It started romantically - as you would expect. A loving husband, Sir William Dale, a legal consultant, gave his wife Gloria an exquisite Victorian card on St Valentine's Day, about 10 years ago.
"It was so beautiful and expressive that I could never bear to part with it," she said. And it was the stimulus that led her to scour street markets, antiques centres and old postcard fairs on a quest for other cards. Now Lady Dale's collection has examples of every type, dating from the late 18th century to the Art Deco of the Thirties.Today they are to be auctioned off at Phillips' saleroom in London's Bayswater.
For a decade she has been steeped in valentine lore, and has become an expert, if not always completely ladylike, bargainer. "If you have lots of money, you can buy what you want," she points out.
"For me, the fascination lies in finding cards in good condition, the excitement of discovery, and then learning about it." So she talks to dealers, consults the Ephemera Society and reads avidly about her chosen subject. Her bible is an out-of-print book, The Valentine & Its Origins, by Frank Staff. Lady Dale does nothing by halves.
When, in the Seventies, her husband was counsel to the UN Relief and Works Agency in Beirut, she read archaeology at the city's American University, specialising in beads. She went on digs with various professors and ended up with an assemblage of 50,000 beads, most of which she has since donated to the British Museum, along with her papers and research. Having catalogued her collection of Palestinian and Syrian costumes, she gave them to a museum in Kuwait.
Many of the high-class 19th-century makers of valentine cards are represented in her collection, such as H Dobbs & Co (the first firm to make delicate flower petals that could be lifted up to reveal an amorous message beneath), Joseph Addenbrook, renowned throughout the world for his beautiful decorative lace paper, and the fancy stationer Joseph Mansell, an engraver and printer who during the 1840s embossed paper so perfectly that his work resembled real cameos. Also included are a number of Eugene Rimmel's perfumed sachets impregnated with the scent of lavender and violet, novelty valentines that were introduced in the 1860s, and became all the rage.
"Apart from the fact that I love the nostalgic element, what I admire about these valentines is their extraordinary craftsmanship," she says. "Everything was hand-made by young girls or women in little cottage industries using painted scraps of flowers, pressed ferns, gilded cherubs and cupids on the cards."
The work rate is impressive. Artisans embellished satin cushions and chromolithographs with doves, seed pearls, feathers or tinsel, often wrapping them in muslin or lacy gauze to give a misty effect. In some of the most intricate designs, there could be up to 700 separate pieces stuck on to a card. Some of the pop-up cards, also, are extraordinarily intricate. Three-dimensional "stand-up" varieties; articulated ones with bits that move - a wagging head, a trembling bloom, a calendar that displays the months, weeks and days when you pull a tag - are amazing.
Considering the skill needed to make these cards, and their decorative value, the sale prices are astonishingly reasonable, ranging from pounds 10 to pounds 250.
"I was fascinated to come upon example after example of some of the rarest valentines I have ever seen, and all beautifully preserved," says Julia Walker, a collectables specialist at Phillips. "The range is almost academic in its comprehensiveness, but it isn't at all precious. Some of the romantic cards are to die for, but throughout the collection there is a healthy streak of humour."
What is little known is that not all valentines were pretty-pretty pictures accompanied by declarations of everlasting love and cloying couplets. "Some were hilariously funny and saucy," says Lady Dale. "Others were rather lewd and rude." In the Records Room of the London General Post Office, there are letters from enraged fathers complaining about having to pay postage (before 1840, when the uniform Penny Post was established) on offensive valentines sent to their plain spinster daughters. Other malicious cards were sent to settle old scores.
In Lady Dale's collection there are a number of amusing cards, not least the burlesque water colours by Cynicus, a comic cartoon artist and a Folies Bergeres dancer who keeps her secrets hidden behind a scarlet heart covering oh! such a risque spot. "They may be naughty," she says. "But they have none of the vulgarity of the cards you buy today. Who wants to get a card about bodily functions?"
Yet romantic love, she believes, is still terribly important to people today. A glance at the countless messages in The Times on Valentine's day are proof of that. And how much more touching it would be to receive an antique valentine from the "golden era" when making them was an art form, with an old fashion billet-doux penned in fine script: "My love is thine for ever".
Sale today at Phillips, Bayswater, 10 Salem Road, London W2 (0171-229 9090), today at 2pm. Preview 9am-1pm.Reuse content