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The Eyes Have It

February 14, 2014

Love Tokens in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of us eagerly anticipate tokens of affection from our loved ones. These may take the form of a simple Valentine card, flowers or perhaps, chocolates. The luckier among us may receive something more expensive and lasting, such as a piece of jewelry. Jewelry presented as an expression of love has a long historical precedent and is well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.

The most fascinating form of jewelry created as a love token started as what we would describe as a “fad” in the late 18th century. Today we might consider these disembodied eye portraits as bizarre or jarring. But they get at the heart of the very private nature of the intensity of feelings between two people, by means of an individualized portrait of a beloved’s eye. The idea was that a sweetheart would be reminded of their lover’s watchfulness. Throughout human history eyes have always symbolized mirrors to the soul. They are as intimate a token as two people could find.

The story begins with British royalty. In 1784, George, the Prince of Wales, son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, eventually George IV, became enamored of a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father. Against her wishes, he pursued her. Recognizing the impossibility of the match, she fled to France for a year, believing that her absence would lessen the Prince’s amorous feelings. To the contrary, the Prince became more infatuated and more determined to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. At the end of the year he sent her a marriage proposal. Instead of including a ring, he sent a miniature portrait of his eye. Apparently, she was so taken with his gift that she immediately returned and married the Prince in a secret ceremony, late in 1785. Shortly after the marriage, Maria commissioned the same miniature artist to paint a portrait of her eye for her new husband. This created a fashion among British aristocrats for eye portraiture. Of course, when King George III discovered the illegal marriage, he immediately annulled it. Thus, the eye portraits became even more important as symbols of intimacy and perhaps, forbidden love. As a coda to the story, although forced to marry another, George remained in contact with Maria for the rest of his life. It is said that George is buried with Maria’s eye portrait.

The popularity of eye portraits extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. In France, they took on political connotations and were said to function as discreet symbols for meetings of revolutionaries. Few eye portraits were made for Americans – they were associated with the hated British monarchy in the decades following the Revolution. Today, scholars estimate that there are no more than 1,000 of these tiny pins extant.

This eye portrait, when magnified, appears to be a male. The carelessly drooping hair of the eyebrow appears to be a characteristic associated with a man. A lady would have presented herself in a much more genteel manner. We will never know the identity of this person. That is the essential enigma of the piece – and of eye portraits in general.

This love token was intended to immortalize a relationship (THF154756 and THF154757).

The Henry Ford jewelry collection holds a number of other, less obvious love tokens. Roughly contemporaneous with the eye portrait, these tokens were likely shared between lovers while alive, and after the death of one likely served as a memorial pin. This oval pin portrays a young lady carrying a wreath, a symbol of eternity, to an altar with the inscription “To Love.” On the altar are two cups, perhaps loving cups. Above, two birds hold a loosely knotted ribbon or string binding them together. Perhaps the most telling element of the piece is the inscription on the back reading “My love is true to none but you.”

Similar images of burning hearts and altars unite these seemingly disparate pins (THF154701 and THF154699).

The imagery on these pins also seems to relate to love tokens, visually suggesting that “my heart burns for you.” They are painted in different styles; the image at the left is much more finished. The image at the right has the inscription “Sincerity” on the altar.

In the centuries before the development of modern medicine, death came quickly and often. Because of this fact, the line between tokens of affection and mourning pieces became blurred. In most cases, love tokens hold signs and symbols legible only to the couple. We will never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. Unlike mourning jewelry, they do not give us names, initials or dates of the deceased.

This early 19th-century Victorian bracelet likely served as a token for the eternity of a couple’s love (Object ID: 2002.0.18.565).

Moving somewhat forward in time, snake motifs were popular with Victorians and are often seen on bracelets. Like wreaths, the snake was a symbol for eternity. The fact that this piece holds a plaited snippet of human hair indicates that it may have served as a memorial. The red cut stone, perhaps a garnet, was a favorite of the Victorians in both mourning and non-mourning jewelry. Consequently, it is likely that the piece was produced as gift and continued as a memorial piece.

In all, The Henry Ford’s jewelry collection holds some remarkable tokens of affection, most notably the eye portrait, but also several enigmatic pieces of the early 19th century.

You can learn more about eye portraits in sources such as the recently published book, The Look of Love: Eye Portraits from the Skier Collection.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

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