household items could be beautifully painted (as was common in Florence), or intricately carved, the imagery usually reflecting the prevailing view of exemplary wifely behaviour. 5 Formerly in the collection of the American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), who owned at least thirteen Cinquecento chests, Judith and Holofernes, a pair of chests (Cassoni) (1570s), made of walnut, were probably produced in Rome.6 The biblical account of the beautiful Jewish widow Judith, and her murder of the Assyrian general Holofernes, might seem like an incongruous, indeed rather tactless, choice of subject matter with which to celebrate a marriage. However, the virtues of duty and self‑sacrifice that Judith’s actions represent were considered essential qualities in a wife.
Four relief panels tell the heroine’s story: her presentation to Holofernes, modesty on her knees, followed by the feast held in his tent, where Judith is served by her maid, comprise the first instalment. On the second cassone, the decapitated body of Holofernes is discovered by his shocked guards who pull back the drapery of his bed to reveal the corpse. Judith is barely visible in the background, escaping from the encampment, and is next seen triumphantly displaying the head of Holofernes to the Jews of Bethulia. Each narrative panel is divided by a prominent coat of arms, supported by putti, in the centre-front of each chest. The armorial bearings are likely to be those of the families of the bride and groom for whom the cassoni were commissioned, but has not yet been identified.7 Another highly unusual feature is the form of the carved figures on the outer corners of each chest: empty suits of armour with the helmet shaped as a grotesque. Art historian Anna Drummond has commented that “the significance of the empty armour is unclear: it has no obvious narrative or symbolic function and is largely unknown on other sixteenth-century cassoni”.8 Since the armour is similar in style, perhaps the empty suits function as a metaphor for the collective impotence of the Assyrian army before the righteousness of Judith’s actions, which has rendered them literally hollow and superfluous?
Displayed on a plinth between the cassoni, Wedding dress and petticoat (1791) is thought to have been worn by Anne Culliford for her wedding to Samuel Gloyne of Havant, Hampshire on January 27, 1791. It was not until Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha (1840) that wearing white became virtually de rigueur for royalty and commoners alike. For all classes of society, the relative expense of the wedding dress, and other outfits associated with the event, often resulted in more versatile elements being factored into the designs to extend their usefulness. The finest dress might not even be worn to the church service itself, but when the bride was presented in public as a wife, an occasion called the “appearance”. If she could afford to, a bride would also wear a different ensemble to church on the first Sunday after her wedding.9
Many brides elected for a coloured dress, like this one of cream silk appliquéd with pale pink chevrons, which might then be worn again for formal or evening wear. Light coloured silks in gold and silver were difficult to keep clean, and therefore considered luxury items associated with royalty and aristocracy. This gown reflects the transition from the ostentatious fashions of the eighteenth century, to the preference for more elegant, “classical” styles in the early nineteenth. Other aspects of a bride’s trousseau, such as expensive trimmings (lace, sleeve ruffles, ribbons) and accessories (silk slippers, headdresses, neckwear, cloaks) might serve to complement the dress, and had the advantage of being re-useable. As members of the minor gentry, it was important that Anne’s dress reflect both the social standing of her family, and their aspirations for the future advancement of the newlyweds.
A Pair of boxes from the Countess of Westmorland toilet service (1783-84) was made for Sarah Anne Child (1764-93) by the London manufacturers Daniel Smith & Robert Sharp. Originally consisting of twelve items, it was a significant commission for the firm. In 1961, the set was broken up and sold at auction, with these pieces being donated to the NGV in 2003.10 The only child and heiress of the English banker and politician Robert Child (1739-82), Sarah Anne eloped to Gretna Green with John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland (1759-1841) where the couple was married on May 20, 1782. Far from being pleased that his commoner daughter had married into the high aristocracy, she was promptly disinherited by her father. It was Robert Child’s wish that Sarah Anne marry a man prepared to legally change his surname, and thus carry on the Child legacy. He settled his estate on Sarah Anne’s eldest daughter, Lady Sarah Sophia Fane (1785-1867), later Countess of Jersey, excluding all the Fane males and their descendants.
Owing to the circumstances of her marriage, the new Countess of Westmorland may have lacked a suitable trousseau, and probably did not order the necessary items for a lady of her rank until later. The elaborate rituals of the toilette popular in the eighteenth century dictated that a range of grooming paraphernalia, such as these silver-gilt cosmetics boxes, would have been prominently displayed on her dressing table. Luxurious specialised furniture, such as Dressing Table (c.1790), and finely decorated objects like these expressed the owner’s taste and status, as well as contributing to the maintenance of her physical allure. The cover of each box is decorated with a scene referencing classical antiquity: a musical interlude between two cherubs with harp and panpipe (suggesting harmony), and a cherub carrying an arrow accompanied by a dog (symbolising companionship and faithfulness). Sarah Anne may have received the Service as a wedding gift from the groom: the Westmorland coat of arms appears just beneath the pictorial roundels, between bows and scrolling garlands. The family motto Ne Vile Fano (“Disgrace not the altar”) is a point the Earl’s angry father-in-law may well have disputed.
Sarah Anne died, of undisclosed causes, at the relatively young age of twenty-nine leaving one son and four daughters; the Earl remarried in 1800 and fathered five more children. The premature death of women in childbirth, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of accident, disease and war contributed to a social and religious climate where no one’s family would be untouched by loss. The rituals surrounding death, including memorial objects, were an important part of public and private mourning for an all-too-common event. Nonetheless, although death was universal, commemoration of the dead was governed by the same considerations of social class and wealth as applied to the living. Can grief and suffering really be quantified? Is the expression of sentiment more believable, or somehow more worthy, because the funds are available to give it greater permanence?
A selection of delicate and poignant mourning jewellery invites us to ponder whether emotions can be given physical form. These sombre objects served a dual purpose: acting as a public proclamation of the wearer’s loss, but also having the capacity to bring comfort and solace. The wearing of mourning rings, of which four examples are included, was a common form of personal observance and could be commissioned or customised from ready-made stock. From the mid-eighteenth century, a new fashion for medallions or lockets developed, worn on black ribbons or chains around the neck. Mourning pendant (1793), is of painted ivory depicting a lady in a church graveyard. Under a weeping willow, she leans forlornly against the funeral monument that reads, “Sacred to the memory of John Barger”. A curling ribbon above her reads, “With mutual love our heart did burn & now my tears bedews his urn”. The pendant, presumably worn by Barger’s widow, contains a panel of vertically laid hair. The inclusion of hair from the beloved transformed the jewel into something akin to a miniature reliquary and preserved a sense of physical proximity to the deceased.
Beyond the act of looking at these often beautiful and valuable objects, Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800 steers the audience towards contemplation of an underlying philosophical question: to what extent can this most perplexing of emotions be expressed through the artistic medium? The challenge faced by artists for centuries has often been how to express the intangible. How is meaning invested within an object: by its creator, its owner, or by us, the viewer? How does seeing these works make us feel—if, indeed, they conjure up any response at all. The exhibition revisits the old cliché that “money can’t buy happiness”. Today this is amended with the quip (attributed to the American actress Bo Derek) that the person who said that “just didn’t know where to go shopping”. Materialism, status, and maintaining appearances have been an ever-present and compelling consideration throughout history. To marry for love, or money, and whether there is there any choice, is one of the perennial dilemmas.
Can love, as communicated through objects, withstand the forces of time and circumstance to convey evidence of its existence? More specifically, are we left with only the objects commissioned or owned by those who could afford to leave physical evidence of their devotion? And what of the “disinformation” concerning these ostensibly happy marriages—another form of historical propaganda perhaps. Love may well be immortal, but so are its less publicised shortcomings and compromises. As the renowned Russian director Alexander Sokurov has observed, “In history we talk about what happened. In art we talk about what might have happened. All-encompassing love might not exist in real life, but art says it might exist”.11
1 a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream of Poliphilo), attributed to Francesco Colonna (1499), is on loan from the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne. Madonna of Humility (Madonna dell’Umilità) and Pietà (both c.1470) are loaned by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). The engraving Mars and Venus (1588) by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1616) is from a private collection.
2 Patricia Simons, “Spaces of love” & Anglo Lo Conte, “Master of the Stories of Helen, Antonio Vivarini (studio of), The Garden of Love”, in Angela Hesson, Matthew Martin & Charles Zika (Eds), Love: Art of Emotion, 1400-1800, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2017, p.60-61, 72. & John Payne, “Exploring a Fifteenth-century garden: A restoration uncovers the past”, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Vol. 35, 1994.
3 Matthew Martin, “Rituals of Love”, in Angela Hesson, Matthew Martin & Charles Zika (Eds), op cit, p.162-63.
4 Terence Lane, “The development of the collections of decorative arts in the National Gallery of Victoria”, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Vol. 21 (1980). Following the death of his two sisters, Spensley also left the Grade II listed Westoning Manor (1843) to the Australian government as a residence for the High Commissioner. Owing to concerns about the expense of maintaining the property, the bequest was declined, so the estate was sold at auction, see, “An English Manor”, The West Australian, 31 August, 1938, p.18.
5 Caroline Campbell, Love and Marriage In Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests, The Courtauld Gallery/Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2009, p.12.
6 In 1907, Hearst acquired a pair of cassoni from Duveen Bros. art dealers. A cassone from the Hearst collection is clearly visible in a photograph of the library of St. Donat’s Castle in Wales, which Hearst bought in 1925. Mary L. Levkoff, Hearst: The Collector, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abrams, New York, 2008, p.39, 92, 99.
7 Anna Drummond, “Marriage and Murder: Two Wedding Chests With Representations of Judith”, Art Journal, Vol. 53, National Gallery of Victoria, 2014.
9 Edwina Ehrman, The Wedding Dress: 300 Years Of Bridal Fashions, V&A Publishing, London, 2011, p.23-24.
10 at which time the boxes were valued at approximately AUD $250,000, which gives some indication of the value of the entire suite of objects.
11 director commentary, Russian Ark, Wellspring Media, 2002.
Inga Walton is writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who writes widely about fine arts, fashion and textiles, film and popular culture. Her work has appeared in over twenty various Australian and international publications, she has also contributed entries to several books and numerous exhibition catalogues.
We’re grateful to our subscribers for supporting this platform.
If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to join the circle and share the inspiration.