For me, this marble figure of Andromeda, found locked in a tower in upstate New York, represents the greatest love story of all time — well, sort of. According to Greek mythology, Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock, in punishment for being so beautiful. Just as she was about to be devoured by a sea monster, the smoking-hot Perseus descended from the sky, slayed the monster and saved her. The couple immediately fell in love and were married. Here, Andromeda is represented looking skyward at Perseus’s arrival, just as she might have thought all hope was lost. It’s a poignant moment and about as close to perfect love as it gets in Greek mythology.
Pearls are the oldest gemstone known to man and for thousands of years they were the most valuable of all, celebrated from antiquity as tokens of love. Arguably the world’s most beautiful and perfect pearl, La Peregrina, was discovered in the Gulf of Panama in 1579 and became part of the Spanish crown jewels. In the 19th century it entered the collection of James Hamilton, Marquess of Abercorn, and the Hamilton family owned it until 1969 when the actor Richard Burton bought the pearl as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor, who worked with Cartier to present it as a dramatic drop on a dazzling diamond necklace. Theirs, of course, was one of the greatest love stories ever, and having held this famous gemstone in my hands over many months before its sale at Christie’s in 2011, I can confirm it is impossible not to fall in love with it.
My favourite love-themed work of art is unquestionably Burne-Jones’s masterpiece Love among the Ruins, which takes its title from a poem by Robert Browning. The work shows two young, beautiful lovers, entwined in each other’s arms. They are pictured outside the city walls, where a briar rose has grown around them, suggesting that they might have been there for aeons. Those familiar with Burne-Jones’ life will know the work was one of great personal significance, paying homage to his love for Maria Zambaco, the British artist and model of Greek descent, who became muse to the Pre-Raphaelites. Married to another woman, and bound by the strict morals of Victorian society, Burne-Jones could never be formally united with his beloved.
Emma Hamilton was the wife of the British envoy at the court of Naples when Nelson, already the nation’s great naval hero (and himself married), fell deeply in love with her. He was in his early 40s, with one eye and one arm; she was 34, and beginning to lose her once-spectacular looks. This letter — the earliest in a famous series of love letters — is written immediately after the beginning of their affair, during their first separation, and recounts an extraordinarily vivid erotic dream, in which Nelson heroically fights off an attempted seduction by two noblewomen, to be saved at last by the embrace of Emma, who whispers, ‘I love nothing but you my Nelson’.
It is both a great expression of passionate, sexual love and also a wonderfully human document. I love the great admiral admitting that his obsession with Emma has put him off his food — ‘I can neither eat or sleep for thinking of you my dearest love, I never touch even pudding’. Our collectors loved it too — the price it set in 2003 is still by far the highest for any Nelson letter.
As a young woman, Aloïse Cobraz worked as a governess at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Potsdam. While there, she fell in love with the monarch, imagining an intense affair that later emerged in her art as depictions of infatuated couples, locked in passionate embraces — as seen here in Dancing Bernina. Showing the artist and her Prince on one side, and the artist and muse on the other, this double-sided drawing captures moments of intimacy, while offering a glimpse into the artist’s soul and desires. Corbaz’s figures consistently feature large, oval eyes that, according to the artist, were actually glasses that concealed their embarrassment. Institutionalised in Switzerland in 1918, Corbaz made art in secret until 1936, when Dr. Hans Steck began to preserve her drawings.
This bottle cooler is one of the few surviving pieces of a petite service made by the Sèvres porcelain factory for Louis XV’s official mistress, Madame du Barry. It was delivered in August of 1773 to their love nest, the Château de Louveciennes. Decorated in the Chinoiserie style, the scenes depicted on it are of a relaxed nature, reflecting the setting in which it would have been used. It’s intriguing to imagine the king and his lover cosy in a Rococo rendezvous, using this bottle cooler to chill some exceptional wine.
Devotion — even the family name suggests a loving bond. Rarely do we see such a literal interpretation of love on a piece of furniture, and your eye cannot help but be drawn to the pierced heart drop-pendant. According to family tradition, this dressing table was made as a wedding gift for Eunice Huntington on the occasion of her marriage to Judge Ebenezer Devotion. Made in eastern Connecticut, this is a superb example of American furniture — and a piece that makes my heart beat fast.
My favourite Valentine’s Day lot is the ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in May 1962. The sequin-embroidered, flesh-coloured georgette was designed by the couturier Jean Louis, and fitted and beaded on Marilyn while she stood naked on a sofa in her LA bungalow. The dress celebrates a memorable moment in the Kennedy era and is an absolute icon of sexy style, cut so as to reveal enough, but not too much, of the siren’s stunning figure as she sang to the President. It famously sold for more than $1.2 million at Christie’s in New York in 1999.
This quiet, beautifully observed small picture carries an emotional charge that belies its size. In the Victorian language of flowers, violets conveyed a message of love. A young girl is opening an envelope from an admirer. Her expression is inscrutable, but her flush of emotion is eloquently conveyed by the madder-pink bow tied at her neck. The excitement of Valentine’s Day is nowhere better captured than in Millais’s early, Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, painted a century and a half ago.
This multiple features frames from Kiss, Andy Warhol’s early experimental film from 1964. Fifty minutes long and unaccompanied by musical score or narrative, the film consists of several three-minute ‘episodes’ of couples kissing — a riposte to the stylised and fleeting representations of lovers under the censorship of Hollywood’s Hays Code (1930-1968). Warhol’s lovers just kiss and kiss, oblivious of the world — caught-up in that eternal moment shared by lovers from time immemorial.
The myth at the heart of this work — a Roman marble statue of Cupid and Psyche in a tender embrace — fascinates me. According to Apuleius, Psyche was the most beautiful of three daughters of a king in an unnamed kingdom. Her beauty so overwhelmed those who came into contact with her that they began worshipping her as a goddess, neglecting to pay homage to the actual goddess of beauty, Venus. Venus commanded her son Cupid to shoot Psyche with one of his enchanted arrows, intending to make her fall in love with a monster.
Of course, when Cupid sees Psyche, he himself falls in love with her. Psyche is visited every night by her divine lover, but with a catch: she is forbidden to view his face. When Psyche defies her lover’s request and lights a lamp, Cupid abandons her, and she begins to wander the earth in search of her lost lover. Finally, she turns to Venus in desperation. Venus tortures Pysche with seemingly impossible tasks, but she ultimately triumphs, and is reunited with Cupid.
The myth illuminates Greco-Roman ideas about the trials and tribulations of true love: lust, jealousy, hubris, betrayal, perseverance and, ultimately, triumph. Cupid and Psyche are the embodiment of desire and the soul respectively — shedding light on how the Greeks believed true love was only achieved when these two come together.