Aspects of love

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painting of a man being ignored by a woman walking with her friends

'Dante and Beatrice' by Henry Holiday

I have long been fascinated by artists’ preoccupations with all aspects of love in works at the Walker Art Gallery. Radio Merseyside asked me to talk about some of my favourites so I took a walk around the gallery with presenter Claire Hamilton for a Valentine's Day feature.

Creative artists often smoulder with passions that spill out on to their canvases or through their chisels. They can choose equally passionate subjects, being drawn to affairs of the heart in all its forms.

I have been intrigued by Henry Holiday's 'Dante and Beatrice' (pictured) since I was a child. My father took great pleasure in telling how he walked over the Santa Trinità Bridge in Florence, seen in the painting. Poet Dante loved Beatrice from afar and it remained a platonic love - he married someone else. Here Beatrice cuts him in the street following some misunderstanding, although her two girl companions look knowingly at Dante who dramatically clutches his heart.  

Over on the other side of the room is Rossetti's famous symbol-strewn picture 'Dante's Dream'. Love leads Dante to Beatrice's death bed. Flowers, depicting purity and virginity, are scattered about - a flickering lamp depicts Death.

Next we are on our way to the Tudors and the era of courtly love but pause at 'The Betrothal' from Rembrandt's studio. This well-dressed couple do not really look very happy. It is a gloomy canvas full of sombre hues - not the ideal engagement present. Perhaps this was an arranged, dynastic marriage. He gazes at her with some semblance of affection, she looks out at us as if to cry 'Help!'

Standing by the massive portrait of 'Henry VIII', we muse on the romantic tastes of this most kingly of kings. Standing at about 6 ft 2 inches, he was hugely successful with the ladies and famously made a habit of getting married. Henry certainly took huge risks in breaking with Rome so he could marry Anne Boleyn before moving on to four other wives. Holbein, who did the original version of this painting, captures the king in his awe-inspiring majesty.

Next to it hangs 'Portrait of a Man of the Delves Family' painted by an unknown British Tudor artist 40 years later. This courtly gentleman in orange tights stands in a Garden of Love holding hands with his late wife (her face symbolically covered with leafy fronds). Armour piled at Delves' feet indicates that not only was he proficient in the art of love and had good legs but he could fight as well.

We end with 'TheTinted Venus' by John Gibson, a flesh-tinted marble goddess denounced by the Victorians as "a naked impudent English woman". Pygmalion-like, Gibson loved his statue so much that he refused to part from it for years.