High-Victorian Sentimentality, Liszt's Cigar, and Indomitable Mothers

One dreary and rather hopeless Christmas several years ago, as my mother was in the last weeks of chemotherapy for stage 4 ovarian cancer, I gave her a pair of gold earrings designed with the monogram of her initials. I figured that even though it looked like she wouldn’t be around to wear them for very long, it was somehow essential to defy the odds and connect her to herself, and to life, and to beauty. She’s a little wobbly today, but I’m happy to say that she’s still here, cancer free, and indomitable.

But it really has nothing to do with jewelry, of course, and I know that full well. My mother is not the sentimental creature: that’s all me. For even though she has managed to weather a few storms, most of my family passed away when I was a very young adult, with the effect of magnifying my already sentimental nature into something of almost high-Victorian proportions. My most cherished possessions are a little dog my father carved as a child, a trophy his father won as an Olympic swimmer, and a gold pendant melted together from the family wedding rings.

The Victorians themselves were positively feverish in their attachment to items as extensions of people: one admirer of the pianist Liszt was so enamored of him that she asked to be buried with a cigar butt she had retrieved from the gutter as he passed by.

And of course George IV, Victoria’s great-uncle, was asked to be buried with a miniature portrait of the love of his life, his morganic wife Maria Fitzherbert.

George and Maria, you may know, were chiefly responsible for bringing the curiosity of Lover’s Eyes from France to England and turning them into a fad that would last for a handful of decades. Although some of the miniaturists are known, such as George Engleheart (who painted theirs), Richard Cosway, William Wood, and Charles Hayter, most were anonymous. Indeed, the more renowned miniaturists were hesitant to be associated with the eyes, as they considered them to be novelty items incapable of exhibiting the full extent of their ability to capture a likeness.

Today, we largely disagree: the Lover’s Eyes which have come down to us through history are both romantic and mysterious, and they seem to capture the twinkle or longing in an expression in a condensed fashion, without the support of the other features of the face. I have an antique Lover’s Eye in my collection, and how often I’ve wondered to whom it belonged! Most of my paintings are of subjects unknown to us, but with whom it’s possible to feel a connection – I like to think of them as imaginary heroines and sometimes heroes.

At the same time, though, I’ve often thought: if only I could walk to that exclusive jeweler’s shop in London where the ton bought keepsakes for their loved ones, and put in an order for a Lover’s Eye for someone I love! Oh, for a reliable time machine!

And then I thought: what if I could paint them, not just for myself, but for others, so that everyone could have access to a time machine! I’ve long been wanting to be able to cater to those of you out there who are as sentimental as I am, and I’ve done some custom work in the past, but just enough to know that it’s very hard to manage with the rest of, well, everything. They’re much more difficult, and I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to get them precisely right in order to be worthy to be family heirlooms.

But I’ve decided to offer a stunner of an antique black jet Maltese cross brooch with repoussé pinchbeck (an allow of copper and zinc intended to look like gold). And in the future I’m going to attempt to do one, possibly two, at a time, as long as I can keep the time machine running smoothly….