Victoria here, having recently toured the exhibit “The Look of Love” at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama (on my way home from a winter in Florida near Kristine and Jo).
This was my first ever visit to Birmingham and thus my first taste of the delicious museum of art, which we began with luncheon at Oscar’s Restaurant (delicious, indeed!) before approaching our target: The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection.
The museum was filled with children. probably school tours, and they seemed particularly attracted to the museum shop, like all kids everywhere, seeking a memento of their visit.
I had read about the exhibition on line in articles published all over (see Jo Manning’s piece here), and in the catalogue, which absorbed my attention cover to cover. Even if you are not fortunate enough to make your way to Birmingham before June 10, this catalogue will give you an excellent view of all the pieces accompanied by several scholarly articles and Jo Manning’s delightful fictional vignettes.
I was fortunate to be introduced on-line (by Jo Manning) to Nan Skier, and we met in person at the exhibition. We had an enlightening chat about the unique collection she and her husband, Dr. David Skier, have amassed. To hear her tell how they got started, listen to this interview via Skype with Polish television.
The very tiny objects, from as small as less than half a square inch to a wallet containing both a lover’s eye and miniature of a hand, and a tea cup decorated with an eye, are exhibited in a darkened room in handsome cases and vitrines under pinpoints of light. Thus my pictures are both dark and a little blurry since they are enlarged quite a bit. The better pictures here are the official pictures by the professional photographer Sean Pathashema.
|gold teardrop-shaped brooch surrounded by split pearls, ca. 1790; Blue right eye.
3/4 x 1 1/4 x 1/4 in.
A guest blog by Jo Manning
The LOOK OF LOVE exhibit has opened in Birmingham, Alabama, at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I was fortunate enough to be there for the opening and the first couple of days of the show, which runs until the end of June. For museum information, click here.
There are special events surrounding the Look of Love which can be found on the museum’s web site here.
Tom Sully paints portrait miniatures, amongst other painting genres and has lately begun to do eye miniatures. I asked him, “How do you do this? Isn’t elephant ivory [which was used for most Georgian eye miniatures] endangered?” He replied that the Russians are selling woolly mammoth – yes! woolly mammoth! – ivory and that is what he is using. Not endangered. Extinct. But not endangered.&
nbsp; I saw some samples of his work and it is very fine, indeed. Check him out here.
Through artist Victoria Carlin, the tradition of painting lover’s eyes survives in the 21st century. Recently, guest blogger Jo Manning did a series of posts on lover’s eyes for us and explained their history and the story behind these cherished keepsakes. Today, the cost of purchasing these antique eyes is astronomical, but through Victoria’s brush, you can now have a portrait done of your own, or your lover’s, eye at an affordable price, thus the tradition endures.
Victoria studied at the School for Visual Arts and the Student’s Art League of New York. Additionally, she studied at Jerusalem’s Betzalel Academy of Art. Victoria eads painting workshops in Italy, England, Canada and the United States. Victoria’s talents and reputation as a serious fine artist has brought her numerous and prestigious commissions for portraits of both private and public figures. Victoria’s work hangs locally as well as internationally in Israel, Ireland and Ecuador.
After much success in the world of fine art, Victoria has now followed her passion – blending her superb talent with a rich heritage of romanticism – making her exquisite pieces available to everyone, as the perfect gift for that special loved one.
As Victoria recently explained –
|Copyright The Art of Mourning
Although the craze for Lover’s Eyes – and it was a craze, thanks to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was said to have exchanged lovers’ eyes with his putative wife, Maria Fitzherbert and perhaps with his lover, Mary Robinson (the actress known as Perdita) – flourished for only a short time, his niece Queen Victoria years later was also said to be fond of them and gave them as gifts. To quote Candice Hern, a fellow writer of historical romance novels, “even though the notion of eye brooches was by that time very old-fashioned.”
Ah, but in their day…! Christopher Stocks, writing in the Patek Philippe Magazine last year, noted:
“The combination of royalty and society was as potent then as it is today, and before long the fashion for eye miniatures spread through European high society and as far as Russia and the U.S.”
I first became aware of eye miniatures when I sat in on a presentation given by Candice Hern, as a matter of fact. This was some years ago at a Romance Writers of America conference. Candice’s very fine website shows the eyes in her collection:
|Copyright Candice Hern
The examples displayed are prime, and are indeed lovely. Hers are all set into brooches; two show blue-eyed women; two are brown-eyed men. Who they are, again, is not known, and neither are the artists who painted them nor for whom they were intended, though we do have clues that several – and maybe a lot more than several – were painted by the prolific and noted miniaturists Richard Cosway and George Engleheart. (Ozias Humphry is said to have painted a few, also.)
Though a number of miniatures bearing the signature of Cosway are suspected not to be his, Engleheart did make a practice in his later years of initialing or signing his name to his work and these are considered genuine, not fakes. (These jottings are not easy to see unless the eye miniature is removed from its setting.)
Speaking of fakes, they are, alas, proliferating in this age of photo-shopping and cropping and Internet image borrowing. They can, however, be distinguished easily from the real thing upon close inspection owing to the presence of pixels rather than brushstrokes. See this very good article by the late Barry Weber, an expert in the field who often appeared on PBS’s Antiques Road Show.
Weber went on to say that “murky colors that use dark sepia tones” should make one wary, as these colors may be “a heavy-handed effort to falsify age.” He also cautioned, “an antique frame doesn’t add authenticity to the painting.” Camilla Lombardi, director of the portrait miniatures department at Bonham’s in London has been seeing an increasing number of fakes as the real thing becomes rarer, particularly noting caution if a nose, or part of a nose, appears in an eye miniature. She says that in genuine eye miniatures there should be “no real sign of the nose where you would expect it, whereas in a cut-down eye miniature you would see the line of the nose and shadow where the corner of the eye meets the bridge of the nose.”
What George Williamson had to say in The Art of the Miniature Painter about the care of miniature portraits would apply as well to the much tinier lover’s eyes:
“Miniatures should not be exposed to a strong light… Violent changes of temperature are to be avoided, and should the ivory become too dry it may crack… Lockets and pendants containing miniatures should not be worn at dances, or on any occasion where the wearer is liable to become overheated, as acid condensation takes place inside the glass which may ruin the painting.”
Ather problem – which perhaps accounts for the rarity of eye miniatures set into rings rather than brooches, pendants, or cases – is that water could get under the glass protecting the miniature and wash away the watercolors. Washing hands was death to a lover’s eye set into a ring.
And what are these eye miniatures, these oh-so-romantic lover’s eyes, worth in today’s antique jewelry market? Barry Weber noted, “Few pieces cost less than $1,000.” He added, “American pieces are spectacularly rare,” mentioning “one jewel-encrusted example worth $20,000.” Christopher Stocks values unattributed pieces at $1,500, whilst attributed pieces could go as high as $7,500 each. In the 1950s, when no one wanted them, they could be gotten for next to nothing, out of favor and even considered “repulsive” – to quote the art critic David Piper in 1957 — as both jewelry and art.
The oft-cited reference – in Charles Dickens’ 1848 novel, Dombey and Son – reinforces Piper’s condemnation, with the dismissive description of the lover’s eye worn by the elderly spinster Miss Tox as “representing a fishy old eye…” How anyone could see these eyes in that way is just another example of how one person’s treasure can be considered another person’s trash, or, de gustibus non disputandum est.
Lover’s eyes are exquisite, in the opinion of many contemporary collectors, connoisseurs, and lovers of beautiful objects, and this exhibition will bring them to the forefront once again. It has only taken some 200 years! And, reader, do go through Great-Grandmother’s box of trinkets in the attic once more, for who knows what precious eyes may be lurking there, desperate for the light.
A 20th-century version of an eye miniature, from a Bronzino portrait; note the differences between this and a classic lover’s eye.