For those who haven’t discovered the unique movement of eye portraits, the following tale is essential:
Eye portraits are considered to have their genesis in the late 18th Century when the Prince of Wales (to become George IV) wanted to exchange a token of love with the Catholic widow (of Edward Weld who died 3 months into the marriage) Maria Fitzherbert. The court denounced the romance as unacceptable, though a court miniaturist developed the idea of painting the eye and the surrounding facial region as a way of keeping anonymity. The pair were married on December 15, 1785, but this was considered invalid by the Royal Marriages Act because it had not been approved by George III, but Fitzherbert’s Catholic persuasion would have tainted any chance of approval. Maria’s eye portrait was worn by George under his lapel in a locket as a memento of her love. This was the catalyst that began the popularity of lover’s eyes. From its inception, the very nature of wearing the eye is a personal one and a statement of love by the wearer. Not having marks of identification, the wearer and the piece are intrinsically linked, rather than a jewellery item which can exist without the necessity of the wearer.
Use of materials developed along with the size of the settings of eye miniatures, as pieces were surrounded by precious stones and became larger due to altering fashion. A good reference for the evolving trend of the shape of early 19th century jewellery can be seen in the Rings section, where settings and the shape of the mementos changed quite dramatically from 1790-1830.
With the understanding that this was a popular fashion in relation to the society of the time and looking to the aristocracy as the catalyst of fashion, the eye portrait is one of the most fundamental jewellery styles to emerge at the turn of the 19th century. Its short reign as a fashionable style immediately pinpoints it to that specific culture and this is why they are so revealing about social interaction.
This eye portrait follows this trend of being highly popular in style for its pendant setting, which has two popular motifs of the early 19th century and it wears them proudly. Firstly, the shape of the pendant must be considered. Here, we have the ‘Georgian’ heart motif on display. Not the clearly defined heart with the cleft to the north of the design, but clearly the heart motif. From the following pieces, we can see the evolution of the heart in jewels from the 17th century and how they relate to this piece:
> An Eternity Knot in a Crystal Heart Pendant
> Mourning Crystal “Georgian” Heart
> 18th Century Ribbon Motif Pendant
> French Ribbon Pendant, 18th Century
> Hairwork Bow/Ribbon Pendant
> Rien Sans Amitie, Cabochon Garnet French Mourning Locket
> Merit Claims Esteem/Bow Heart Locket, 18th Century
> Embellished Georgian Heart Love Pendant
Notice how the jewel itself is much smaller than the 18th century pieces. The latter 18th century needed to accommodate the larger, Neoclassical allegorical romantic miniatures from 1765-1800, which depicted elements of the ‘self’. Here, miniature portraits from 1800-1840 were more commonly actual depictions of the loved one (though the allegorical style was still popular) and this was due to several factors. Some of these being that the improvement in processes to produce miniatures were facilitated by new technologies, the growth of miniaturist schools, access to materials and the painting of subjects to a Neoclassical ideal. Society, with its rapid movement, colonisation, social mobility and political instability leading to the need for keepsakes during times of war when loved ones would depart, was in a position where a true representation of a loved one could be commissioned by middle classes and kept in the way a photograph is today.
Jewellery settings were growing smaller, access to jewels and tokens of love and affection were available to new classes who had the wealth to purchase and the eye miniature represents the nexus of this. They are small, a fashionable affectation and not static. They capture an element of a loved one beyond the full facial recognition and they do it as a response to popularity.
The border to the pendant helps to show this. The border is essentially the most fashionable setting c.1810, with the Gothic Revival’s use of the heavy floral Baroque motif. More on this can be found in the following articles:
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 1, c.1740-c.1850
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 2, c.1850-c.1900
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 3, Breaking Perceptions
Also of note is that the setting to these jewels denote their purpose. With teardrop settings (often with black enamel), or if the eye is looking up, there is an element of post-mortem and mourning to them, otherwise, they are predominantly as a love token keepsake.
Where this piece tells a new tale is the hairwork to the reverse. Hairwork, as a dedication, was not a new invention, but one that had a growing industry, reaching its height in the mid 19th century. The smaller size of the jewels during the early 19th century began to focus upon the hair as the primary dedication in a jewel, rather than the portrait or allegorical symbolism in a miniature, so this piece reflects both of these elements. The hairwork is held in the heart and worn over the heart, but still has the fashionable eye portrait as its main display.