The eye has been a powerful motif since the earliest pieces of adornment were created. It protects the wearer and features in either stylized or natural form. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, a new category was added to this millennia-old repertoire: miniature portraits of the eye of an actual person, so-called ‘Lover’s Eyes’. The book ‘Lover’s Eyes’ presents a superb private collection of these tiny masterpieces.
‘Lover’s Eyes’ is the name given to these jewels, as a love story is what first comes to mind. That is because the most famous commissioner of such a portrait was the Prince of Wales, later to be King George IV: he sent a jewel with an image of his eye to his beloved Maria Fitzherbert. They married secretly and she commissioned a similar portrait for him to carry with him at all times. Over the years, they exchanged several of these jewels, and of the 10 pieces Maria had had created for him, nine were returned to her after his death – the 10th piece is still with him following his final wishes. But there is much more to them than secret love interests, and that is what makes this book such a wonderful read.
More than 130 eye-jewels from the collection of Nan and David Skier are presented in this book. The book is based on the exhibition catalogue that appeared in 2012 alongside the exhibition ‘The Look of Love’ in the Birmingham Museum of Art, but has now significantly been updated, expanded with four new chapters and additional jewellery pieces. The new chapters open up a treasure of history and background details against which to interpret these pieces.
One of these new essays deals with the settings of these portraits. The eye miniatures themselves are exquisite, but their setting adds to their meaning. In the spirit of Georgian expression, gemstones formed a language as well. The essay ‘Symbol and Sentiment’ explores these added capacities. I found it fascinating to learn that in this timeframe, too, coral was highly valued because of its protective capacities, and as the author writes it is indeed interesting to wonder if a coral setting of an eye miniature protects the person wearing the piece or the person depicted in the piece, or perhaps both (p. 48). Garnets, as a symbol of friendship, may indicate a piece was intended as gift to a close friend rather than to a lover, while pearl points more to love, and so the variety of gemstones present in eye miniatures is discussed.
That same added visual language is also present in the flowers depicted, which is explored in the essay on Floriography. Here, we learn about the history of floral symbolism in England. As the author remarks, there are relatively few pieces that combine floral motifs with eyes (p. 71), which is noteworthy for such a longstanding tradition. I could not help but wonder if the absence of floral language is informative in itself and tells us a little about how these eye portraits were perceived. Flowers communicate virtues and values about a person depicted to the onlooker. The eye jewellery however, while publicly worn, balances on the threshold between private and public: it combines presence with absence, identity with anonymity: could it be the use of added messages was mostly refrained from, so as to not give away too much to the onlooker? It’s just a thought, but this and other topics show how these eye portraits remain enigmatic objects in certain respects. Another tradition that is very much present in eye miniatures is the use of hairwork, as present in the second half of the essay on Symbol and Sentiment. These are not only to be understood as mourning or memorial jewellery – the gifting of hairlocks also occurred among friends and relatives.
The advent of photography is one of the factors that contributed to the dwindling popularity of eye miniatures. Yet, they never disappeared completely, as the last essays ‘Fake or Fashion and ‘Love never Dies’ explore. Eye jewellery was again popular in the late 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century, but these miniatures were no longer portraits of actual persons. The book walks us through the differences and development of styles, into the area of falsifications. As with all fakes, forgers are increasingly ingenious, and I found the section on methods to reveal fakes very enlightening: I would not be able to discern an authentic piece from a fake with the naked eye (no pun intended), but I found the discussion very helpful, also in its regard of what actually constitutes a fake. After all, eye miniatures continue to be made today: the exhibition in 2012 itself sparked another round of interest in these objects and inspired new creations reflecting our own timeframe. Here, the original Lover’s Eyes merge with older forms and meaning of eye depictions. The Eye of Time as designed by Dalí for example (p. 105) recalls both eye jewellery from the Mediterranean in its shape as the lover’s eyes in the addition of a teardrop, and the large eyes painted on the cassette ceiling of Blenheim Palace mix the other way around: their general shape is reminiscent of the watchful eye, but they are related to the eye jewellery miniatures in their depiction of the actual eyes of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough (p. 103).
Jewellery, especially talismanic jewellery, tells us a lot about its wearer. This category of jewellery does even more so, as it captures traits of actual persons. They speak of love and loss, and as such hold incredibly personal stories that we may never know in detail. I loved the amount of detail this book provides to place these pieces in context: the other imagery of the time, such as the language of gemstones and flowers or their use as sentimental jewellery. The essays on the ‘Artist’s Eye’ and ‘The Intimate Gaze’ on Richard Cosway, who painted the eye miniatures for the Prince of Wales, shed light on the practical sides of this artistic genre – like the prince ordering, but rarely if ever actually paying.
The design of the book itself reminds me of a jewellery cassette: square and, upon careful opening, filled with wonderfully photographed pieces. The catalogue takes up about half of the book and showcases each piece against a dark background: I found it particularly helpful that the text consistently refers to catalogue entries, which makes for easy comparison. Many of the catalogue entries are discussed in detail in the main text, and where needed, extra information is added in the catalogue section. The book is referenced throughout with endnotes with each essay – don’t miss out on the notes, they contain even more fascinating tidbits!
This is a very complete, accessible overview of one of the most intriguing jewellery types of the last centuries, that should definitely be on the shelf of anyone interested in Georgian and Victorian jewellery, sentimental jewellery or European jewellery!
Lover’s Eyes. Eye miniatures from the Skier collection. Edited by Elle Sushan. Giles Art Books, 2021. 280 pages, full colour. In English
Available with the publisher and online stores such as Amazon.
The book was gifted as advance reading copy by the publisher