The Neoclassical period of c.1765-1810 marked a period of intense mourning identification in the most beautiful and sentimental ways. If not for the sentiments that were displayed in lush, romantic depictions on the top of a jewel, the reverse bespoke sentimental statements are personal, beautiful and entirely directed at the deceased individual. With this bracelet clasp, we see that Margaret Sinclair was the mourner’s sister and she died at Lyon on the 6th of May, 1775 aged 18.
A jewel can take on the personality of the wearer; a jewel that is influenced in its design and sometimes even designed by the wearer. The closer a jewel gets to folk art, or art that can be produced in the home and set within a jewel, the more identity the jewel takes. When a mourning piece is given an individual flare, which may have been requested by the purchaser or chosen from a catalogue and customised, the jewel becomes a singular entity as a last remaining piece of the deceased’s memory. This clasp is quite interesting, as it is stitched in the style of sepia pieces, which were incredibly popular during the Neoclassical era, but had their height in the 1780s. Due to its size as a clasp, the piece accommodates the ability to have such a statement of its symbolism, which many Neoclassical pieces did.
In the following bracelet clasp, we can see what a concurrent style would look like:
Firstly, the stringing of the pearls was one of the more common materials used in bracelets and quite possibly would have been used in the Margaret bracelet. Otherwise, hair was woven and worn at the wrist for the bracelet, but many of these examples from the late 18th century haven’t survived. As a paradigm shift from mourning as decoration, bracelets with woven hair that were created a century later in the 19th century were often held as keepsakes for the loved one, or sentimental pieces for the purposes of love. A family may gave a hairwork bracelet from sister to sister or mother depending on the relationship. An example of a piece from 1855 with communally woven hair in the bracelet can be seen below:
Hairwork is the perfect way of connecting people over such a simple material to weave, a material that was taught at home and also practiced by professionals, indeed, it was one of the first professions to allow women working in the industry. Development of the hair working industry from the 17th century can be found in the following article:
While a good understanding of the growth and manufacture of hairwork and its industry can be found here:
Pertaining to this bracelet clasp, the growth of the hairwork industry from its demand in bracelets in the 1600s led to the stringing of the bracelet in hairwork a commonly requested material in the 18th century, which would make this particular clasp typical of hairwork integration.
On its facia, the clasp has quite a tale to tell in terms of love and sentimentality. This is where we see the truly bespoke nature of the piece, as it incorporates all the standard mourning elements of a Neoclassical mourning setting, but through its use of stitching, pays very careful attention to its detail.
Looking to the main focus of the brooch and the urn takes the main area. Much of the detail is at the mercy of the stitch work, but rather than impair the detail, it actually enhances the crisp edging, which a painting with sepia could possibly blur. Symbolically, this urn relates quite intrinsically with the dedication at the reverse; Margaret died in Lyon, but the eternal flame burning above the urn will keep her memory and spirit alive forever. Its detail, with the three-dimensional flames, are sharply stitched, beginning with the lower level flame to the higher level, resonate with a strength and power that is growing and not waning.
The above urn is what a more typical design would be for the 1770s-90s, as the style wasn’t as defined as it had become in the 1790s. It is important to note that the Margaret urn is more voluminous in its design, with the wider base and detailed Romanesque arched design to the centre, ending in a conical stem that reflects a chalice. Use of shading in the stitches shows a high degree of quality within the detail. There are many parts of this piece which do not need to reflect a true depiction of the urn/plinth in-situ; it could well have been idyllic and simplistic.
Other depictions of the urn that were common in Neoclassical jewels are the three-dimensionally designed pieces, which were often inlaid with enamel and gems. In the above example, there is the more traditionally standard urn that would be seen by the 1790s in mourning jewels.
Of note is the plinth, which is set in perspective, stitched in a way which pronounces the urn to the front of the clasp. Indeed, the perspective is such that the viewer is peering past the rocky outcrop and viewing the large urn, which towers over the very environment.
Using the outcrop in heavy stitching makes the top-left light source shine down and brightly light the scenario, but also creates a large element of negative space in the piece. The left hand side is barren and does retain some of the emptiness that the scene is trying to convey; the sadness is part of its beauty. With this method, the background with the material does seem more pronounced, but this relates to many of the styles that were common within mourning samplers through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Home stitching makes mourning samplers quite a singular piece of family memorials. Young women who would learn their craft at home could produce some very unique pieces of mourning that were identifiable to the family itself, going beyond what was standard in symbolism, but also interpreting it for themselves. What the Margaret clasp shows in its stitching is the personalisation in the ‘M.S’, which matches quite nicely with the other stitches in the piece. Many of the customised painted pieces show difference in the colour of the paint to its surroundings in the depiction, but with the Margaret clasp, we have to judge it by the similarity of stitch work and how that can complement it.
Margaret Sinclair was loved by her sister, be it near or afar, the two ladies were connected and this clasp shows that her sister’s affections were worn upon her as a sign of status and also as a sign of pride in this relationship. From no angle does this brooch not display elements of its time through its singular sentimentality and quality. The willow, urn, plinth and stitched depiction of mourning is a personal one and one that is quite uncommon for its time, bringing the proximity of Margaret’s sister closer to the piece. With the delicate bespoke personalisation of ‘my sister’ upon the back, the relation to the family is proudly stated. While mourning pieces had existed within a growing industry since the turn of the 18th century, pieces like this step outside of generic custom and truly share the memories of the departed forever.
> The Urn Symbolism
> The Willow Symbolism
> Mourning Band From 1770
> Moss Agate Locket Ring, 1774
> Virtue Lives Beyond The Grave Sepia Pendant, 1776
> Sarah Jervis White Enamel and Sepia Mourning Ring, 1777
> Wheat Sheaf Hairwork Ring, c.1780
> Neoclassical Oval Diamond Mourning Ring, c1780
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