Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Fashback: Lover's Eye Miniatures.

© Birmingham Museum of Art.

From February to June of 2012, the Birmingham Museum of Art had an exhibition of one of the largest extant collections of Lover's Eyes in the world - owned by David Skiers, an eye surgeon, and his wife, Nan. At the time, I had never heard of these bizarre yet beautiful objects. It wasn't until September last year, when I was trying to choose an object to write an essay on for college, that I first came across them. Immediately, I was intrigued and just a tad obsessed. The romance, the drama and the physical loveliness of these objects fascinated me. 

Cameo vs. Miniature

Most of you will be familiar with portrait miniatures - sometimes erroneously mistaken for, and called, cameos in the media. Even if you're not consciously aware of it, you'll have seen examples of them before. Miniatures are (generally) small painted portraits on vellum, ivory, copper and cardboard from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They can be mounted on walls, inside boxes or worn as jewellery in various forms and sometimes will have begun life in one format only to have later been converted to another. Funnily enough, many full-size portraits from that period actually show the sitter wearing or holding a portrait miniature.

"Miniature", surprisingly, does not refer to size as most believe. It, instead, comes from the Latin minium, meaning "red lead". Miniature painting developed originally from medieval manuscript production and the images made to illustrate the texts which were miniated in that pigment.

Fitzherbert and George IV.

Lover's Eyes or Eye Miniatures are a particular sub-genre of this genre of portraiture. The term "Lover's Eye" is not a contemporaneous one but was instead later coined by the collector Edith Weber. They were most common through the period c.1790 to 1820 and are said to have been conceived as more discreet love tokens to be passed between the Prince of Wales and his love, Maria Fitzherbert. George III did not approve of the match between his son and a widowed Catholic but they were married secretly and illegally anyway. The eye miniature provided a greater degree of anonymity and discretion by only revealing the eye of the giver while retaining the sentiment of a regular miniature, allowing the pair to express their forbidden love. It is this origin and level of patronage which is said to have made the objects so popular.

This story of origin is contested, however. Eye miniatures are thought to have actually originated in France and are recorded in sitters books of prominent portrait painters in Britain up to two decades before the episode with the Prince of Wales. He may have popularised the miniatures or increased their popularity but he was almost certainly not the first to commission such an object. 

Eye miniature ring  © Birmingham Museum of Art.

The anonymity which derives from merely depicting the eye means that the identity of the sitter in certain Lover's Eyes often remains a mystery today. Some miniatures include inscriptions but these too can be vague and not particularly helpful. People have speculated that the anonymity was employed to allow owners to wear such tokens openly but few portraits (the only remaining visual evidence for how contemporaneous people wore their clothes and accessories) show us figures wearing Lover's Eyes. This is because they were often symbols of extramarital love affairs. In fact, for extra caution, Lover's Eyes were usually worn beneath layers of clothing and not out in the open at all. That they remain a mystery is a testament to their original intentions and purpose. 

Pearl surrounded miniature with tears © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Later, eye miniatures became popular as a method of remembrance rather than secret love and were painted with tears or peering through clouds. Through Queen Victoria's fondness for them, the miniatures survived (though with much lesser popularity) just into the twentieth century and there are still some artists making them today. 

Hair work at the back of a miniature. 19th Century Mourning Brooch, Case Antiques.

Lover's Eyes, like all miniatures, are highly intimate objects. Generally small and either worn as jewellery or contained in boxes carried on the person, they encouraged one-on-one interaction. Hair work (making images, generally on the back, out of the hair of the sitter or just the inclusion of some hair) was also a common element, adding to the physicality and intimacy by allowing a lover to carry a small part of their beloved around with them. But eye miniatures were particularly intimate, as they required the physical familiarity between individuals to recognise another by merely their eye and without context. The intended recipient would have had a very different experience of viewing an eye miniature to anyone else now or when it was created.

It is estimated that only around a thousand Lover's Eyes exist today and eye miniatures have become highly sought-after objects with replicas and reproductions having become very popular. Though they may have long since fallen out of popular favour, there are those of us who continue to be suckered in by the romance and loveliness of the objects.

Eye miniature in pearl surround with clouds. © Birmingham Museum of Art.

I was telling a friend about this piece and Lover's Eyes the other day and she thought there something creepy about them. I can understand how they might seem like odd little objects to a modern audience. Especially because of the inclusion of hair work. However, how far is this really from parents keeping baby teeth or locks of hair today? Not so far, I think. The focus on the eye in isolation of the rest of the body, too, which I would argue has become something unsettling largely through its use on horror movie posters, lends an atmosphere of discomfort to some modern viewers. For me, it's easy to look past these aspects (even though I'm weird about eyes) and just see the romance. The intimacy and familiarity they imply as well as the ceremony of wearing and carrying around jewellery or mementos to keep a loved one in mind (especially when they actually contain a little part of that person) is beautiful to me. I would totally rock one of these.

How about you guys? What do you make of Lover's Eye miniatures?

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