Regency,  Research

The Look Of Love

I have a new “guilty pleasure” book for you. The Look Of Love: Eye Miniatures From The Skier Collection, the catalogue of the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art’s exhibit of eye miniatures dating from the 1780s to the 1820s.

Jo Manning, author of My Lady Scandalous, the biography of famous courtesan Grace Elliot, and of many fine Regency romances, contributed fictional vignettes about certain eye miniatures, imagining the circumstances of the creations of the jeweled pieces of art. The addition of these vignettes to the catalogue seemed an inspired idea, because the identities of most of the subjects in the collection are unknown.

Apparently it was George IV, then Prince of Wales, who commissioned the first eye miniatures. When the Prince secretly married the Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, they exchanged miniatures of their eyes, painted on ivory and set in jewels, as tokens of their love. Soon it became the fashion for lovers and loved ones to bestow these tiny portraits of a single eye, made into brooches, pendants, even rings, on their favored ones. It was the perfect love token for clandestine lovers–one eye was enough to spark the memory of the person, but not enough for another person to identify whose eye it was.

Some eye miniatures were not secrets. They might be gifts between husbands and wives, mothers and sons, betrothed couples. Some were sad mementos of a loved one who died. But the identities of so many miniatures that were gifts from secret lovers are lost to us.

What remains are beautiful, sometimes spooky, images set in gold, surrounded by gems, or decorating tortoiseshell boxes. Some of the jewelry include woven locks of hair on the underside of the miniature. One includes the miniature of a hand; others, inscriptions such as “Esteem the giver.” One of the most unusual settings is a tiny image of an eye on a toothpick box. Another, in the book but not in the exhibit, is an eye painted onto a porcelain teacup.

These were gifts whose only purpose was to convey love. What an inspiration for romance writers and readers!

Read Jo Manning’s guest blog on the exhibition at Number One London.
Here’s an article on the exhibition from Vanity Fair.
More information on eye miniatures from Antiques Roadshow.
Preview of a scholarly article from Jstor.

I found an artist who will paint an eye portrait, but I think one of us (Amanda???) once found someone else who accepted commissions for eye miniatures.

Have you read (or written) about eye miniatures in any Regency Historicals?


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10 years ago

No, I’ve never heard of it before. I’m only familiar with the “All seeing Eye.” Interesting, and a little creepy somehow.

Keira Soleore
10 years ago

Diane, Jo’s words, in general, are accurate and incisive. I’m glad the exhibit invited her to write the blurbs.

Candice Hern has a collection of the some of the miniatures. Here’s the link to her article.

Keely Thrall
10 years ago

How fantastic! And pre-Victoria… somehow that seems strange. I can’t wait to run across this item in a romance!! (hint, hint)

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

Hi, Keira!!!! So good to see you here. And thanks for reminding us of Candice’s wonderful collection. She has some great examples.

Keely!! Now I’ll have to include an eye miniature in a romance. By Victoria’s time it wasn’t fashionable to flaunt one’s paramours. I think that’s why the fad faded away.

Judy, it is eerie to just see the eyes staring back at you.

Amy Kathryn
Amy Kathryn
10 years ago

The museum has made available a really nice “eye”pad app you can download from i tunes if you are not going to be able to make it to the exhibit or buy the catalog.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

Amy, thanks for sharing that information. I’ll have to get my husband to load it on his iPad (he got one of the new ones and gave his old one to his mother)

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

I think these are so fascinating! I know Stephanie Barron featured an eye portrait in one of her Jane Austen mysteries (can’t remember which one), but I can’t think of any in romances…

10 years ago

This is the first I have heard of them. I watch Antiques Roadshow, but must have missed that episode. It is an interesting “fad” of the art world. I can’t imagine having a collection of them framed and mounted. They would all be staring at you from the wall. It is a bit creepy.

Thanks for letting us know about this curious art form.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

They are too small for hanging, Librarypat. They are pieces of jewelry mostly and are tiny. I could see a collection in a display case, though.

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