Born in 1717, Lady Mary Finch was the daughter of Heneage Finch, 2nd Earl of Aylesford and Mary Fisher. She married William Howard, Viscount Andover on the 6th of November 1736 and became Mary Howard, Viscountess Andover. This ring was created to carry her memory.
Mourning jewellery is a cultural statement. While sentimental jeweller (that is not souvenir based) marks a statement of love between two people through fashionable means, mourning jewellery encapsulates the love and life of its subject. Even more importantly is that a mourning jewel speaks to the cultural significance of fashion, economy, politics and social status. With this ring for Mary, we have an insight into all the values of the enlightenment and show just how prominent women were in late 18th century society.
While not all mourning jewels resonate with the quality of this piece, jewels made within a specific time represent that time. By the later 18th century, mourning was institutionalised by Court and the jewels available through the rising industry made the presentation of personal affection prominent. With such importance placed upon the artist and the allowance of the values instilled through the Enlightenment and the Neoclassical period, a statement of love that was seen in a depiction of mourning or sentimentality could be quite bespoke, with people having the opportunity to tailor a scene to their preference in symbolism.
Through this, a specific symbol or depiction tells a tale of the person whom the jewel was created for, as well as the time it was made. Look to the late 19th century and the complete standardisation of mourning jewels and it’s harder to create a narrative out of their existence. When a jewel breaks that specific mould, then there is more of a tale to tell about its society, but by that time, it had been engrained through the perpetual mourning of Queen Victoria and the ubiquitous nature of mourning fashion blurring into mainstream fashion.
Looking back to this ring and Mary, we see the balance of the importance of women in society. In the late 18th century, Mary, an amateur artist, was a part of the Bluestocking Circle an intellectual group of women who shared knowledge of literature and the arts which also invited professionals to attend. Her ring encapsulates her and her life, providing a memory of these times to resonate through the ages. We can see through further discussion of her interactions through the Circle and the quality of the ring just how society was at the time.
The Bluestocking Circle and the 18th Century
Beginning in London during the 1750s, the Bluestockings met in houses of the fashionable Elizabeth Montagu, Frances Boscawen and Elizabeth Vessey. The Bluestockings were created to foster a community of intellectual discussion. Though the concept was developed by women, it was supported by wealthy men, which brings into light the nature of the times. That there was a society which could allow for this form of intellectual debate and development to discuss new ideas, art and literature is removed from the times previous to the Enlightenment.
Focusing on its humanist principals, the Bluestockings utilised the Enlightenment’s concepts of understanding the physical world for positive means, welcoming educated speakers to participate (regardless of gender) of all manner of thought. Indeed, through welcoming a botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet, it gained its name of the ‘Bluestockings’, as Stillingfleet was wearing his blue woollen stockings, rather than the more formal white silk stockings.
Unlike other collections of intellectual thinkers that were the hallmark of the Enlightenment, the Bluestockings balanced fashion and intellectualism, rather than challenge to authority, which would be adopted through Europe in salons. Through science, religion can be debated, through reason, governments can become destabilised, as the inequities of contemporary society through the class system didn’t equate to a sensible argument.
Through this use of fashion as a presentation of the Bluestockings, portraits of the members were created (and have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery), showing a remarkable insight into 18th century British fashion and life.
“The delicate balance of fashionable and intellectual polish normally required by bluestocking society is conveyed in a letter from Hester Thrale (1741-1821) to Fanny Burney where she marvelled that the bluestocking hostess and Shakespeare critic Elizabeth Montagu was ‘Brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk’. The mezzotint that reproduces Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘s now-lost portrait conveys the legendary elegance, poise and style that, along with great wit and patronage, led Samuel Johnson to name Montagu the ‘Queen of the Blues’.” – National Portrait Gallery
Through the support of society and the openness of the community that the Bluestockings developed, they were respected, as can be seen by Samuel Johnson’s endorsement of Montagu, and the circle became notorious for its endeavours. As a community that had developed to expand in the 1780s, with Montagu’s move to her Portman Place residence (called by her the ‘template to Virtue and friendship’), the Circle produced literature which represented what the Bluestockings stood for:
“In 1786, the poet and playwright, Hannah More published her poem Bas Bleu; or, Conversation(the title is French for ‘blue stocking’), which she dedicated to Mrs Vesey. Vesey was another bluestocking hostess, who was known to her friends as the ‘Sylph’, because of her girlish figure, flirtatious wit and elusive spirit. In the poem, Hannah More celebrated the ‘electric’ quality of bluestocking debate and described the moral and educational goals of bluestocking sociability in forming a new space for learned women, in which ‘our intellectual ore must shine’. In a period when educated discussion was taken as an index of civilised society, Hannah More proclaimed conversation to be ‘That noblest commerce of mankind/ Whose precious merchandise is MIND!’” – National Portrait Gallery
Such was the friendship between the Bluestockings, that Margaret Cavendish (Harley), Duchess of Portland commissioned a ‘friendship box’ to Mary Howard, Mary Delany (who created botanical collages) and Elizabeth Montagu. Mary’s importance within the group cannot be understated, as these were the women whose houses acted as the salons for the Bluestockings.
Relating back to mourning and sentimental jewellery with the depiction of the female in the late 18th century, women had become the focus of intellectualism and the ideal personification of the self. Look to the above piece and notice how the female is represented. This is not to show that the female is grieving for the personal sentimental reason, but grieving for the entirety of the family. Neoclassicism benefitted this movement greatly, with the rebirth of Roman/Grecian classical art and its polytheistic roots, showing women in places of status. In mourning jewels, a man weeping by a tomb, rather than a woman, is the oddity; these are bespoke and uncommon, with designs of the grieving female being pre-designed and customised for clients.
Diamonds in Fashionable Jewels
Mary’s ring is of the most grand design. Having the urn as the most prominent symbol of mourning is a statement of high fashion, but having it embedded with diamonds makes for the highest jewels of society. Diamonds, being pure carbon crystals, are the hardest substance known; their ability to reflect the light captures the eye, an element that 17th century Stuart Crystal jewellery attempted to capture.
Diamond mining is recorded to c.500BCE in India, with the most important areas being Borneo, Golconda and Indonesia being the second most prominent areas of diamond mining since the Dark Ages. In the 18th century, Brazil became the main focus of diamond mining, which led to European jewellers being the source of much diamond jewellery production. It was the mining of diamonds in Australia and South Africa in the 19th century that made diamonds accessible to everyone through a massive price drop in the 1890s and mining throughout Africa, from Sierra Leone, Zaire and Russia are still utilised today.
In jewellery of the 17th and 18th centuries, diamonds are often utilised for the most opulent pieces. Royalty and the aristocracy were the only set of society which could afford diamonds, compounded with the prices of gold and the artist who made the jewel, yet in the 18th century the use of diamonds in mourning jewels was much higher than had previously been seen.
What this piece shows is that the diamond was an important material, but also that the urn as a vessel was an important symbol. The urn, as shall be detailed later in the article, is a vessel for the earthly remains and relates quite closely to the value of the body over the value of the soul. Memento mori jewels, featuring the symbols of the desiccation of the body through the skull, crossbones, tempus fugit, scythe puti/cherubs/angels all relate to the passage of life into death and its judgement. Giving value to the soul is more important than what the body’s remains are, as these become dust, while the soul is measured by its deeds on earth and its passage towards heaven. Utilising the urn as its most popular symbol for neoclassical death shows that the vessel holding the remains was not only a classical relation to art, but also a value for the person who had died as being an entity, whose earthy definition was not that of being judged by a deity.
Turning the focus away from the urn, the use of the monogram has been in use since ancient times, but most prominently during the modern era in the 17th century. Combined monograms or just the statement of the self in a ring worn for a statement of personality is a wonderful symbol of individuality.
Of course, this crossed over to mourning jewellery and this mourning ring above shows that combination of popular late 18th century materials with the monogram. It goes so far beyond the statement of death to say that the ring was for an individual, beyond a symbol. Indeed, if this was seen outside of the context of its reverse (Rich.d Humphreys, ob: Oct: 18/ 1797 a:62), it would be a piece that a person would wear in fashion. Combining this with pearls in the late 18th century make for a ring that blurred aesthetic with it’s function as a mourning piece. Discovery and trade led to the desirability of pearls, particularly from medieval and Elizabethan times. ‘Oriental’ pearls, originating from the oyster family, were the most desirable due to their lustre, which pearls from freshwater mussels and conch shells do not have. The Oriental pearls were bought to Europe form the Persian Gulf by caravan traders. As the 1780s and 1790s defined the popularity of pearls for their beauty and status, this ring denotes that in true form.
In Mary’s ring, the black enamel is the key factor that balances out the beauty of the urn and the diamonds. Black, being immediately identifiable as the colour of mourning, is a somber finish to an elegant ring.
The major focal point of this ring is the urn itself. Emblazoned with diamonds and surrounded by black enamel, the urn is highly detailed at a time when it was a very standardised symbol of mourning. The urn itself is a vessel, or more specifically a vase, which naturally have their beginnings in pre-history when humanity began gathering items in order to carry them. We won’t be dwelling on this form of history, but rather the ancient Greek use of the urn in artistic depictions. The urn itself had evolved as a decorative item, often with art displayed upon the vessel itself prior to Greece in neighbouring Mediterranean societies, but its interpretation in jewellery design stems mostly from the Greek and Roman scenes in art and their reinvention during the Neoclassical period.
Usage of the urn had never wavered, however. Cremation of the body and the collection of ashes in the urn is a method that survived ancient civilisations well into the Dark Ages. The name itself is derived from the Latin ‘uro’, meaning ‘to burn’, so no matter what the shape of the vessel the title was always ‘urn’. This is a concept that never left the mainstream mind and its uptake as a Neoclassical symbol and its consistency as a funerary motif is simply a natural evolution for the urn’s depictions.
While burial became the more popular method of interment, the urn still retained its status as a symbol of death, testifying the death/decay of the body and into dust and the departed spirit resting with god.
Draped urns are another variation of the popular symbol in the Neoclassical period. The draped urn itself often denotes the death of an older person, however, the drapery is often a constant when in relation to death. Interpretations of this can be when the shroud drapery denotes the departure of the soul towards heaven in relation to the shroud over the body, the drape is the partition between life and death or that it is guarding the sacred contents of the urn itself. In jewellery, finding the urn draped or undraped is quite common, but why is it so?
The urn is a motif that reached incredible heights of popularity in Neoclassicism due to its interpretation from the original classical depictions. It was a motif that was easily lifted from its source and fulfilled all the classical resonance that a revival period needed to convey the style of its respective era. With the focus back upon the personal nature of mourning and the departure of the direct link towards god, death itself became something worn prominently in mainstream fashion. The urn was a perfect way to show this, draped or undraped. Sitting on top of a plinth, column or tomb, the urn is often the central focus of the mourning depiction. The mourning character in the depiction (male or female) is often interacting with the urn in some way, either leaning against it weeping, sitting near it, standing beside it or looking at it directly. This links the personal nature of mourning from the person into the jewel itself. The mourner is the wearer or the person who created the dedication and the urn represents the loved one. Consider that; there’s a direct link in methodology of the urn to the self, this is why the urn is the central motif and not the mourner.
Consider that when looking at a brooch, ring, bracelet clasp, pendant or any other peripheral from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. The urn is the concept that should draw the eye and take precedence over everything else.
The symbol disappeared soon after the first quarter 19th century in mourning jewels, but was retained within funerary art. The Gothic Revival period played a key role in reverting society back to more ‘traditional’ values. Using a direct relation to the body in the urn conflicts with the burial/god connection which was part of the social understanding of life and death, that Christian values returned to a life under god.
You can find the urn in use to around the 1820s, but many of the latter uses in jewels are anachronistic in the same way that memento mori would have been during the late 18th century. However, in funerary, the urn was still retained and is to this very day. In fact, its use in architecture in the latter 19th century / early 20th century was quite typical, but it had largely disappeared as a motif to represent the self in mourning.
At the time of Mary’s ring in 1803, the symbol had reached its peak as a main symbol in jewellery. Combined with the diamonds and decoration, it is a fashionable statement of love and death.
Experimentation in Early 19th Century Rings
Experimentation of styles at the end of the Neoclassical movement created some unusual and quite beautiful forms of mainstream design in jewellery that were discontinued by the coming Gothic Revival and seemingly original for their time. Often, designs used in jewellery have some continuity or pedigree for their form, which makes their adaptation of any mainstream artistic flourishes seem quite understandable.
Of note in Mary’s ring are the open shoulders, which was typically the most altered and experimented upon element within early 19th century rings. As the bezel became smaller and the focus changed from the Neoclassical depictions of sentimentality, the ‘magical properties’ of gems became the focus of the ring’s statement. Where the mourning female figure had prominence previously, the use of hair and a gem would be all a ring would need to show the dedication of love or grief.
The early 19th century was a time of discovery and change. Much of the techniques used in traditional jewellery construction were being overtaken with the growing industrial revolution, production was growing to new levels, access to inexpensive materials transcended status to the point of social necessity. Hence, there was more room for experimentation in jewellery fashion, styles could exist for a short period and quickly disappear.
These particular rings show a motif in the shoulders and shank which have some basis in the navette style, but turn this into a design which is much more organic to the contour of the finger. While the style of the open wire/fretwork is a new one, it still honours the symbolism typical of its time.
With this particular ring, the symbolism in the eternity symbol is used to expand the shoulders, enhancing its simple symbolism and the nature of the design itself. What is more striking is that the ring’s memento area is shaped as a diamond, crossing diagonally around the finger. This also reflects upon the changing nature of the sentimental style of the time as well; what could also be a larger, ivory memento with a portrait or mourning/sentimental depiction is now the simple hairwork of the loved one, outwardly displayed for all to see.
Following on with this style, the wire-work open-shank can be seen in many other pieces of the first-quarter 19th century, with more or less elaboration. Often, the bezel is oval shaped with hairwork inside. This was at a time when the ‘Georgian Eye’ portrait was reaching its crescendo, suggesting that the oval and the eye have an intrinsic link in the design motif. Either way, it was phased out to become a more traditional rectangle, but keeping the same hairwork/materials inside.
A Tribute to Mary
Mary lived in a time when the opportunity for intellectual discussion, regardless of gender, was permissible and this ring shows just how loved and respected she was. She lived at a time that had seen American independence and the French revolution, a time of fierce debate over the nature of what the individual meant to society and she flourished within this community to allow others like her to participate.
A mourning jewel is not just a token of beauty, grief or fancy; it is a narrative of history that tells a grander tale about its entire society. History is often understood through its major impacts, with events being the catalyst for understanding, but it is through the people who lived in those ages that tell the greatest tale. Just as any modern event impacts our lives, how we adapt and change for it is what makes it memorable. This mourning ring, while beautiful, encapsulates an important era in modern history that has moulded the future.
Dedication: Mary Visc. Andover ob.7 March 1803 Age 85