Brooch, eye portrait, glass / gold / diamonds / hair, maker unknown, England, c. 1800-1810
This unusual brooch is a rare example of an eye portrait fashionable in jewellery between the 1790s-1820s. The eye portrait purportedly originating out of the Prince of Wales' (later Prince Regent and King George IV) desire to court the 'unsuitable' Mrs Fitzherbert. The Prince sent a miniature of his eye painted by Richard Cosway with a letter proposing marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert dated 3 November 1785.
The eye portrait enjoyed popularity in the courts and affluent households of England, Russia, France and very rarely, America, between the 1790s-1820s. Lockets, brooches, pendants, clasps and rings were decorated by miniaturists, portrait painters who specialised in detailed images. The focus was only on one eye, with the eyebrow and eyelash represented, providing only a tantalising hint at the owner's identity without actually revealing it. The eye portrait was mostly painted using watercolours on ivory or vellum and mounted inside a crystal covering. Expressions of affection were displayed with the addition of the delicate placing of a loved one's curls or plaits embellishing the portrait. It is also likely that some eye brooches were simply another variation of sentimental or mourning jewellery and had nothing to do with secret lovers, but were a special reminder of a departed loved one. The miniature would sometimes be framed with pearls or set with diamonds, representative of tears. The eye portrait declined in popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Today these miniatures are sometimes known as 'lover's eyes', a term coined about 30 years ago by Edith Weber, a New York based antiques dealer.
This 'lover's eye' gold and diamond brooch is significant for its representation of an aspect of society idiosyncratic to the Georgian period. The portrait displays the skill of the miniaturist in the fine detail of the eye and the intricate placing of the hair.
Bury, Shirley. Jewellery Vol 1 1789-1861, Antique Collectors Club, Suffolk, 1991.
The eye portrait brooch is an extremely rare example of Georgian jewellery. It was this rarity that first attracted the donor to become fascinated with eye portrait jewellery. The donor purchased the brooch in London from D.S. Lavender Antiques Ltd in the 1980s to add to her personal collection of jewellery. She thought that the brooch was special enough to donate to the Museum. She has other examples of eye portrait jewellery as part of her stock inventory.