Few things in life are as intimate as eyes, whether we’re talking about symbolic gateways to the soul or the visceral suckerpunch of lingering gazes across a crowded room. That so much emotion can be held in such a small physical space inspired a short-lived jewelry trend we have come to know as Lover’s Eyes. These miniature paintings, popular from 1790 to 1820, have another inspiration, which often comes along as intimacy’s unwanted suitor. What I’m talking about, of course, is forbidden love.
Lover’s Eyes were a variant on the locket, which could hold portraits or hair and be kept close to the body as well as out of sight. In contrast, eye miniatures allowed the wearer a little more freedom — the idea, you see, is that the tiny portrait could be worn in public without disclosing a lover’s identity. A possibly apocryphal origin story is the romance between the Prince of Wales and his mistress, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, who was six years older, twice divorced, and a Catholic. It is difficult to tell which of these three ghastly facts was the most off-putting; in either case, the marriage would have been explicitly forbidden by the King. The Prince of Wales supposedly gave Mrs. Fitzherbert an eye miniature modeled after his own precious peeper, and she responded in kind. They did eventually marry, the prince becoming King George IV. Whether this event is singularly responsible for the rise of Lover’s Eyes as romantic mementos is unclear, but it is definitely the most entertaining theory.
The name “Lover’s Eyes” was actually coined by Edith Weber, an antique collector from New York. During their thirty-year historical reign, these paintings were instead called “eye miniatures.” Painted in watercolor or gouache and then used as box inlays as well as set in brooches, rings, and pendants, they were truly tiny: vintage pieces, of which there were only ever approximately 1000, were two centimeters wide at the most. Queen Victoria, who is responsible for Lover’s Eyes enduring into the early 19th century, had hers commissioned by a man named Sir William Charles Ross, whose title was Royal Miniaturist to the Queen. Yes, the Queen had a Royal Miniaturist. Wouldn’t you?
By that period, however, Lover’s Eyes had merged with the trend of mourning jewelry and were used to remember deceased loved ones rather than to treasure secret affairs. These mourning eyes are identifiable by their usage of pearl frames or woven hair — though gemstones, particularly garnet, had always been a common element of eye miniatures, pearls symbolized tears. One such Lover’s Eye, according to PBS, was a bracelet composed of four eyes, each eye belonging to a member of the family and bearing their initials. Many similar examples belong to the collection of Nan and David Skier, who have been gathering these keepsakes for decades. In 2012, their Lover’s Eyes were displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and many of this article’s accompanying photos are from that exhibit.
Though original Lover’s Eyes are difficult to find, you needn’t despair. After all, wouldn’t it be more enticing to present a lover with a copy of your eye? They have also enjoyed a wonderful resurgence in artwork by the likes of Mab Graves, and gallery Modern Eden is curating a group exhibition from now until February 25th, featuring pieces by Allison Sommers, Megan Buccere, Lana Crooks, and others. This exhibition is viewable online, so we recommend that you pull your lover close and, ahem, take a look. You never know whose gaze you might catch.