Observers from the past: eye miniatures

This eye miniature features a brownish-yellow iris, probably belonging to a man, surrounded by an oblong frame shaped as a snake swallowing its tail. From the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

This eye miniature features a brownish-yellow iris, probably belonging to a man, surrounded by an oblong frame shaped as a snake swallowing its tail. From the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Fascinating.  Touching.  Intimate. Disconcerting.  Downright creepy.  All these adjectives and more can be used to describe eye miniatures.  As the Victoria and Albert Museum in London phrases their description, eye miniatures could be...a compelling piece of jewellery. Sometimes, however, the result was merely unpleasantly anatomical or disturbingly uncanny.

These tiny, discreet portraits were popular at the turn of the 18th century and often set in rings, pendants, brooches, and lockets as well as toothpick cases and snuff boxes. The miniatures were almost always surrounded with a frame of gold or semi-precious gems.  Frequently the gold was burnished or engraved and some of the most common gems used were pearls and garnets. The paintings themselves could be done in watercolor on ivory or gouache on card. To increase the sentimentality sometimes the portrait even included a tromp-l'oeil tear or diamond teardrop.

Eye miniatures were also called "lover's eyes." A tender person (a lover!) would hire a miniaturist to paint a picture of his or her eye -- the painting would range in size from a few millimeters to a couple of centimeters. Then it was set in a piece of jewelry or other small trinket and given as a gift to a loved one as a symbol of their relationship... a rather secretive symbol since it was supposedly thought that the eye would not be recognizable to anyone but the recipient.

Slideshow images from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The origin of eye miniatures is shrouded in legend and varying opinions.  The most romantic theory is that the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was desperately in love with a woman who was a commoner, a widow, and a Catholic.  Because his father King George III could not possibly condone his desire to marry Maria Fitzherbert, the prince conceived the idea of an eye miniature as a secret token of his love. Supposedly the future king wore Maria's eye hidden under his lapel and this gave rise to a short-lived craze for lover's eye jewelry.

Sources

Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The Antique Jewelry University, Lang Antiques.