The “eyes have it” they say. Often called the “window into the soul”, looking into someone’s eyes can reveal deep and hidden feelings and a gaze held between two lovers can be one of the most intimate of acts. It’s through such sentiments that the “lovers eye” miniature became a popular jewelry trend for a relatively brief period in history. The painted eye miniature was meant to be given to a loved one and would be recognizable only to the recipient. These miniature love tokens could be worn in public and with only an eye visible, the lovers identity could be kept secret.
During the Georgian and Victorian eras, wealthy lovers exchanged close up portraits of a single eye, called “eye miniatures” as tokens of love, sometimes a secret love. There are several theories on how the popularity of these love tokens began, but the most widely known happened between the Prince of Wales and his secret wife, Maria Anne Fitzherbert.
This relatively short lived fad began at a time in history when King George III was engaged in the revolutionary war in America. His son, George IV, the Prince of Wales, was engaged in a war of his own making when he fell in love with a commoner, Maria Fitzherbert. Maria was a twice-widowed, catholic woman six years his senior and not at all considered an appropriate mate for the future King of England. The Prince was smitten and did everything in his power to win her affection, even knowing full well that the Acts of Parliament forbid a royal to marry a commoner and that his father, King George III would never consent to a marriage between the two lovers.
Knowing they could never marry and to distance herself from the situation, Maria left for Europe but the distance did nothing to dampen the ardor of the Prince. On November 3, 1785 he wrote a letter of marriage proposal and included a locket with a miniature picture of his eye, painted by Richard Cosway, a celebrated artist of the day. Without any other details of the face painted, a solitary eye, focused on the intended, can hold powerful and intimate meaning between two people and this was a way that the Prince could maintain the secrecy of their scandalous romance.
His intimate gift worked and Maria returned to England. On December 15, 1785, shortly after her return, the Prince and Maria were married in a secret and illegal ceremony (requiring the Chaplain to commit high treason!)
Shortly after the marriage, Maria gave the Prince her eye miniature which he wore hidden under his lapel. Although in the end, their “marriage” was not meant to be, this act of exchanging painted eyes is regarded as the event which led to eye miniatures becoming a fashionable trend with aristocratic and affluent families of England, France and even Russia.
How They Were Made
Eye miniatures were at their height in popularity during the Georgian era, between 1790 – 1820. They were commissioned for sentimental reasons and normally were watercolor images on ivory or vellum and depicted the eye of a lover or spouse. Eventually they grew popular with eyes depicting cherished family members or children. For women, eye miniatures were most often set in bracelets, pendants, rings and brooches, often with decorated gem-set frames and sometimes they included lockets on the back compartment to hold locks of hair. For men, they were most often set in the lids of snuff boxes, tooth pick holders and other small decorative boxes.
Popularity during the Victorian era
By the mid-Victorian period, Queen Victoria revitalized the popularity of eye miniatures and often had them created for use as presentation pieces. She also commissioned eye portraits of her children and many of her friends and family members. This art form stayed modestly popular through the early 20th century, mostly within the royal family and the aristocracy. Attempts to bring this fashion to America met with little success and to find an American eye miniature during this period in history is extremely rare. By later years, the focus and meaning of eye miniatures shifted from a secret love token to that of being a form of memorial jewelry. The frames were often decorated with gems that carried symbolic meaning. Pearls represented tears, diamonds represented strength, garnets represented true friendship and coral offered protection from harm.
Lovers Eye in Today’s Market
Today these eye miniatures are most often called a “lovers eye”, a term given 30 years ago by a New York antique collector and Antiques Roadshow appraiser, Edith Weber. Experts believe that there are fewer than 1,000 true period appropriate “lovers eyes” in existence today and that these are one of the rarer examples of antique jewelry to be found.
As with anything rare and valuable, the antique jewelry market has its share of fakes and one should use extreme caution in purchasing a lovers eye jewel. Unfortunately it’s not difficult to find reproductions posing as genuine antiques or even genuine antique brooches that have had their center stones removed and new paintings inserted within or worse still, with computer image printouts or images cut from books and held under the glass. For those with an interest in purchasing or collecting these wonderfully rare jewels, do your homework and learn everything you can and be sure to purchase your new treasure from a reputable source.
Carefully rendered and given with affection, these tokens of love each have a different and personal story on how they came to be. Most often the identity of the subject is unknown and the story behind their creation is a mystery lost to the ages. Even without knowing the individual history of a piece, its beauty and sentiment still continues through time.
Additional Reading Suggestions:
The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection, by Graham C. Boettcher
Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures, by Hanneke Grootenboer
Portrait Jewels: Opulence and Intimacy from the Medici to the Romanovs, by Diana Scarisbrick
Photo Sources: Pinterest, Victoria and Albert Museum London
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