Brooches 22.07.2013

An Elephant in a Sentimental Neoclassical Sepia Brooch

Neoclassical Sepia Brooch Sentimental Elephant Pelican

The most interesting sentimental jewels are the ones that represent their time. They lead us into a narrative that represents their culture, politics and relationships, leading us back to a tale of the society at the time. Beyond this, the personal statement of the piece leads us into how love was shown inside the family structure and presented in public. With this brooch, we see the culmination of all of these influences; remarkably unique symbolism that is relevant for its time and quite personal for the person who commissioned it. It measures 4.5 centimetres from the north to the south, which is a large piece for the post 1765 Neoclassical era, making this the apex of its time. As a jewel from c.1790, this would be presented at the bodice or throat, making it a signifier of the self, as this would be seen as a token of identity within a relationship. What wonderful symbolism it is; revealing the individual, the pelican and the elephant in an idillic Neoclassical setting, painted in sepia tones. Sepia, to show the tones of the earth in brown and subtle reds to denote blood, is a method of painting that was popular at the time for the sentimental elements of the body, but was also popular with its simplicity in painting. Many pieces show variations of quality, from the highly detailed and bespoke jewels that reflect the wearer, to the naive and Neoclassical ‘ideal’ depictions that are poorly defined and edited by the jeweller for the person who commissioned the piece. Often, the more naive pieces only have simple edits to the wording that may appear in the jewel and this can be seen in the different tones of paint on the ivory or vellum. These sentiments could be chosen from a catalogue by the purchaser, with all the other elements being pre-defined. As for the higher end of the jewels, which this piece does lean towards, the separate elements would be chosen by the person who commissioned it and reflect their personal values in in the jewel. How much influence the jeweller would have upon the decision is lost to time and just supposition from a modern perspective, but it is often the more unusual jewels which reflect the values of the wearer. One fundamental rule is that these jewels were worn by a person and anything which adorns a person makes us look beyond a certain style and make us consider why the jewel was worn for its design.

The Pelican

Early 17th century signet ring

Early 17th century signet ring

Within English society, the pelican is a very important early-modern symbol, since its adoption by Elizabeth I. The Pelican is a symbol of maternity and caring for her offspring, which relates back to the body of Christ. In Adoro te devote (c.1260), St Thomas Aquinas wrote the following:

Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine:
Cujus una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

Which translates to:

Pelican of mercy, Jesus, Lord and God,
Cleanse me, wretched sinner, in Thy Precious Blood:
Blood where one drop for human-kind outpoured
Might from all transgression have the world restored.

That relates the nourishment from Jesus’ blood to the sinner as being the pure fount from which all can drink to alleviate all sin. The idea of being a parent which can nourish the offspring comes from this concept; the pelican analogy is the basis for a symbol that can protect its children.

Portrait Hiliard Pelican Elizabeth I

In c.1573, the court miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard painted Elizabeth I in The Pelican Portrait, noted for the brooch Elizabeth wore at her breast. This pelican symbol was one adopted by Elizabeth, as the pelican was said to have pecked at her breast to feed her young and died so they may live. Elizabeth was the mother of the Church of England and her sacrifice to her people was inherent in that symbolism.

In this jewel, we can see the influence of that symbolism. The jewel shows the matriarch sitting, cradling the pelican, relating to the maternal love for her children. If this jewel was created for the meaning of her being parted from her young, but always loving for that young, or if is a token of her love for her young, the depiction is the essence of the individual’s love for her children.

The Elephant

Look to the elephant in this brooch and you can see the raised trunk to the female and the pelican, looking towards the subject and lending its symbolism to the scenario.

There are various cultural and social issues which caused the influx of elephants in jewellery, be they used as a material or a symbol itself. Intelligence, hence the concept of the memory of an elephant and nobility are the first ideas to consider when looking at the elephant in jewellery symbolism. Remember that this was a Neoclassical jewel, so the depiction of the elephant is one very specific to the late 18th century. Many influences upon English society during this time were reflective of the symbols which were used, however the elephant has remained one that has been ingrained in popular thought since the Hellenistic era.

c.1790 Wedgwood Elephant

c.1790 Wedgwood Elephant

The elephant was used in China and most popularly, by the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great adopted their use and the introduction of their stature into the Western mindset was complete, as even the example of Hannibal riding elephants through the Alps in campaigns against the Romans is still in modern vernacular. This retention in the Western mindset survived through the middle ages and has built the elephant into a symbol of strength, nobility and passion. The creature is strongly built and conveys wisdom along with its inherent strength, very important things to consider when viewing depictions of the elephant in symbolism.

Chinese elephant handles

Elephant Handles, 1754

There is an incredible importance of the elephant in jewels of this era for various reasons. Firstly, the elephant provides us with ivory. When we consider how important that is for our sentimental jewels and how important this was for the continuity of jewellery from Greek and Roman times, ivory has been one of the most defining materials surrounding how sentimental jewellery was designed. It was also used thoroughly in handles, instruments and daily items as a predecessor to plastics. It has been suggested that four thousand elephants were killed for their uses in 1831. So, there is the appreciation of this, particularly in Neoclassical pieces, ivory is one of those material staples that was so important. The elephant in the 18th century could be found on the Neoclassical depictions, such as this, but they are very rare. The example above shows the elephant with trunk raised, which denotes optimism, good fortune and luck.

Neoclassical Elements

Jewellery Catalogue

Jewellery Catalogue

Catalogues were the common method of purchasing Neoclassical jewels of the time, with the most typical styles of symbolism being defined by the mainstream styles of the time.

With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, increased manufacture of textiles, steam power and iron making led to the need for a society that could sell these products, creating work for peddlers in towns with growing populations, creating points of sale to growing societies which had previously been smaller and more insular. With heavy investment in inventions from the early 18th century, the growth of mechanised production was rapid. Inventions, such as the John Kay’s flying shuttle (patented in 1733) doubled the output of a weaver, were financed and patented to protect their intellectual property, creating extremely high return on investment for entrepreneurs, such as Richard Arkwright and developing industrial towns, the likes of which had not been seen in modern society. Indeed, Arkwright had amassed £500,000 by his death in 1792. Considering that a very fine silk dress in the early 18th century costed £10 to £60, this amassed wealth is incredible.

Neoclassicism had become the reaction of culture towards the dominant styles of Baroque and Rocco in art and architecture through England and France, which was mainly a reaction of religious questioning. The Baroque style was dominant in its grandeur; enforcing the rule of God upon a society who could not achieve the wealth to acquire such opulent architecture that would be found in a Church or aristocratic setting, hence the presence of God within art was a constant reminder of mortality. The Age of Enlightenment allowed for liberalism in thought and the right of the individual. John Locke and Thomas Hobbs were greatly influential in 17th century English progressive thought, whose resonance would be felt throughout the 18th century. In jewellery, the Neoclassical period led to the change from the actual depiction of mortality through the Memento Mori style (skulls, skeletons, scythes, tempus fugit) were replaced with allegorical depictions from classical art. The weeping female figure next to a tomb or plinth, dressed in classical costume were more typical to find by the 1790s, when the English Enlightenment had reached its height.


While the subject of the jewel, the female is one of the most interesting aspects. Her proportions are incorrect, with the head being smaller than the body and legs, showing an elongated arm and body which is more beneficial to the costume, rather than her as a subject. Look to the folds of the Neoclassical dress, with its folds and low-cut style. Her hair is at the height of fashion, being tied back and flowing behind her in the wind. As a piece of fashion, she is dressed in a way that has all the elements that were popular for their time; with the Greek influence reflected in the folds of her dress and the bare-shoulders/under-bust cut look which was popular through to the Regency era.

As to how this relates to the jewel is an interesting one. A modern viewer must ask the question of how bespoke this jewel truly was. With the individual elements in the detail to her face, the holding of the pelican and the elephant, one must wonder if these were edited into a pre-existing jewel, rather than a completely bespoke rendition of art. It would not be difficult to see her as the central element that could be adapted for mourning or sentimentality; her sitting underneath a tree upon a log would move towards a mourning miniature with only a change to the face and some editing to her arm. Rather than the elephant, put a column or plinth and urn next to her, then you have a mourning miniature. With this piece, you have a delightfully sentimental jewel that shows obvious material love, but the proportions are out of perspective due to her depiction.


The French influence of the separate elements in the jewel cannot be understated. With the French Revolution being one of the major occurrences on the 1789-1799 period, following American independence in 1776, the impact upon English society was exponential and the reflection of this upon the style of design in the late 18th century is obvious. Ideologically, Neoclassicism was adopted by liberalism; this reflecting the self, the pursuit of knowledge and the freedom of the monotheistic ecclesiastical system that had controlled Western society throughout the medieval period. Consider that Neoclassicism influenced thought during the same period as the American and French revolutions and it isn’t hard to see the parallels. The Gothic Revival would, in effect, push society into the paradigm of monarchy and conservatism, which would dominate heavily throughout the 19th century and establish many of the values that are still imbued within society today.

French Fob c.1790

Look to similar styles of the late 18th century to see the influence of the Neoclassical style on English jewels. The navette style, with it’s larger north-south design could accommodate the artistic interpretations of sentimentality that were popular and the 1790s saw the largest reflections of this style. Religion played a large part in having the allegorical allowance for how Neoclassicism could be representative of the self, over the historically Christian interpretation. Since the creation of the Church of England and the break away from Catholicism, the English could question the ideal of predestination and the 18th century had been defined by a questioning of leadership in a crown that controlled its own religion, hence the representation of the self was more important than ever. Access to wealth was a possibility, as the Industrial Revolution led to skills being built through operation, rather than learned skill. Even the very aspect of machine milled one and two pence copper coins in 1797 led to greater circulation and the necessity for smaller coinage to be used within the economy. Between 1797 and 1821, the Napoleonic Wars led the Bank of England to suspend the transfer of currency into gold; this was known as the ‘restriction’ era. Forgery was high, as the poor quality of paper and the forging of copper coins made it easy for people to create their own currency. What this shows is that a society could flourish under its own economy and develop wealth. Bringing this back to the industry of jewellery, the jeweller could benefit from simple or complex work, as there was a market for wanting it to be created. Travelling salesmen with simple editing to a jewel could generate a profit, as could a shop which employed several people and this reflects back on the industry which created the materials for the jewel itself.


Neoclassical Sepia Brooch Sentimental Pelican Sheep Elephant

This is a jewel which had significant symbolism in its depiction and for the wearer. At no point can its quality be overstated, as it reveals a very personal definition of sentimentality that we do not see today. As a time when the symbol went beyond an affectation and represented the self, this brooch shows all the elements of being personal, which are defined quite clearly in the hairwork weave upon the border and the reverse. In many ways, this is the perfect jewel to represent the 1800-1820 period that would come after it, an ideal depiction which can be seen below:

Where the portrait took over, the symbols here are the self. These are the elements that the person who wore them identified with and factored into their value systems, making the elephant and the pelican relevant to their very family. Certainly, we shall remember this jewel today with the piety seen in the pelican and its sentimentality will resonate through the ages.

Further Reading:

The Lamb


The Maltese Cross / Cross Formée

The Rose

The Greek Keys

The Urn

The Poppy

The Forget-Me-Not

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock




The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp


The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily


Courtesy: Barbara Robbins