What the world needs now is love, sweet love …Hal David
With The National Archives’ most recent exhibition, With Love: Letters of love, loss and longing, which closed just before lockdown, we explored 500 years of written expressions of love primarily through the convention of the love letter.
It is striking how most of the themes and emotions, from heartache to love and loss, still resonate. When we first opened the exhibition, it was impossible to know just how topical the issues of letters and communication would become – how much people would rely on reaching out to others.
While the exhibition has been closed the fantastic Combination Dance Company has worked with us to bring some of these letters to life through the wonderful medium of dance. Artistic director Anne-Marie Smalldon and dance artist Thomas McCann came to the opening night of the exhibition and were inspired by what they saw, drawing on themes of tolerance, love and letter writing. Our current collaboration was born. Anne-Marie has described it as their ‘most heartfelt project’.
‘It was fascinating to study so many varied and insightful love letters from the last 500 years.
From kings and queens, to moving letters about race riots or love divided during war, each one reminding us that love unites us all.’Anne-Marie Smalldon
This film was made entirely during lockdown and within the confines of social distancing. It presented both difficulties and creative opportunities. It is amazing to see what is possible, even in the middle of a pandemic, and how archive material from hundreds of years ago can still be relevant to current times and our emotions.
In this blog I am going to look at some of the moments explored in the dance video and explore how they connect to The National Archives’ collections. Love letters in our collections offer a glimpse into private worlds of people from the past, some of which you can peak into below.
‘I stayed in bed all day yesterday, didn’t even get up to eat and just thought of you…’Cyril, 1936 London. Catalogue ref: DPP 2/224
These words belong to Cyril, who is depicted in bed in the opening scene of the video. The quote from his letter to his ‘Darling Morris’ sounds as relatable now as it was when written in the 1930s. Indeed, just seeing this quote you would have no reason to know that this was from an illicit love letter written between two men, in a time when homosexual acts between men were criminalised.
The theme of equality and the right for everyone to love runs throughout the dance, ending with the phrase ‘prejudice’ torn up. This is particularly poignant as Cyril’s letter was originally discovered torn up by police and then typed into its current format, because Cyril knew that writing down his love put him at risk of the law.
Across the world we have just had Pride Month, so it feels extra special to be sharing Cyril’s story now.
‘you write to me that at night in your bunk you hold your pillow in your arms and imagine that I am with you, my beloved…’Mijntje Meyderts, 1672. Catalogue ref: HCA 30/1061
The film moves on to a heartfelt dance sequence using pillows. This quote is from a letter between two separated lovers, written in 1672. Mijntje Meyderts describes how she holds her pillow and imagines she is with her husband, but that it is in vain as nothing equals having him with her. Mijntje was the wife of a sailor on a Dutch East India Company ship. He was a vast distance away from her in Batavia, now Jakarta in Indonesia. Like many of the letters in our collection, this letter was sadly never delivered.
The dance captures the universality of holding your pillow close and wishing it was someone you care about, and the comfort it can give in times of sadness.
‘I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King…without the help and support of the woman I love.’Edward VIII’s abdication speech, broadcast 11 December 1936
With a change of music and dress the film then transports us to the 1930s. In 1936, Edward VIII abdicated the throne to be with the woman he loved, not a sacrifice most people can relate to. However, it is now considered to be one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century. As king he could not hope to marry Wallis Simpson, because as a twice-divorced American the country would have been outraged.
So on 10 December 1936, Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, an item we hold in our collections, stating his ‘irrevocable determination to renounce the Throne’. He was to give up his Crown, in part, for love. In this playful depiction, we get to think about the power of love and our own sacrifices for the heart.
After his abdication Edward was created Duke of Windsor, and he and Wallis spent the rest of their lives together.
The dance piece ends with an uplifting celebration of love and reaching out to those we care about: a family member, a partner, a friend or even just a stranger in need.
There is no doubt that the current pandemic has presented many challenges and difficulties, but we have also realised what is truly important to us, what we value and what can make us feel good in difficult times. What better way to try to overcome lockdown blues than by reaching out to someone with a letter, or to get moving and have a dance yourself? We would love to see people’s own dances inspired by those in the video or the archive material we have shared here.
At the end of the exhibition, we encouraged people to write a letter and we had a wonderful response. We would love you to do the same now.
We have worked with Combination Dance before, and once again it has been an uplifting and fun experience. We hope this film puts a smile on your face, makes you want to dance, and inspires you to write to those you love!
Find out more about the exhibition here: nationalarchives.gov.uk/withlove.
Anne-Marie Smalldon: Artistic Director, Combination Dance
Dance Artists: Thomas McCann, Alex Garland & Eric Shiring
Film Crew: Luke Toddfrey, Viki Garland, Ben Garland, Sam Rajput & Ross Goodman
Video Production: TODDCS.COM
This film is inspired by records held at The National Archives and our most recent exhibition ‘With Love’. Below are the archival references for all the items referenced, in the order they appear in the film.
- Letter from Cyril to ‘My darling Morris’, 1936. Catalogue ref: DPP 2/224.
- Letter from Mijntje Meyderts to her husband Willem Luckassen, November 1672. Catalogue ref: HCA 30/1061.
- ‘I kiss thy sweet mouth a thousand’ – Letter from Endymion Porter to his wife, Olive, 17 July 1623. Catalogue ref: SP 14/148, f 155.
- ‘…many will have to give their lives yet before this war will end. But my one prayer is that they will never take you’ – Letter from Hetty to William Crawford, 29 January 1917. Catalogue ref: WO 400/289/2867.
- Instrument of Abdication of Edward VIII, 1936. Catalogue ref: PC 11/1.
- ‘I am begging…give me and family passage to Jamaica… I am willing to leave the country at once with my wife and child (not without).’ Letter from James Gillespie to David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, 24 October 1919. Catalogue ref: CO 318/350/400.