Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Tag: eye miniatures

Victorian Mourning Etiquette

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert's death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert’s death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Upon the death of a loved one, both men and women during the Victorian era were expected to follow stringent rules on how society expected them to act, dress and conduct themselves during a rather extensive period of mourning. From lavish funerals and horse-drawn carriages to elaborate graveside monuments, it seems the Victorians were obsessed with mourning.

So what precipitated this culture of mourning?

Quite simply, the death of Prince Albert. Widowed at age forty-two, Queen Victoria fell deep into the throws of grief and mourning and proceeded to wear mourning garb for the next forty years of her life. She required that her court do the same. The aristocracy followed suit and new mourning rituals filtered down through all classes of British society.

Adherence to these new mores was seen as essential for showcasing the wealth and class of  Victorian families. Ladies’ magazines such as Cassell’s contained articles with tips for proper mourning including stopping clocks at the moment of death, drawing curtains, and covering mirrors to prevent the spirit of the deceased becoming trapped in its reflective glass. It was not uncommon for the lady of the house to dress her servants in black as a demonstration of an entire household in mourning.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

According to the Victorian etiquette manual Polite Society at Home and Abroad, upon the death of a husband, a widow was expected to go into a period of Full Mourning, also called First Mourning, for one year. During this time she was only allowed to wear black, symbolizing spiritual darkness, and could not appear in public without it. Neither was she allowed out in public without a black mourning veil, commonly known as a weeping veil, covering  her face. Considered callous and even immoral, luxurious fabrics like furs, satin or velvet were strictly forbidden. Mourning dresses were usually trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk fabric with a distinctively crisp, crimped appearance.

If the woman did not have black attire nor the means to acquire any, she would die a lighter dress. Women from the lower classes or with children to support, were allowed to look for a new husband after this period of Full Mourning. If, however, she had no dependents or serious need for money, she would then enter a period of Second Mourning, which lasted for nine more months. Second Mourning meant a relaxation of the rules, or “slighting the mourning.” The veil, while still worn, could now at least  be raised when out in public, but mourning etiquette dictated that black was still the only color that was permissible for clothing. She could also exchange the uncomfortable crape from her gown for a few subtle lacy embellishments.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

The final stage of traditional Victorian mourning was Third Mourning, or Half-mourning, and lasted anywhere from three to six months.  The color of cloth lightened now to grey tones of blue, green and purple. If she was a woman of means, now was the time that society considered it acceptable for her to start looking for a new husband.

Mourning traditions for men were similar to women in that they were expected to wear dark suits with black hat and or arm bands. A widower who had lost his wife was expected to mourn for two years, however as with women with dependents, if a man had children to care for, society did allow for him to end mourning sooner and go back to conducting business or work. An unmarried man who had lost a close relation such as a mother, sister or cousin, might carry out the full three stages of mourning, same as widows did, lasting the full two to two-and-a-half years. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes.

 Although jewelry was prohibited during deep mourning, Second Mourning allowed for commemorative jewelry or mourning jewelry to be worn. Victorians revived the art of eye miniatures, tiny portraits of an eye of departed loved one painted on brooches, bracelets, lockets and rings. Another popular form of mourning jewelry popularized by Queen Victoria combined jet, a hard, black coal-like material with woven hair of the deceased.  It was already common practice for people to keep a lock of a loved one’s hair after their death and preserve it as a memento of their deceased relatives. Depending on the amount of hair taken from the corpse, the memento might be sent to hair weavers who would design intricate braided ropes used to make watch-chains or necklaces. Mourning lockets and rings had tiny compartments where a lock of hair or even a tooth could be stored as a remembrance.

mourningring jethairmourningjewelry mourninglocket mourningbrooch_photo hairrope

jaysmourningad

The strict compliance to the rules of bereavement meant appropriate clothing needed to be readily available to mourners. Many shops catered to the trade. The largest and best known of them in London was Jay’s of Regent Street. Known as a kind of warehouse for mourners, Jay’s provided every conceivable item of clothing a proper Victorian family could need. Considering Victorians found it bad luck to keep mourning clothes, especially crape, in the house after mourning ended, businesses like Jay’s were a lucrative business.

With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901, much of the world left deep mourning behind but for the Victorians, strict adherence to the rituals of mourning brought constant awareness of the fragility of life. A reminder that death was an ever-present possibility and that he or she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning.

Clandestine Eye Jewelry

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Not too long ago, a friend shared a post about Victorian Lover’s Eye jewelry on her Facebook page. I clicked on the link and quickly became fascinated by what I learned.

Eye miniatures, as they were originally known, were small portraits of the human eye painted on brooches, rings, lockets and bracelets. But not just anyone’s eye, these clandestine gifts were exchanged in secret between paramours and effectively concealed the giver’s identity. Only someone with intimate acquaintance — a lover, a spouse, a close family member — would recognize an individual’s eye, thus allowing the gift to be worn in public.

But how did this odd custom become a fad?

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George !V of Wales

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George IV of Wales

According to legend, the origin of eye miniatures can be traced to the prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. Young George became smitten with the beautiful, twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert, who was six years his senior. But according to British law, the prince could not marry Maria, a Catholic. Fearing scandal, she fled to the continent. George, however, was not to be deterred and secretly pursued Maria. On Nov. 3, 1785, the prince sent Maria a written declaration of his love, including a proposal of marriage. To demonstrate his undying affection, he sent a miniature portrait of his own eye, set in a locket, painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway, one of the celebrated artists of the day. Shortly after, Maria returned to England and married the prince in a secret ceremony on Dec. 15, 1785. The bride, not to be outdone by her prince, commissioned Cosway to paint her own eye in order that she might secretly give a token of her affection. Soon, other British nobility followed the couple’s lead and the fad spread throughout Europe, taking the contintent by storm until about 1820.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817. .© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817.
.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

lovers-eye-ring

Eye Ring, circa1816

Queen Victoria revived the eye miniature fad when she commissioned Sir William Charles Ross to paint portraits of her children and many of her friends and other relatives. A modest resurgence of the art form existed through the the early part of the twentieth century by a few devoted followers of the style, mostly members of the royal family or the aristocracy. Attempts were made by artists at the time to bring the fashion to America with little success.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the early nineteenth century eye miniatures were adapted as a form of mourning jewelry sometimes referred to as ‘tear jewelry.’ The purpose of the eye portrait was refocused from romance to remembrance. Portrayed with a tear or depicted as gazing through clouds, these miniatures were seen as tributes to loved ones and friends and often evoked powerful emotions. Mourning eye miniatures included symbolism of the gemstones used to surround the painting. Pearls often represented tears when they surrounded an eye portrait. Diamonds portrayed strength and longevity. Garnets indicated true friendship and turquoise was believed to bring good fortune for the deceased in the after life.

Without an inscription, the identity of those painted eyes on these much sought after heirlooms remains a mystery to this day.

What do you think of the lover’s eye jewelry? Creepy, romantic, or just plain weird?

 

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