Museum stories
A history of love (and lust and sex) in 14 objects: a Valentine’s Day special

Curator Lloyd de Beer.

Curator Lloyd de Beer with a ring. Don’t get too excited…

This little stone sculpture was discovered in the Levant and made over 10,000 years ago. It is particularly relevant for a Valentine’s Day blog post as it is shaped a bit like a heart, and also shows two people ummm… getting it on (there is a lot of that sort of thing here at the Museum, as you are about to find out).

The Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. The Levant, c. 10,000 BC.

It is not completely clear whether this is a man and a woman, two men or two women, but that’s OK as Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love in all its beautiful forms.

Cosmetic jar. Thebes, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, c. 1900–1800 BC.

Cosmetic jar. Thebes, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, c. 1900–1800 BC.

Whoever you are, you have got to kick it up a notch for that special V-Day date. The ancient Egyptians were no different. This stone cosmetic jar, made around 1900 BC, would have originally held eye paint. Applying make-up was a sexual and erotic act and the monkeys that dangle from the edges of the bowl heighten the drama of application acting as symbols of love and sex (no, really).

Double spout pottery jar with two human figures. Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 600.

Double spout pottery jar with two human figures. Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 600.

These two figures from a painted Peruvian ceramic jar are clearly in love with each other as each one has a huge smile pasted across their face. It is only when we look at the back of the jar that we see why they are both so happy. For almost 2,000 years they have been locked in a sexual embrace and have never got tired. True love…

Terracotta lamp with a scene of women engaging in oral sex. Asia Minor (modern Turkey), 1st century AD.

Terracotta lamp with a scene of women engaging in oral sex. Asia Minor (modern Turkey), 1st century AD.

In the past homosexual love was imaged on a diverse range of objects. This terracotta lamp was made in what is now Turkey in the 1st century AD and shows two women enjoying oral sex. We don’t know if this was made to titillate men or women (or both).

Marble busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous. Hadrian's bust is from his Villa at Tivoli, c. AD 125–130. Antinous' is from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, c. AD 130–140.

Marble busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous. Hadrian’s bust is from his Villa at Tivoli, c. AD 125–130. Antinous’ is from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, c. AD 130–140.

An ancient relationship we do know a lot about is the one between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous. Hadrian was devastated when Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian’s love for Antinous must have been deeply felt as these sculptures are not the only evidence of their relationship. Hadrian proclaimed his lover a god, named the city of Antinoopolis after him, and also had his image included on coins which were distributed across the empire.

Architectural fragment of a temple frieze carved with human figures. India, 11th century AD.

Architectural fragment of a temple frieze carved with human figures. India, 11th century AD.

This lusty and provocative architectural fragment probably comes from western India and was made in the 11th century. The acrobatic display of sexual prowess on the left-hand side speaks to a culture of sexual openness that celebrates the act of love. Both scenes are all the more intriguing with the extra bit of information that this frieze originally adorned a temple.

Romance casket with ivory plaques carved with illustrations from the story of Tristram and Isolde. Germany, 1180–1200.

Romance casket with ivory plaques carved with illustrations from the story of Tristram and Isolde. Germany, 1180–1200.

The Middle Ages in Europe was a particularly romantic time period. The tale of the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere comes to mind, but another is the tragic love story between Tristram and Isolde. This casket, which was made in Germany in the 12th century, is the earliest representation of the tale. Tristram sets off to ask for Isolde’s hand on behalf of the King and on their way back they drink a potion which makes them fall deeply in love with each other. The whole thing eventually falls apart and Tristram is banished forever. (OK, this is probably not great inspiration for Valentine’s Day…)

Gold love ring. Probably made in France or England, 15th century.

Gold love ring. Probably made in France or England, 15th century.

In the 15th century a man named John Paston was away for a long time and his wife Margaret was forlorn. Margaret wrote to him and sent him a ring. The letter said: ‘I pray you that you will wear the ring with the image of St Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till you come home. You have left me such a remembrance that makes me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep.’ Although the ring above does not have an image of St Margaret, it does carry a playful (and grammatically witty) inscription about love in French, which translates as: ‘my love is an infinitive which wants to be in the relative’.

Phyllis riding Aristotle. Engraving, Germany, c. 1485–1500.

Phyllis riding Aristotle. Engraving, Germany, c. 1485–1500.

Sometimes you have to be careful with love, and also what you say about it and who can hear you. This 15th-century engraving shows Phyllis riding the great philosopher Aristotle as if he were an animal. The story goes that Aristotle told the young Alexander (yes, Alexander the Great) that he shouldn’t bother with women and should focus on his work instead. Phyllis having heard this committed herself to seducing Aristotle with the intention of embarrassing him in public. She told him that she would only give him what he wanted if he allowed her to ride him around town. Aristotle clearly couldn’t follow his own advice and gave in.

Two prophylactic sheaths. Britain, c. 1790–1810.

Two prophylactic sheaths. Britain, c. 1790–1810.

Sexual health and protection is not a recent phenomenon. These 18th-century condoms, made of animal membrane, would have been worn to prevent disease.

The accompanying print shows a sailor flinging objects from a prostitute’s window, including a condom just like the ones above.

Copper-alloy love token with inscription in four lines, late 18th century.

Copper-alloy love token with inscription in four lines, late 18th century.

This token and many others like it record the final words between two lovers. This one says: ‘When this you see/ Remember me/ Until I gain my/ Liberty’. Probably engraved in the late 18th century by a convict who had been sentenced to transportation, these two would have never been reunited and this piece of copper would have been the only reminder of their relationship.

Chokyosai Eiri (after Kitagawa Utamaro), Fumi no kiyogaki 婦美の清書き (Neat Version of a Love Letter (or Pure Drawings of Female Beauty)). Woodblock, 1801.

Chokyosai Eiri (after Kitagawa Utamaro), a cropped version of one of the prints from Fumi no kiyogaki 婦美の清書き (Neat Version of a Love Letter (or Pure Drawings of Female Beauty)). Woodblock, 1801.

Valentine’s Day today is a celebration of love, and nowhere is this celebration more apparent than in the explicit Japanese woodblock prints known as shunga. Shunga prints often show men having sex with women and even famously a sexual union between a woman and an octopus (or two). This print shows two naked women with the one on the right wearing a sex toy. (The version of the image above is slightly cropped – you can see the uncensored version online.) The Museum also has an almost contemporary example of the object imaged in the print which is catalogued as ‘toilet implements for sexual gratification.’

Krishna and Radha seated in a terraced garden with female attendants and musicians. Gouache painting on paper, Punjab Hills, India, c. 1830.

Krishna and Radha seated in a terraced garden with female attendants and musicians. Gouache painting on paper, Punjab Hills, India, c. 1830.

The colourful and decadent beauty of this painting serves to highlight the ideal love of the two central characters, Radha and Krishna. Looking closely at the image it is almost as if we can hear the little white birds in the trees across from the band who serenade the two lovers. The lovers themselves are not distracted by their surroundings and seem completely devoted to each other.

Made for and worn by supporters of gay liberation this little pink triangle badge is a fitting last object in our little history of love. It is a symbol and a reminder that love must be allowed to flourish in all its forms, and that no one should be denied that right based on who they love.

Finally, if you’ve had enough of Valentine’s Day – whether your love is unrequited, whether you think it’s a ridiculous modern invention, or whether you’re just happy on your own – here’s a cat on a cushion, just because. Think of it as a token of the Museum’s love to you.

Théophile Steinlen (1859–1923), L’Hiver, chat sur un cousin (Winter, cat on a cushion). Colour crayon lithograph, 1909.

Théophile Steinlen (1859–1923), L’Hiver, chat sur un coussin (Winter, cat on a cushion). Colour crayon lithograph, 1909.



It may be too late to fall in love with our Valentine’s gift range for this year, but it’s available in our online shop all year round. Perhaps you need to make it up to someone, or get in early for next year…