Colour and symbolism became the primary elements of the mid-18th century, with the introduction of the Rococo period and its infusion of naturalistic designs in jewellery. The previous Baroque period was notorious for its bolder, dominating design, however mourning jewels represent something far more personal than what could be reflected in grander statements of building and architecture.
Cost and the essential nature of wearing a mourning jewel requires that the wearer invest some intrinsic personal affectation into the jewel and that the jewel must reflect something of its time. The 18th century essentially established the industry of mourning, due in part to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of faster methods of production and a society which was becoming more and more mobile, with greater access to education and techniques.
In 1686, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to Huguenot goldsmiths and jewellers emigrating to Great Britain. This was when the previous allowance by Henry IV of France provided Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) significant rights. With this retraction, the Huguenots bought with them skills which enabled the London trade to compete with Paris. This led to greater patronage with the influx of greater designs and new elements of fashion appearing as popular in jewels. By the mid 18th century, much of the values that were carried to Britain were instilled within the new industry and led to such elements as the Rococo designs in jewellery from its continental influence.
All of these things are reflected in this ring for Sarah Nicholls, who died on the 27th of February, 1755 at the age of 69. There are so many splendid elements to this ring which reflect her personally, as well as those of the time it was constructed. From the use of the scallop shell upon the shoulders, to the excessive ribbon motif and the white enamel along the band, this ring was made for someone fashionable to be worn with prominence.
In the case of this ring, the shell reflects both the values of the Nicholls family (presuming that this ring was made for a family member, rather than a friend) and also the impact of the Age of Enlightenment. Previous jewels reflecting mortality identified with the Memento Mori symbolism, using such elements as the skull, crossbones, scythe and hourglass, all denoting the timely nature of death and the judgement at a higher level. Naturalistic elements all reflected back upon an ecclesiastical form of judgement and death, while the Rococo movement heralded in the organic, fluid and nature-based designs that had great aesthetic value.
The shell has several different interpretations through early-modern history, but most reflect the Christian faith as a message to their raw symbolic meaning. At its heart, the Shell of Saint James is the central identifier. St James has a shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, to which those on a pilgrimage to the shrine would wear a scallop shell on their cloak or hat. This shell was used as an eating utensil, with religious institutions offering as much food as could be taken with one scoop of the shell. Alternatively, there is the suggestion that the shell relates to Saint James as a symbol of the setting sun. From its visual symbolism, it’s easy to see the connection between the sun and the shell, but also in that Saint James was said to have ‘rescued a knight covered in scallops’, which reflects upon the healing/resurrecting a dying knight. In this case, the knight is the setting sun.
Fertility is the other symbolic reference of the shell, with the design translating to feminine anatomy and the vulva. Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486) represents this and is quite probably the most notorious depiction of the shell.
How this relates to the Nicholls ring is in the use of the white enamel and the concept of love and fertility, but also with elements of resurrection. Much in the same way as the white enamel symbolises virginity and purity, the use of the shell is a grand statement of rebirth and renewal in the next life. Many appropriated classical symbols, the reflection back to a Christian basis in the early-modern era allows for interpretation of the symbol, rather than being a statement devoid of religious undertone.
Yet, the shells also flank the central (possibly foiled) stone upon the bezel. Both of these elements that require the fertility, love and resurrection elements are projecting towards the colour of red, which was a colour not introduced until the Ordinary Stage of mourning. Its statement of love is a profound one.
White Enamel, Mourning Costume and Textiles
Wearing black during mourning had been a standard since the 15th century, often with white trim or other accessories, but by the mid 18th century, this was standardised. The use of white enamel and its context towards virginity and purity is one that grew in prominence throughout the cultural lexicon in the 18th century. Death, for its reasons of desecration and entrance into entropy, lead towards black, which in itself, is the absence of light. White, when in use, is the connection to purity, innocence and virginity, show the untarnished representation in colour towards a person’s morals and values. A young person who was not married was seen as unblemished in social status and the use of the white enamel to show this virtue is why white enamel is used in this context.
Sarah Nicholls was 69 when she passed on, which for the 1750s was a grand age of mortality. That she had a ring made for her which presented her unmarried status shows that there was a unity within the family for social values. While a black enamelled piece may denote that the person had been within a relationship or maturity, this ring states that she was pure.
A look at mourning fashion and the textiles industry from the late 17th century is necessary to see just how ingrained the colour system was within British society. While court formalised this, there were no women’s magazines for reference in other cultures, with only newspaper published Court Mourning Orders being the standard. This led to much cultural exchange in the early 18th century, but more will be written about this in future articles.
As with the same influx as the Huguenot jewelers and their impact to the industry from 1685, the textiles industry also felt the massive change. Rather than having to import silks, the Huguenot weavers created a silk and weaving industry, which was perfect for the requirements of mourning textiles. This was an industry settled in Spitalfields, within the East End of London, building upon the already established silk industry of Protestant refugees. This silk was widely exported to America, Ireland the West Indies, Portugal, Spain and Germany by 1725-1750.
The court practice of mourning was already established, with the mandated requirements being:
“…bombazine dresses trimmed in black crape, black silk hoods and plain white linen were worn with black shammy leather shoes, glove and crape fans. Jewellery was not permitted. Second mourning consisted of black dresses, trimmed with fringed or plain linen, white gloves, black or white shoes, fans and tippets and white necklaces and earrings as necessary. Grey lusterings, tabbies and damasks were acceptable for less formal occasions.”
Hence, the ‘Black Branch’ of the silk industry was established. The first black silk mourning crepe was patented by Francis Pousset in 1698 and this Huguenot influence was only increased with the reliance of it during royal funerals.
Looking back to the Nicholls ring, one can see the difference that white enamel would have played when displayed upon the finger of a person in mourning. It is a statement for the person who had passed to all others, which promptly states her relationship and values within the simple colour of white.
Baroque to Rococo, Culture and Community in the Late 18th Century
The 18th century’s new focus upon the aesthetic to represent the personal led into the Neoclassical era (c.1765) and was helped through by the Enlightenment and its challenges to traditional interpretations of personal/ecclesiastical relationships. From a socio-economic perspective, the Western world was being opened up through the Americas, spurred by new technologies and industry which could increase communications and travel. Levels of society that were static in their geographic region and anchored to their family/village had access to education in rising industries and create personal finance.
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.
What this shows is the swing against the traditional domination of a singular religious thought, to the more literal appreciation of interpersonal relationships. For rings such as this one, it is a shift towards uniformity across cultures that would previously have been separated cultures. Combined with the growing levels of wealth through industry over aristocratic birth and there is the need for a new interpretation of mourning in a single culture.
The French adoption of mourning and sentimental symbolism differed from the necessity of the British. While Court mandates enforced multiple levels of society to enter mourning stages and present the family within a mourning paradigm, the French specifically targeted the art and culture of mourning in a more focused manner from the late 18th to late 19th century, often stemming from form following fashion. As mourning styles and materials became popular (such as hairwork), it was more entitled to enter French style. Much of this is due to religion, approach to culture and how it was mandated throughout the country. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen offered a freedom of religion, hence no control through Roman Catholicism, or in the case of the United Kingdom, the Church of England with the monarch as its Supreme Governor. This gives greater interpretation of mourning symbolism that can relate more specifically to the wearer and not be dominated by a preordained set of values.
The 18th century welcomed in greater convention for mourning fashion and began to see the rise of the mourning industry. This became so much so that mourning dress was becoming desirable and the difference between mourning and non mourning dress was narrowing. Much of the fashion in this century was dictated by the fabric rather than the cut, and the silk industries in France and England held major influence on mourning wear because of this. It was Ordre Chronologique des Deuils de la Cour, (1765) where details of Court mourning in France were published, giving precise tailoring instructions. From their first days in mourning, men were permitted to appear in Court, unless it was after the death of a parent from whom they had received inheritance.
Widows had to wait one year and six weeks, with the first six months in black wool. Lord Chamberlain and Earl Marshall both ordered shorter periods of mourning in France and England respectively. By the 1880s in Britain, twelve weeks of mourning were ordered by the death of a king or queen, six weeks after the death of a son or daughter of the sovereign, three weeks for the monarch’s brother or sister, two weeks for royal nephews, uncles, nieces or aunts and ten days for the first cousins of the royal family. Foreign sovereigns were mourned for three weeks and their relatives for a shorter time. Mourning was divided up into First, Second and Court mourning.
Though there had been growing small scale social mobility from the late 17th century, the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the middle classes having the opportunity to promote through society with the accumulation of wealth. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, a designer, architect and convert to Catholicism, saw this Industrial Revolution as a corruption of the ideal medieval society. Through this, he used Gothic architecture as a way to combat classicism and the industrialisation of society, with Gothic architecture reflecting proper Christian values. 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 transition from the straight Baroque bands to the growingly more opulent Rococo ribbon/twist element is a gradual one that began c.1720. By the 1750s, it had hit its hight, only overcome with the 1760s and the introduction of the Neoclassical Era.
What makes this ring so particularly at the height of its time is the combination of the shell motif and the excessive design to the scroll elements in the ribbon. There are hard Rococo elements twisting each piece of the band together, with each containing an element of the dedication, from her name to her date of death. The split-shoulders below the shells connect into this in a very organic way, which honours the Rococo design. Clearly, it is a design comfortable within its time enough to display this as a design, rather than show weaker elements of what the band could represent.
Below are a series of articles about jewels which show the heavy flourishes of the Rococo Era and give some excellent reference points when looking towards dating a specific jewel:
> 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
Sarah’s ring is the completion of its time. In itself, the various motifs work together to show the perfect Rococo ring; sentimental to the wearer and the person whom it was dedicated for. It honours its time and is a piece of art.
The Human Element
What can be learned from this ring goes beyond just the fact of Sarah Nicholls. That this piece has survived for so long and reflects its time so perfectly transcends it beyond a fixed piece of art and makes it contextual to society. This ring gives a narrative about mourning culture and fashion in Great Britain, the influx of Protestant emigration, the symbolism of love and family values in an ecclesiastical paradigm and also what art had been and what it would become.
An exceptional piece for an exceptional time and indeed, for a lady who shall not be forgotten.
Courtesy: Barbara Robbins