Eyes are often thought to be the ‘window into the soul’ revealing and concealing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings. A “lover’s eye” miniature was an off and on jewelry trend from about 1775 through 1820 although there was a resurgence during Victorian times. The idea was that the painted miniature of the giver’s eye would be presented to a loved one. The eye would be recognizable only to the recipient and could be worn publicly keeping the lover’s identity a secret. Depending on the financial means of the buyer, the miniature could be painted in watercolor on ivory or vellum or gouache on card. The surround could be pearls or gemstones or just a cloth frame. For women the miniatures were set in rings, pendants, brooches and lockets. For men, snuff boxes, toothpick cases, and small decorative boxes were used. Often a little snippet of hair would in included in a small compartment on the back. These are very intimate pieces of jewelry – the return of a loved one’s gaze is clearly a valuable treasure. A little tuff of hair or a sideburn made the portrait even more intriguing. Eye miniatures were found in courts and affluent households in England, Russia, France and rarely America. Queen Victoria revived the trend during the late 1800’s by capturing the eyes of her children, friends and extended family – no lovers for her.
Another interesting piece of information to remember is that these are small pieces of jewelry, they are miniature.
There is an intriguing story about the Prince of Wales and an eye miniature of his beloved Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1784 or thereabouts, it is said that the style setting Prince of Wales had fallen madly in love with Mrs. Fitzherbert who was a twice widowed women, six years his senior. He pursued her relentlessly and eventually proposed marriage. Knowing that the marriage could not take place, that it was against the law, Mrs. Fitzherbert fled to Europe. Keeping his romance a secret from the disapproving court and in an effort to bolster his proposal, he sent Mrs. Fitzherbert an eye miniature painted by Richard Cosway, a popular court miniaturist. In return, Cosway then painted the bride’s eye for the Prince. Apparently his persistence and the eye worked! The couple were illegally married in 1785. Many years later, after having had a falling out with Mrs. Fitzherbert, the King realized that she was the love of his life. Upon his deathbed, the now King George IV asked to be buried with Mrs. Fitzherbert’s eye miniature around his neck, which he was.
The side note to this story is that the Prince of Wales created a huge jewelry trend with his secret wooing of his beloved and the popularity of the eye miniature took Europe by storm. So much for “secret”!
In the early nineteenth century, eye miniatures evolved into a form of memorial jewelry. The focus of the eye miniature was remembrance not secret love. Such pieces are accented with a tear or an eye gazing through clouds. A gemstone surround added to the sentiment. Pearls were supposed to be tears, diamonds represented strength and longevity, coral was to protect the wearer from harm and garnets represented true friendship.
Crying eye miniature brooch with pearl surround, circa 1800, photo courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Crescent shaped eye miniature pin/pendant with pearl surround, circa 1800, photo courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.
Eye miniature ring, circa 1800.
Eye miniature mourning ring, circa 1800.
Georgian eye miniature agate pendant, circa 1825.
Pearl, blue enamel and diamond eye miniature, circa 1790.
Georgian coral mourning eye miniature brooch.
Split pearl surround eye miniature, circa 1790.
Turquoise and pearl mourning eye miniature with hair in the back, circa 1820.
Georgian man’s eye miniature brooch, circa 1800-1820.
I find these pieces so intriguing an so endearing, I just love them. They are such a uniquely personal look (pardon the pun) into the lives of generations gone. Love is the answer my friends.
What do you think, do you like these? Would you wear one?