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Love is in the (h)air

Luisa Coscarelli

 

Loving someone in 17th, 18th, and 19th century England sometimes meant not only giving your heart away, but also your hair. Hair was used in the production of needle lace bands, as well as enclosed and incorporated into pieces of jewellery that were given as tokens of affection and used as pieces for remembering a loved one – dead or alive. The material was manipulated into a variety of shapes: knotted, plaited, and woven to be displayed under glass or rock crystal.

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Locket, unknown maker, ca. 1810, England, enamelled gold set with plaited hair, Museum no. M.123-1962. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This particular locket was made in England, ca. 1810. The object’s round shape is determined by a serpent biting its tail and a round band containing the words ‘I SNAPPED IT IT FELL TO THE GROUND’ and ‘LA ROSE FLETRIE LE PAPILLON S’ENVOLE’[1] enamelled in gold onto white ground. In the centre, fixed onto a bed of blonde, plaited hair is an enamelled, golden rosebush. Although its leaves shine in a bright green and its flower is still red, its flower head is falling to the ground and – barely visible – cut off its stem. To the side of the rosebush one sees a butterfly fly away. Just as this rose is falling to the ground, so the hair has been snapped and fallen, to be incorporated into this piece of jewellery.

Locket, unknown maker, ca. 1810, England, enamelled gold set with plaited hair, Museum no. M.123-1962, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Locket, unknown maker, ca. 1810, England, enamelled gold set with plaited hair, Museum no. M.123-1962. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One could suggest that this is definitely a piece of mourning jewellery, especially when reading the inscription on the back: ‘And such I exclaim’d is the pitiless part, some art by the delicate Mind, Regardless of Wringing and Breaking a Heart, already to sorrow resigned’. There is hope, however. Whereas the inscription on the back clearly refers to death and heartbreak – the loss of a loved person – the decorative elements of the locket suggest that there is hope for a reunion. The butterfly does not die, but as the inscription tells us, only flies away, implying that there is hope for its return; and just like this fragile creature, the rosebush will be restored to its former glory, already sprouting a new bud. The serpent biting its tail, connected to itself in an eternal cycle, reinforces these elements of regeneration.

Nevertheless, this is a rather late example, because hair was already widely used in pieces of jewellery in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was plaited and enclosed as in the locket seen above, but also knotted and complemented with gold thread to create a name or initials, and date of a persons’ passing. This is the case for this rectangular buckle showing the inclusion of knotted hair that was then embroidered with gold thread. The embroidery reads ‘Eliz Harman/ Obt 11 Apr/ 98 Ata 27’. In addition, one finds a skull and cross bones at the top of the piece.

Mourning buckle, unknown maker, 1698 (dated), England, gold, set with rock crystal, gold thread and hair, Museum no. M.91-1975. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mourning buckle, unknown maker, 1698 (dated), England, gold, set with rock crystal, gold thread and hair, Museum no. M.91-1975. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Slide, unknown maker, ca. 1700, England, enamelled gold with hair under rock crystal, Museum no. M.11-1960. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Slide, unknown maker, ca. 1700, England, enamelled gold with hair under rock crystal, Museum no. M.11-1960. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Slide, unknown maker, ca. 1700, England, enamelled gold with hair under rock crystal, Museum no. M.11-1960. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Slide, unknown maker, ca. 1700, England, enamelled gold with hair under rock crystal, Museum no. M.11-1960. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This typical vanitas motif is often found on jewellery that incorporated hair, as can be seen on this slide.[2] This particular slide, dated to ca. 1700, shows a skeleton holding an arrow in one bony hand, and a winged hourglass in the other. On either side of the skeleton a letter is embroidered onto the hair in gold thread, forming the initials ‘IC’. In this case the hair is used as a background, as well as for the formation of the skeleton. This variety in manipulation of material, from hair in its expected form as a plait to its use in forming completely different designs, is shown united in this pendant from the end of the 18th century.

Pendant, unknown maker, 1796 (dated), England, gold with plaited hair work with a diamond band on blue glass with seed pearls, Museum no. M.7-1958. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pendant, unknown maker, 1796 (dated), England, gold with plaited hair work with a diamond band on blue glass with seed pearls, Museum no. M.7-1958. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pendant, unknown maker, 1796 (dated), England, gold with plaited hair work with a diamond band on blue glass with seed pearls, Museum no. M.7-1958. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pendant, unknown maker, 1796 (dated), England, gold with plaited hair work with a diamond band on blue glass with seed pearls, Museum no. M.7-1958. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These objects all show the extent to which hair was manipulated and incorporated into jewellery. The material in itself is an interesting but at the same time obvious choice for love or remembrance jewellery. The infamous lock of hair has been given by and to lovers for a long time, being a part of oneself that will not cause harm to the giver, is quite durable, and can- like thread- be easily worked into a variety of shapes. One of the most impressive of these forms might be the delicate 17th century examples of bands of needle lace made from hair.

Band of Lace, unknown maker, ca. 1640 - ca. 1680, England, lace worked in human hair, with thicker outlines possibly in horsehair, Museum no.T.150-1963. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Band of Lace, unknown maker, ca. 1640 – ca. 1680, England, lace worked in human hair, with thicker outlines possibly in horsehair, Museum no.T.150-1963. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Band of Lace, unknown maker, 1625 - 1675, England, needle lace worked in human hair, Museum no. T.44-1962. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Band of Lace, unknown maker, 1625 – 1675, England, needle lace worked in human hair, Museum no. T.44-1962. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The different forms, shapes, and materials that were used in conjunction with hair raise interesting questions about their production, and the source of the used hair. While the lace examples were most likely made in the home and the hair came from the living maker, the production of jewellery involved the skilled artisan and the hair from either the living person wanting to gift the item, or the deceased that was to be remembered. These objects therefore show the interaction between maker and patron, and an interesting material supply chain. It indicates that each of these pieces was made for, or because of a specific person, who had to give a part of themselves in order for the object to be complete.

However, it remains unclear who the giver of the hair was, and it can only be assumed that in instances of remembering the dead, it was their hair in the piece. What might make one question this is the piece in memory of Sir William Chambers, simply due to the fact that long, braided hair – then as now – had certain gender implications. Might hair, at this point, have become a material signifying the remains of any deceased beloved, regardless of its origin? Or could one speculate that a female member of the family supplied her braided hair, whereas Sir William’s hair was used to create the wheat sheaf?

There are so many facets to these objects that remain unexplored at this point, or not explored to their full potential, but one thing is certain: Love is in the (h)air!

 


[1] translation: The rose withers, the butterfly flies away

[2] Slides were popular pieces of jewellery that had two loops at the back through which a piece of fabric or a string of plaited hair could be thread. They were worn around the neck or as a bracelet. Source: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O126147/slide-unknown/

[3] see inscription on the back

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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 immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

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© Luisa Coscarelli 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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