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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

William Theed (1804-91)

Sappho signed & dated 1851

RCIN 2079

White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace

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Love shook my senses/ like the wind crashing on mountain oaks

This marble statue created by William Theed in 1851 shows the poet Sappho, who lived around 630–570 BC in Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos. Contemporarily thought of as the female counterpart to Homer and viewed by Plato as the ‘tenth muse’, Sappho and her poetry were renowned throughout antiquity. Although they only exist today in fragmentary form, her poems are powerful expressions of love and longing for both men and women. In one, she describes how seeing the woman she loves and hearing her laughter:

makes my panicked heart go fluttering in my chest, for the moment I catch sight of you there’s no speech left in me

At the time this statue was created, a concerted effort was being made by classicists to align Sappho with Victorian morality and respectability, and so her passionate declarations of same-sex desire were downplayed. Translators changed the subjects of Sappho’s poems from female to male, or altered the tone to make Sappho’s love seem more akin to friendship.

Despite attempts to rewrite and redefine Sappho, her evocative descriptions of female intimacy and love have endured.

May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.

The terms ‘Sapphic’ (from her name) and ‘lesbian’ (from Lesbos, the place she lived) are now used to describe female same-sex desire.