Valentine’s Day: Welsh Lovespoons

12 February 2019

Searching for the perfect Valentine’s gift? Something romantic, traditional and maybe just a little bit quirky? Find inspiration in the Bute Collection’s cache of Welsh lovespoons – a unique collection of over one hundred finely-detailed, hand-carved wooden spoons dating from the 17th to the early 20th century.

A selection of the many lovespoons in the Bute Collection.

A Welsh custom since the early 17th century, the lovespoon was a traditional token of affection gifted to a young woman by an admiring suitor. They were typically carved from a single piece of fruitwood, demonstrating the suitor’s skill and ability to provide for his potential mate through woodworking. The intricate decorative designs simultaneously showcased the carver’s talent and expressed symbolic meaning. Common motifs included a heart for love, a bell for marriage, an anchor for security, a key or keyhole representing home, and a chain representing togetherness. Additionally, many lovespoons incorporated caged balls, the quantity of which reflected the number of children the suitor wished to have with his beloved.

This spoon is ornamented with the popular motif of caged balls, indicating how many children the carver wishes to have with his beloved. This one has 9 balls; though one may have come loose from the cage, making it an even 10.

Lovespoons were often passed down through families, and over generations, further decorative embellishments would be added. Over time, these cherished heirlooms assumed a strictly ornamental purpose. As we can clearly see in some of the more elaborate examples in the Bute Collection, certain spoons were obviously never intended to be used to eat a meal!

The oldest spoon in the Bute Collection dates to the 17th century, and might be closely contemporary with the earliest known Welsh spoon, now at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff which dates to 1667. While the craft and practice of exchanging lovespoons is most commonly associated with the Welsh there are also similar traditions in Scandinavia, Germany and parts of Eastern Europe. The world’s oldest recorded lovespoon is a German spoon dated to 1664.  While the customary courtship ritual surrounding the lovespoon died out in the late 19th century, lovespoons based on traditional designs are still made in Wales today and are commonly given as wedding, anniversary and Valentine’s presents.

Possibly the oldest spoon in the collection, it is accompanied by an old handwritten label inscribed in ink ‘A 17th century love spoon from the Vale of Glamorgan. The origin of the term “spoonings” these spoons were love tokens made of apple tree wood “the majestic tree”‘

The Bute Collection lovespoons were acquired in 1938 by John Crichton-Stuart, 4th Marquess of Bute. They were purchased for £510 from the collection at St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan, then belonging to the American Newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. The 4th Marquess was an art lover, history enthusiast and compulsive collector of a dizzying array of books, paintings, jewellery, artefacts and items of curiosity. Intriguingly, included in the purchase with the St. Donat’s Castle lovespoons was a wrought iron Scolds Bridle, a Medieval torture device still in the Bute Collection today – not quite as romantic!