Looking for romance in your local museum

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 February 2016

The Wedding Morning, 1892, by John Henry Frederick Bacon -_ Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

The Wedding Morning, 1892, by John Henry Frederick Bacon -_ Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

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As St Valentine’s Day approaches, Mairead Mahon finds romance in some unlikely corners of the red rose county

Valentine cardValentine card

‘Love is all around us’ so the song goes but it’s not always in the most obvious places. A museum might seem an unlikely spot to find romance but behind the imposing doors of the galleries and museums of the North West, there are enough love stories to satisfy any Mills & Boon fan.

For instance, there is a beautiful example of an early Victorian wedding dress in The Whitaker Museum in Rossendale. With its ribbons and pleated embroidery, it isn’t a million miles away from the type brides dream of wearing today.

But, for something a little more avant garde, visit the Gallery of Costume In Manchester. There you will find a 1984 wedding dress designed by Comme de Garcons - it has a definite Japanese influence and was worn by a Manchester bride.

Still, before any couple progress to the bridal stage, someone has to make the first move and declare themselves and often the anonymity of the Valentine Card allows this to be done without loss of face.

They have been around since the late 18th century but became very popular in Victoria’s reign: so much so that postmen were given a special allowance for refreshments, as they had to deliver so many.

In the nature of all things ephemeral, not too many survive but our local museums have some good examples of early cards including silk ones sent from the trenches of World War One. Salford Museum has some particularly lovely Victorian cards, decorated with lace, flowers and images of hearts and lovebirds.

Of course, love didn’t have to be declared on a card. Ladies would quite often while away the hours by embroidering pin cushions with a message for their Valentine. And it wasn’t only women who made them. Salford Museum has a very fine example made by a solider involved in the Boer War and sent to his sweetheart back home reminding her that he is ‘absent but true’ and probably hoping that the same applies to her!

Ladies could also make or buy Valentine fans, which would usually have a romantic illustration but, most importantly, they had a special blank space where messages could be written. Not many of these survive eithe,r but there are a couple in The Whitaker: sadly for the original owner, it seems no message was sent to her!

Maybe she received a poem instead but even fewer hand written poems survive and not many have stories attached to them. There is one that does and it’s looked after in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Written by John Henry Hayes, it was treasured by his widow all her life, as Sarah Webster of the museum explains.

‘John was a junior engineer on the Lusitania. He had married Jeanetta less than a year before and sent this poem from on board to her in order to mark New Year’s Day 1915, telling her of his love for her and their unborn child. As we know, the Lusitania was sunk in May and he never saw his daughter, who was born a few weeks after his death,’ says Sarah.

Bolton soap magnate Viscount Leverhulme created The Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight as a memorial to his wife, Elizabeth. Such a touching gesture makes it an appropriate place for the painting that launched a million wedding cards - The Wedding Morning by John Henry Frederick Bacon. It shows a mistily romantic image of a bride being dressed for her wedding in the parlour of a cottage, surrounded by women with flowers who are there to wish her well.

Perhaps less romantic is the fact he acquired the painting because he thought it would make a good advertisement for his ‘Sunlight’ soap.

The Lady Lever also has a very popular painting that highlights the sadness and worry of going to sea, leaving loved ones behind. John Lee’s painting, ‘Sweethearts and Wives’ tenderly depicts the pain and fear of both those undertaking a perilous journey; especially the women who are left behind.

Not all love stories end sadly despite the odds against them. In The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston there is an item that, at first glance, looks to have little love interest.

It is a wallet that has seen better days but it saved a lover’s heart, quite literally. Margaret Breakall was a nurse in Moorfield during WW1 and she met a young soldier, Harry Adams, who had been shot in the leg. Her parents heartily disapproved of their fledgling love and Harry went back to the front, not knowing if the girl of his dreams would ever be his.

He didn’t go away empty handed though - Margaret had bought him a leather wallet with a mirror inside, which Harry decided to wear next to his heart. Good job he did because while at Ypres, the wallet deflected a bullet that went into his arm instead. After that, no parental disapproval was going to stop these lovers from getting married. If you look closely at the wallet, you can still see the bullet hole.

So, if you fancy running the gamut of all love’s emotions this Valentine’s Day a trip around our museums and galleries might just show you that our ancestors knew just as much about it as we do!

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