Pocket Watch: Georgian ‘Lover’s Eyes’
When it comes to accusations of showing off, the art world is most certainly guilty.
We proudly display our favourite pieces to what we perceive to be their maximum potential; whether this is by putting our favourite ornament in the most visible point of our home or, at the more extreme end, in crafting special rooms in museums and galleries to house a country’s most celebrated paintings.
Even the event celebrating the culmination of an artist’s work, an exhibition, acknowledges the exhibitionist core of visual culture.
And yet, throughout art history, some of the most striking pieces are the most private. This was perhaps never more true than in the Georgian period. Within an era chained to a stifling social code, where could art (catalyst and creator of many emotions) fit in? Such displays required subtlety above all; concealing as much as they revealed. Hence in Jane Austen novels and poems by John Keats, we hear of token love momentos and their immense emotional worth; from lockets housing concealed portraits of lovers to slightly less romantic jewellery disguising locks of hair.
A less known and beautiful form of these little love tokens is the ‘Lover’s Eyes’; miniatures that could fit in the palm of the hand and depicted only a close up of the lover’s eyes. The importance of the image was concealed from all onlookers who could not necessarily identify quite who the eyes belonged to and therefore who the beloved was. However, to the lover himself, his familiarity with the gaze of the object of his affection would have been such that he could tell the eyes apart from any in the world. Thus the miniature eyes when attached to someone’s sleeve or elsewhere on their attire, could be a personal reminder to the wearer whilst also remaining an entirely impersonal and anonymous gaze to everyone else who saw it.
It is estimated that a little less than a thousand of these miniature eyes exist today; scattered throughout the world mainly in England and America.
Popular suddenly in the late 1700s before disappearing in the early 1800s, the ‘Lover’s Eyes’ enjoyed a short fame before losing popularity amongst the bourgeois as they turned their surplus income to other forms of expressing their sentimentality.
Looking at the images of those which survive in collections still, it is evident both how much is revealed and concealed within the eyes. We can tell intense affection and emotions are at the centre of the pieces and yet by necessity of strict social repression, these emotions are all contained in and represented by such apparently impassioned and blank gazes. It is striking with these miniatures just how the Georgians skilfully used this awareness to make a secret language for lovers; codes so individual and revealing as to be something like a romantic pre-cursor to fingerprinting.
In our era which often seems based on sharing as much as one can, it is an idea which we might struggle to wrap our heads around; but with the ‘Lover’s Eyes’ much more is concealed than revealed; and so much intrigue is provoked alongside it.