The art of romance

Eros. Chivalry. The sublime. These are just some of the different permutations of 'romance' throughout the ages. As these objects from our collections demonstrate, romance is a varied artistic, cultural and literary genre, with classical origins and universal reach.

Landscape with antique ruins and figures after Pierre Patel the elder

Ancient ruins 

In the 18th century, as ancient sites were being rediscovered and reappraised, ruins - both real and imaginary - became a staple of landscape painting. This picture, after Pierre Patel the elder, depicts classical ruins bathed in a crepuscular glow, inviting spectators to reflect on transience and decay. Visit Wallington in Northumberland to see this Romantic interpretation of the past.

Early 18th C. Chinese porcelain blue and white globular teapot

A Chinese romance 

This Chinese porcelain teapot at Erddig, Wrexham, shows an episode from the play ‘The Romance of the Western Chamber’. It is the story of Zhang Sheng, a poor young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of the Prime Minister, who fell in love without their families’ approval. This scene shows Yingying in a garden at night waiting to meet her lover. All this detail, however, would be lost in translation: 18th-century British tea-drinkers would only have recognised an elegant lady in an exotic garden.

The Tale of Sir Degrevaunt: The Wedding Ceremony by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Chivalric love 

This is one of three frescoes at Red House illustrating the 'Tale of Sir Degrevaunt' by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In this 15th-century English romance, a chivalrous knight falls in love with the daughter of an earl with whom he is in conflict. They marry, against the odds, and it is their wedding procession that Burne-Jones depicts here in tempera with gold paint and gold leaf.

 Violet Keppel, Mrs Denys Robert Trefusis (1894-1970) by Sir John Lavery

Forbidden passion 

This portrait of Violet Keppel by Sir John Lavery, painted in 1919, proclaims the sitter’s alluring personality. It was made at the time of Violet’s tempestuous affair with writer and garden designer, Vita Sackville-West. The lovers dreamed of a life free from the conventions of society, but by 1923 the relationship had run its course. The picture is on show at Sissinghurst Castle, where Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson created their famous garden.

Paolo and Francesca by Richard Westmacott III, RA

Ill-fated romance 

This sculptural relief shows Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers from Dante's 'Divine Comedy'. Although Francesca was engaged to Giancotto Malatesta, she fell in love with his younger brother Paolo. The sculptor has depicted the tragic couple naked, except for the swathe of drapery which entwines them, being swept along in an eternal whirlwind in the second circle of hell. This plaster relief in a painted canted frame is on show at Nostell Priory.

Lady Fetherstonhaugh (Mary Anne Bullock) by R. N. C. Ubsdell

Love conquers all 

On 12 September 1825, the 70-year-old Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh of Uppark married Mary Anne Bullock, a twenty-year old dairy maid working on his estate. Against the odds of social prejudice, the marriage endured, and by the time of Sir Harry’s death in 1846 Lady Fetherstonhaugh was on friendly terms with her aristocratic neighbours. She and her sister would continue to maintain the house at Uppark for the rest of the 19th century, where this portrait is on display.

Storm and avalanche by Philip James de Loutherbourg

Romanticism and disaster 

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought. In this painting of a fast-moving avalanche, Philip James de Loutherbourg captures the vulnerability of humans caught in the throes of nature. This picture hangs at Petworth House.

The Tapestry Room at Osterley Park, Middlesex

Wrapped in love 

The Tapestry Room at Osterley Park is all about love: gods frolic, lovebirds coo and flowers bloom. The vibrant pink background of the tapestries, suggestive of silk damask, adds to the voluptuous atmosphere. The central roundels reproduce paintings by François Boucher, the most sensuous French painter of the rococo period. These tapestries, made at the Gobelins factory in 1775, were woven to fit this room exactly.