Historical Portraits Picture Archive

An eye miniature, with brown iris c.1800

 English School 

An eye miniature, with brown iris,  English School
18th Century
Oval, 20mm (3/4 in) wide
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Set into a gold brooch frame, the obverse with pearl surround, beveled glass.

Eye miniatures were popular for a short period from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. They were usually exchanged between lovers as a secretive, romantic token or worn as mourning jewellery. As there is insufficient evidence of the artist’s ‘handwriting’ in such a small space it is not usually possible to distinguish the hand, but we know from the fee books of George Engleheart (1750-1829) and Ozias Humphry R.A. (1742-1810) that eye miniatures were being painted by some of the most fashionable miniaturists in the country. The Prince of Wales, later George IV and Maria Fitzherbert, his morganatic wife, exchanged eye miniatures during their relationship, no doubt painted by his favoured miniaturist, Richard Cosway, R.A. (1742-1821).

The pearl surround of the present miniature may indicate that this is a mourning piece. As Graham Boettcher notes, “In several eyes, tears are suggested not only by the pearl surrounds, but also by the drop-like shape of their settings.” Pearls were, however, also used in such jewellery to symbolize love itself, the very nature of a pearl signifying natural perfection and purity.
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