Powdered wigs. Hoop skirts. Pet rocks. Selfies. Fads have been with us since antiquity, and discovering the foibles of previous generations can be an amusing break from more serious historical research. But when I first sat down to write my newest historical mystery, The Moon Taker, I had no idea that a Regency-era fad was going to provide an important clue for the book’s detectives. Yet it is a snuff box decorated with an Eye Miniature that aides General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane, two young Jewish pickpockets turned sleuths, in their quest to discover who has murdered one of their business associates.
Eye miniatures are what their name suggests: very small portraits of just one eye. They first came into fashion in the late 1700s and the fad continued until the 1820s. Painted in watercolor on ivory, or sometimes gouache on vellum, an eye miniature could also adorn a piece of jewelry, such as brooch, a ring, or a pendant. But why would anyone want a portrait of just one eye? Wouldn’t it make more sense to paint the entire face?
Although no one knows for sure how the fad started, the favorite theory involves the flamboyant George, Prince of Wales, who later became Prince Regent and then King George IV. In the 1790s, the young Prince became infatuated with Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, who was not only a widow but also a Catholic—and therefore totally unsuitable to become the Prince’s wife and future queen of England. As the story goes, since the Prince couldn’t send his beloved an overt token of his affection, he had the artist Richard Cosway paint just one of his eyes. Maria sent back an eye miniature of her own, which the Prince wore hidden under his lapel. Apparently, the secret wasn’t well kept, because soon afterward eye miniatures became all the rage in England, as well as in France and Russia.
Another theory says that the art form began in France, perhaps as early as the 1770s, and caught on in England when a French artist set up shop in London. But here, too, the Prince is given credit for turning a novelty item into a craze. Although there were attempts to popularize eye miniatures in the United States, this was one fad that never caught on “across the pond.”
Despite the story involving the Prince of Wales, eye miniatures weren’t only exchanged between clandestine lovers. Husbands and wives exchanged them, and a sentimental mother might have eye miniatures of her children attached to a bracelet, much like a later-day charm bracelet. It was also popular to wear an eye miniature of a loved one who had passed away. When painted as a symbol of mourning, a tear was often added to the departed person’s eye. The portrait might also be set in a frame of pearls, which symbolized tears.
Because it’s thought that only about one thousand eye miniatures are still in existence—and many are already in private or museum collections—authentic portraits, which are also known as Lovers’ Eyes, can be quite valuable. And because so little of the face is revealed—often just a few curls to frame the eye and brow—today it’s almost impossible to discover the identity of the person who was painted, making the miniatures a tantalizing mystery for collectors.
However, not everyone is enamored of the art form. My fictional sleuths, for example, think they are creepy. The portrait on the snuff box that has fallen into their hands reminds them more of the Evil Eye than a sentimental memento.
Their reaction is not entirely off base, according to Hanneke Grootenboer, author of Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures. She argues that eye miniatures were less about capturing an exact likeness of the eye and more about preserving the bond that is created when two people gaze into each other’s eyes. When the bond is one of love, the recipient of the portrait would enjoy the feeling of being perpetually watched by the beloved. When we have no connection with the person, the ever-watchful eye can indeed feel creepy.
In The Moon Taker, my detectives have good reason to fear the snuff box and its eye miniature. That eye has a secret, and someone is ready to kill rather than have that secret discovered.
Libi Astaire, March 9, 2015