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I’ve got my eye on you

Luisa Coscarelli

 

This peculiar type of object is said to have been the outcome of a scandalous love affair. In 1784 the then Prince of Wales (later King George IV) met one Mary Fitzpatrick at the opera. He fell in love with the twice-widowed Catholic, and was set on proposing. However, Mary did not reciprocate his advances, knowing that the Prince was in no position to legally make her his wife. The Royal Marriage Act only allowed him to choose a wife without the consent of his father from the age of twenty-five. The Prince was only twenty-one. Yet, he was determined, and after staging a suicide attempt Mary appears to have been frightened into accepting the marriage proposal.[1]

Only a day after, realising that King George III would never consent to this engagement, Mary fled to mainland Europe and stayed there for a year hoping the feelings of her admirer would subside. This was not the case, and the young Prince was said to have been longing for her even more. In November of 1785 he sent her a letter asking her to marry him once again. This note accompanied the letter: “P.S. I send you a Parcel … and I send you at the same time an Eye, if you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance. I think the likeness will strike you.”[2]

The future king sent Mary an eye miniature painted by the well-known miniaturist Richard Cosway.[3] Whether it was the letter or the eye, Mary returned to England and the couple married in a secret ceremony in December of 1785.[4] These events are said to have sparked the fashion for eye miniatures in eighteenth century England. A few examples of this strange, yet intriguing type of object are held in the collection of the V&A.

Eye miniature, unknown maker, early 19th century, England, pearls, diamonds, Museum no. P.56-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye miniature, unknown maker, early 19th century, England, pearls, diamonds, Museum no. P.56-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This particular example is set in a golden oval, surrounded by twenty white pearls. The eye has a blue iris, gazing sadly into the distance, crying two diamond tears. The top of the nose, hollow of the eye, and eyebrow are softly sketched onto the light skin-coloured background with grey and blue pigments. One cannot help but be convinced this is the eye of a woman.

According to the story of the Prince and Mary Fitzpatrick, eye miniatures were given as tokens of love; however, this eye is crying – why? In asking this, an interesting parallel opens up to pieces of jewellery made from hair. Pendants, slides, and buckles incorporating hair were popular tokens of love in seventeenth, eighteenth, and even nineteenth century England. However, they were also tokens of remembrance, and mourning jewellery. This is also true for eye miniatures, but in a more direct, even demanding way. Art Historian Hanneke Grootenboer describes the eye miniatures that cry as insisting on expressing grief on their own behalf.[5] The miniatures are not images for grief, but grieving images.[6]

On the one hand, these objects could be seen as accusatory pieces of jewellery, demanding that the deceased person be remembered and mourned. The gaze of the dead family member, friend, or lover constantly present, infinitely watching. On the other hand, one could see the miniatures as relieving their wearer of the obligation to grieve endlessly. Incorporated into a brooch as in this example, the eye would not face its ‘owner’, but everyone else around, therefore showing that the wearer is grieving for the deceased. This would turn the eye portrait into a marker of grief, public evidence  that the dead person is being mourned.

Eye miniature, unknown maker, early 19th century, England, Museum no. P.47-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Eye miniature, unknown maker, early 19th century, England, Museum no. P.47-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Different to the object above, this one shows the eye of a man set into a brooch-frame of a snake swallowing its tail. The gaze of the yellow-brownish iris – almost a stare – meets the viewer head on. This example shows perfectly what Grootenboer means when she argues that these miniatures are not primarily symbolic representations of eyes, but indeed portraits.[7] She argues that the focus of the miniature is the gaze of the loved one that is portrayed, and that therefore these are “instances of ‘being seen’ rather than of seeing”[8]. As much as the viewer looks at these pieces there also is an element of reciprocity, a giving back, a looking back. Whether through death,  or through geographical or emotional distance, the reciprocity of the gaze must have been comforting in the absence of the loved one. The viewer would not have been the only one seeing, but felt like he/she was being seen at the same time.

This aspect of seeing is different in portrait miniature. Grootenboer explains that portrait miniatures were treated as a stand-in for the absent person – they were talked to, embraced, even kissed.[9] Eye miniatures, however, were not seen as standing in for the whole person, but solely for their gaze, represented through the portrayal of the eye.

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1067693/eye-miniature-unknown/

Eye miniature, unknown maker, early 19th century, England, Museum no. P.57-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Eye miniature, unknown maker, ca. 1800, England, watercolour on ivory, Museum no. P.54-1977, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One last aspect that I would like to explore at this point is the question of the genderedness of these objects. As we have seen, both men and women had their eyes portrayed, but did both sexes wear the object as well? According to art historian Marcia Pointon, the wearing of portrait miniatures was gendered. Women wore portraits of their men openly as a sign of loyalty.[10] Men, on the other hand, risked being seen as effeminate if they were to wear portrait miniatures openly.[11]

This appears to be different in the case of eye miniatures, as shown by the example of the Prince of Wales and Mary Fitzpatrick. After their secret marriage ceremony the new husband was seen to show the eye miniature of his wife in public.[12] Thus he was not only disrupting existing gender norms, but transforming the eye into evidence for his changed relationship to Mrs. Fitzpatrick.[13] However, one needs to consider the elements of intimacy and exclusion that might still be at work, even if the eye miniature was portrayed publicly. Only people who knew Mary Fitzpatrick and had ‘looked her in the eye’ would be aware of this love connection. For anyone who had never seen her ‘with their own eyes’ the miniature would mean nothing, or at least remain a mystery.

The examples shown here of eye miniatures incorporated into brooches are representative of only one specific usage of this type of portrait. In the cases of eye miniatures incorporated into pins, lockets, bracelets, or books the relationship between the gazing eye and the viewer surely is a different one and needs to be evaluated differently for each case. The eye miniatures had only a relatively short life. While Queen Victoria was still commissioning them in the 1850s, Charles Dickens wrote them off in his 1848 novel Dombey and Sons, describing them as “fishy old eye[s]”.[14][15]

 

 


[1] According to some sources this “staging” actually meant that the Prince of Wales stabbed himself. Grootenboer, Hanneke, ‘Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Sept. 2006), pp. 496 – 507.

[2] Grootenboer, Hanneke, ‘Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Sept. 2006), p. 496.

[3] 1742 – 1821

[4] This story appears to be the general consensus, although there is mention (on the V&A Search the Collections website for example) that the eye miniature developed in France as a sign of watchfulness and political loyalty. See: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O94277/eye-miniature-unknown/

For the story presented here see: Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 496; or the mobile app: Look of Love. (2012). Birmingham Museum of Art (Version 1.0) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from App Store.

[5] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 503.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 496.

[8] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 496.

[9] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 501.

[10] Pointon, Marcia, ‘ “Surrounded with Brilliants”: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 83, No.1 (Mar. 2001), p. 59.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 498.

[13] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 500.

[14] Dickens, Charles, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Whole Sale, Retail and for Exportation, 3 vols. (London, 1897), vol. 1, 9, 104.

[15] Grootenboer, ‘Treasuring the Gaze’, 2006, p. 496.

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Luisa Coscarelli – 

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

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© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

 

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