The Course of True Love, Passion and Pottery

Cupid’s Dart

In ancient Greece Eros, believed to be the son of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was worshipped as the god of lust and love. However, he also liked to play malicious tricks and wreak havoc on human affairs. His Roman equivalent was Cupid, god of desire, also known as Amor. Interest in pagan gods was revived in Renaissance Europe; in 1516 the artist Raphael painted the story of Cupid and Psyche, portraying the god as an adolescent, in the Loggia of the Villa Farnesina in Rome.


Cupid was later depicted as a winged child, armed with a bow and arrow with which to wound the victims of love. Cupid was a favourite motif in 18th century art, where he often appears in paintings with Aphrodite (Venus) or as carved decoration in architecture and sculpture. Two doves, symbols of fidelity since ancient times, often accompany Cupid. He became a favourite subject for the potters who modelled thousands of plump, winged toddlers in disguise and making mischief for humanity.

The Lore of Love

Courtship rituals and romantic rhymes appear frequently on plates and mugs, which were themselves often given as love tokens. These include dancing around a maypole, a famous folk symbol of fertility. The maypole was condemned by Elizabethan Puritans:

lore‘this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather), which is covered all over with flowers and herbs and sometimes painted with variable colours… thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground about it… and they fall to dance about it.’

Philip Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses 1583

The influence of the Romantic Movement in the late 18th century revived interest in early folk stories and customs and maypoles have remained popular until today. The intertwining ribbons of the maypole probably signify the binding of relationships.

Such interweaving is also found in love knots, that traditionally have no beginning and no end. The love knot originated in the complex illumination of such Celtic manuscripts as The Book of Kells, completed around 800AD (now in Trinity College Dublin). Such knots and other symbols of romance, such as the heart, became very popular in Victorian graphic design and featured widely on Valentine cards. Hearts and initials were also carved into tree-trunks as a lasting memento of romance. An acknowledged lover was likely to present gifts to his beloved. These might range from love knots, ribbons, flowers, even birds’ nests, to practical gifts for their future life together.

Happy Couples

The promenade is a traditional activity, still observed on a daily basis in southern Europe. Those familiar with the novels of Jane Austen will know that, other than on house visits and at parties, a formal walk through the town was one of the few, acceptable ways in which young couples could meet. A young woman could promenade in public with an acknowledged beau. In polite society, however, the couple were almost always accompanied by chaperones, who controlled their behaviour. Occasionally the couple could give their monitor the slip and snatch a private kiss beneath an umbrella.

happyOnce a proposal has been accepted, the agreement is sealed with an engagement ring placed on the third finger. The engagement ring symbolised not only a private promise but also a public declaration of betrothal. It indicated that the engaged woman was spoken for and no longer available. In ancient times such rings might be made of reed, plant fibre or twine rather than precious metals and gems. The third finger was believed to contain a vein that ran straight to the heart. The period of engagement enabled the bride to assemble her dowry or trousseau, the money and goods a bride brought to the marriage. By the 19th century these goods generally consisted of household linens.

At marriage in ancient times, another custom might be observed. An ancient pagan ritual involved jumping over a broomstick to symbolise marriage. There are reports of modern pagan marriages where this custom has been revived. The wedding guests stand in a ring broken by a broomstick. The presiding priestess invites the betrothed couple to jump over the broom to signify crossing the threshold from their old lives into their new, shared one.

The Pains of Love

painsLove’s torments also find expression in ceramics. Lovers are often parted. There are numerous illustrations on pots, illustrating popular prints, stories and plays involving the pain of separation. Young men were often deemed too poor to propose marriage or they joined the armed forces and were sent abroad. Richard Lovelace (1618-69) the Cavalier poet, wrote in

To Lucasta, going to the Wars

Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,

That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly… .

I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

Sometimes parents disapproved strongly of a relationship. Couples were forced to meet secretly and, like Romeo and Juliet, attempted to elope or run away together. More often than not parents foiled their plans. A humorous illustration of this is found on a ceramic piece entitled, ‘Courting under difficulties’, where a young man has climbed a wall to meet his sweetheart. Unfortunately her father has heard him and follows, brandishing a pitchfork.

One of the themes of the Romantic Movement in art and literature was intensity of feeling, particularly the destructive power of love. In A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), written the year he died, Laurence Sterne (1713-68) comments gently on the new sensibility. He describes Poor Maria, who had lost her wits after being jilted by her lover, dressed in white with her hair loose, symbolizing grief.

Her goat had been as faithless as her lover: and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I look’d at her she drew him towards her with the string. Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,’ said she.

The best-known work of this period was The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a partly autobiographical story written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), at the age of 24. The novel is told as a series of letters between Werther and Lotte, the girl he loves but who is engaged to and later marries Albert. Life becomes intolerable and Werther shoots himself. It made him a literary celebrity throughout Europe but precipitated a rash of copy-cat suicides among up to 2000 young men, suffering from ‘Werther-fieber’ (fever).

Creamware Mug

Love can also go sour. There a many pairs of printed satires, published around 1800 that compare the behaviour of couples before and after marriage. Love can evaporate for many reasons. A forced or shot-gun marriage between badly matched partners is ill-advised. Love also goes when the fire in the blood cools or when one partner is attracted to someone else. The verse that accompanies the contrasting cartoons on two of the pots here reads:

‘When two Fond Fools together meet

Each look gives Joy, each kiss so sweet
But Wed, how cold and cross they’ll be
Turn upside down and then you’ll see’




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