See Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby's chocolate cups in our Europe 1800–1900 gallery.
Discover more about the two remarkable women who once owned this pair of 18th-century, porcelain chocolate cups.
There's nothing particularly striking about this pair of 18th-century, porcelain chocolate cups – each with a lid and two handles – and their saucers. They're certainly not the most impressive or eye-catching objects in the Museum, or even in the room where they're displayed currently (Room 47). What is extraordinary are the two women who once owned them, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831), known popularly as the Ladies of Llangollen.
A remarkable relationship
Both Sarah and Eleanor's families lived in Ireland and it was here that the two women formed a strong emotional bond and attachment that would endure for the rest of their lives. Eleanor was 16 years older than Sarah. In 1778, when Sarah was 23 and Eleanor 39, the two women secretly fled together, crossing the Irish Sea to set up home in North Wales, leaving their privileged lives behind them.
Their cups are decorated with a view of the house, Plâs Newydd, where they lived happily together for 50 years, on one side, and their heraldic emblems – in lozenges – on the other. The centre of the saucers are decorated with a monogram.
Eleanor Butler's diary
Eleanor Butler's voluminous diary describes a domestic idyll and offers us vivid insights into their life together. She writes on Monday 4 October 1784:
"Cold Wett day. Staid in our library the Entire day. Reading – writing, and sharing a delicious day."
And on Thursday 22 September 1785:
'Up at Seven. Dark Morning, all the Mountains enveloped in mist. Thick Rain. A fire in the Library, delightfully comfortable, Breakfasted at half past Eight. From nine 'till one writing. My Beloved drawing Pembroke Castle – from one to three read to her – after dinner Went hastily around the gardens. Rain'd without interruption the entire day – from Four 'till Ten reading to my Sally – She drawing – from ten 'till Eleven Sat over the Fire Conversing with My beloved. A Silent, happy Day.'
An unconventional life
The public were captivated by their unconventional, romantic way of life. They received many distinguished visitors, including the Duke of Wellington and William Wordsworth, and acquired a celebrity-like status which meant that there was a popular demand for prints of them. There are three examples in the British Museum's collection – reproduced here – which reflect their appearance towards the end of their lives.
This print depicts Sarah Ponsonby (left) and Eleanor Butler (right) late in life in their home at Plâs Newydd, Llangollen. The ladies disliked having their portraits taken and this one is based on sketches made secretly by Mary Parker during a visit in 1828. Most visitors commented on the ladies' conservative manner of dressing. Unusually, Eleanor wears the order of Saint Louis, an order of chivalry founded by the French king awarded to exceptional officers.
Romantic female friendships
Although the Ladies of Llangollen's fame was extraordinary, romantic female friendships were common in 18th-century Europe. Women often spent a great deal of time in each other's company and developed strong, intense relationships. Female friends frequently wrote to one another using passionate, romantic language that can suggest a sexual relationship to modern readers. Some of the relationships reflected in correspondence were no doubt sexual, others may simply have reflected the conventions of friendship. It's impossible to find conclusive proof whether the relationship between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby was sexual or not, but there's abundant evidence that it was loving.
There was speculation that there was more than romantic friendship between Eleanor and Sarah in their own lifetime. The diaries of Anne Lister (1791–1840), an English landowner from Halifax, West Yorkshire, record a visit to the Ladies of Llangollen in 1822. Anne kept diaries that chronicled the details of her daily life, including her industrial activities, her work on improving her home at Shibden Hall and, uniquely, her own lesbian relationships in sections written in code.
Anne had read about the Ladies of Llangollen in a newspaper article around 1810 and had longed to visit them for some time before finally meeting with Sarah Ponsonby in 1822. Anne was fascinated by the Ladies, probably because they showed that two women could live happily together in a home of their own. Mariana Lawton (née Belcome), one of Anne's lovers, had already been to Plâs Newydd and dreamed of living with Anne in the same way at Shibden Hall.
A large woman so as to waddle in walking but, tho', not taller than myself. In a blue, shortish waisted cloth habit, the jacket unbuttoned shewing a plain plaited frilled habit shirt – a thick white cravat, rather loosely put on – hair powdered, parted, I think, down the middle in front, cut a moderate length all round & hanging straight, tolerably thick. The remains of a very fine face. Coarsish white cotton stockings. Ladies slipper shoes cut low down, the foot hanging a little over. Altogether a very odd figure...Mild & gentle, certainly not masculine & yet there was a je-ne-sais-quoi striking.Anne Lister describes Sarah Ponsonby in her diary.
More than friends?
Anne tried to discreetly establish whether Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler were more than friends. She asked 'if they were classical' to which Sarah Ponsonby replied, 'No… Thank God from Latin & Greek I am free.' Anne's attempts to discover more about the nature of Sarah and Eleanor's relationship were unsuccessful. On parting Sarah gave Anne Lister a rose to keep 'for the sake of the place where it grew.'
Mariana wrote to Anne asking: 'Tell me if you think their regard has always been platonic & if you ever believed pure friendship could be so exalted. If you do, I shall think there are brighter amongst mortals than I ever believed there were..'
Anne replied: 'I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself & doubt. I feel the infirmity of our nature & hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship.'
A great unrecorded history
Lives and stories of same-sex love and desire like the Ladies of Llangollen can easily go unrecorded in museums, slip out of history and gradually be forgotten, contributing to the false and misleading impression that they never existed before the late 20th century. The example briefly touched upon here represents a fraction of what the author E M Forster (1879–1970) memorably described in one of his letters as '...a great unrecorded history'*.
- *E M Forster (ed. M. Lago and P. N. Furbank), Selected Letters of E M Forster I: 1879–1920 (London 1983)
- Anne Lister (ed. Helena Whitbread), The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister: Vol. 1: I Know My Own Heart (Virago 2010)
- Elizabeth Mavor, A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen (Penguin, 1986)
- Angela Steidele, Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist (Serpent's Tail, 2018)