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18th Century Romance – The way to a Man’s Heart

Posted by on February 4, 2013

In the eighteenth century, romance was a story and marriage was comfort and security; a sentiment that Thomas Fuller seemed to promote in his book Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, published in 1732:  ‘Of soup and love, the first is the best’. My Mum always told me the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.    The portraits of Arnold, Joseph and Alexander van Aken (Haecken) reveal a family disposition towards developing fleshy chins later in life, giving them the look of men who enjoyed their food, confirmed by their smiles that show good humour and convivial company.     Arnold’s wife Rachell, Joseph’s wife Mary and Alexander’s wife Ann, obliviously knew the way to their husbands’ hearts.

 At the beginning of the eighteenth century food was the highest household expense for most except the very wealthy.  The kitchen equipment, for those who had their own cooking conveniences, consisted of a fire over which a pot could be heated, with a knife or two, spoons and bowls to cut, mix and boil seasonal ingredients into submission.   Ovens in homes were scarce so baked goods were considered treats. ‘Fairings’ which was a general term for biscuits and cakes flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, almonds, nutmeg and candied angelica were specially baked and sold at fairs all around the country.   These were seen as a romantic gesture that many courting couples could afford as they wandered around the fair stalls getting to know each other.    Other gifts would be pieces of ribbons, buttons, handkerchiefs with loving embroidered initials and other small baubles that were a constant reminder of the giver.    For most people the act of giving and receiving love tokens was significant in itself.

The wealthy gave items of clothing such as gloves.    Sometimes these marked an honest betrothal, but they were also an acceptable gift to thank a mistress.  The act of pulling on a glove was deemed a highly suggestive manoeuvre evocative of the intimate relationship between men and women.   The wealthy also had cooks and kitchens with ovens, so baked goods and small practical baubles were not such memorable tokens to exchange.

Arnold and Alexander both showed their trusting love and respect for their wives by making them executrix of their wills, so the women would be in control of their own futures.  Only Joseph made his business partners, the painters Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay, executors of his will.   This probably was due to Joseph’s sudden illness and Hudson’s desire to safeguard his interests rather than Joseph’s lack of faith in his wife Mary.   Physically supported by his nurse Elizabeth Moor, Joseph, with a shaking hand wrote a shortened version of his name on the paper around 4pm on Tuesday 4th of July1749.    By 11pm that night he was dead.

One Response to 18th Century Romance – The way to a Man’s Heart

  1. Clare Travers

    I love the description of the rotund van Aken brothers, conjuring up great images of their wives knowing their way to a husband’s heart. In their case heart led to head, as the brothers seemed ahead of their time, perhaps, if not eminently sensible, in making each wife executrix of their will. Joseph might have followed suit, possibly, if illness had not so suddenly overtaken him.

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