Monday, September 23, 2013

The look of clandestine love - Georgian eye portrait jewelry

One of the most tortured love stories in this history of the English throne involved George, The Prince of Wales (eventually George IV) and Maria Fitzherbert (a twice widowed Catholic). 

Enchanted by Maria, The Prince of Wales was determined to marry her. Sadly her Catholic faith proved a severe impediment to the star-crossed lovers as neither the king (Mad) George III or the Privy Council would ever consent to such a union. At first Maria spurned his overtures of affection, but following his suicide attempt (he could not live without her!!!) she accepted his doomed marriage proposal. The very next day Maria fled to Europe where she remained for a year in an attempt to distance herself from the smitten Prince and perhaps cool his adoration. However this separation had the opposite effect on the distraught Prince. He wrote to her, begging for her to reconsider - and along with his love letter, he included a token of his amour - a portrait of his eye painted by Richard Cosway. Maria relented and returned to England to marry the Prince in a clandestine ceremony on December 15, 1787.  She later commissioned Mr. Cosway to paint a portrait of her eye that she in turn gifted to her husband. As with all star-crossed love stories, theirs was not destined for a happy ending. Maria was informed by letter in 1794 that her relationship with the Prince was over. The Prince was married shortly thereafter to his first cousin, Duchess of Caroline of Brunswick, and upon their union, his 600,000 pounds worth of debts were paid off. Yet shortly after the Prince and Duchess's baby was born, the Prince drew up a will bequeathing all his "worldly property . . . to my Maria Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart and soul." Upon his ascension to the throne, George IV turned (at least publicly) against Maria, yet when he was ill he slept with her "Get Well" letter under his pillow. Before his death, he requested that he be buried with Maria's eye portrait around his neck. His wishes were followed and he now sleeps for eternity with Maria's eye gazing upon him... The gifting of eye portraits became common practice amongst the members of the Aristocracy in the decades that followed...

The glorious Wintherthur Museum in Delaware is currently exhibiting "The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection" (thru January 5th). 

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