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Throughout history, cultures have marked rites of passage – birth, marriage and death – according to their beliefs and customs. In Western art, the rediscovery of literature and art from the classical world fuelled a desire to understand the current day by learning from earlier cultures.

In the Renaissance, Ovid’s myths and legends, Pliny’s descriptions of the natural world, and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, were interpreted anew in art, literature and science.

In the 19th century, antiquities from ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome influenced a new movement – Aestheticism – where artists such as Frederic Leighton focused on beauty for its own sake. Others rejected the past, their works capturing the joys and trials of everyday life. While industrial development ultimately brought massive wealth to Britain, Death, the great leveller, still waited in the wings. Mourning lovers longed for a joyous reunion in the next world; while the tragic demise of romantic figures from the past created a powerful link with the present.

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Last updated: 04 December 2019