LONDON – What could be more romantic than to receive a jewel with a miniature of a loved one’s eye? Symbolic windows into the soul, the trend for lovers to exchange miniatures of each other’s eyes became popular in the 18th century. Set within jewel-encrusted frames, these intimate jewels were painted by some of the leading miniaturists of the day, including Richard Cosway and George Engleheart. The most famous and infamous occurrence is when the Prince of Wales, later George IV sent Mrs Fitzherbert—twice-widowed and six years his elder—an eye miniature along with a scandalous proposal of marriage. Although their subsequent marriage was invalid, the Prince always kept Mrs Fitzherbert close to his heart—it is said he wore a miniature of her eye concealed beneath his lapel as a token of their lasting affection.
A SELECTION OF ENGLISH SCHOOL PORTRAITS OF EYES, EARLY 19TH CENTURY. CONSISTING OF LOTS 203, 204, 205 AND 206. ESTIMATE FOR EACH LOT: £3,000–4,000 ($4,300–5,700).
The trend was so widespread that in 1785, the great antiquarian Horace Walpole wrote to his friend Lady Ossory, “The fashion now, is it not, to have portraits but of an eye? They say 'Lord don't you know it?' A Frenchman is come over to paint eyes here!” Sometimes embellished with tears and encircled by clouds, this charming fashion lasted until the 1820s.
For the modern-day romantic, a selection of early 19th-century eye miniatures will appear in the Fine Jewels auction in London on 15 March.