Another 'Look of Love"

Victoria here, having recently toured the exhibit "The Look of Love" at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama (on my way home from a winter in Florida near Kristine and Jo).

This was my first ever visit to Birmingham and thus my first taste of the delicious museum of art, which we began with luncheon at Oscar's Restaurant (delicious, indeed!) before approaching our target: The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection.

The museum was filled with children. probably school tours, and they seemed particularly attracted to the museum shop, like all kids everywhere, seeking a memento of their visit.

I had read about the exhibition on line in articles published all over (see Jo Manning's piece here), and in the catalogue, which absorbed my attention cover to cover.  Even if you are not fortunate enough to make your way to Birmingham before June 10, this catalogue will give you an excellent view of all the pieces accompanied by several scholarly articles and Jo Manning's delightful fictional vignettes.

Nan Skier and Victoria at the exhibition

I was fortunate to be introduced on-line (by Jo Manning) to Nan Skier, and we met in person at the exhibition.  We had an enlightening chat about the unique collection she and her husband, Dr. David Skier, have amassed.  To hear her tell how they got started, listen to this interview via Skype with Polish television.

The very tiny objects, from as small as less than half a square inch to a wallet containing  both a lover's eye and miniature of a hand, and a tea cup decorated with an eye, are exhibited in a darkened room in handsome cases and vitrines under pinpoints of light. Thus my pictures are both dark and a little blurry since they are enlarged quite a bit.  The better pictures here are the official pictures by the professional photographer Sean Pathashema.

 Above is one of the cases on which the Lover's Eyes are displayed with descriptions below. Though it might be hard to photograph, the layout is very effective in presenting the delicate objects in the best possible manner.

Gold oval pendant surrounded by seed pearls, ca. 1830. Brown right eye with clouds
1 7/8 (with hanger) x 1 3/8 x 1/4 in.

gold teardrop-shaped brooch surrounded by split pearls, ca. 1790; Blue right eye.
 3/4  x  1 1/4  x  1/4 in.

The Lover's Eyes in the Skier Collection are all similar -- yet no two are alike. Most of them are worn as jewelry -- rings, pendants, bracelets, e.g.

Bracelet surmounted with miniature in gold surround with drop pearl;
Plaited hairwork on reverse;
 Restrung with four strands of cultured pearls; Gray right eye.
 1 5/8 x 2 x 1/4 in. (surround only)

Many are set with precious stones: there are examples of pearls, diamonds, garnets, coral and turquoise, among others. 

Yellow gold brooch with border of thirty-two natural oriental half pearls in a floral motif
with eight small turquoise stones;
oval locket back with woven brown hair under glass, c. 1820
brown right eye; 1 x 1 1/8 x 1/4 in.

Rose gold oval brooch surrounded by double asymmetrical rows of seed pearls;
 suggestion of cloud border; convex backing with Prince of Wales hair plumes;
 brown right eye; 1 x 1 1/4 x 1/4 in.

Heart shaped gold ring with Hessonite garnet surround
crowned with a flower and ribbon motif, c. 1790. Blue right eye.
 on reverse of ivory lozenge is a sepia and embroidered hairwork image depicting interlocking hearts
 in front of an oak.  15/16 x 5/8 x 7/8 in.

Every one of these objects must have a story -- of love or of loss.  But few can be identified by either sitter or artist.  History has made them unknown, and this gives a particularly poignant and mysterious twist to the exhibition. In a brilliant move, however, the catalogue contains several fictional stories -- what MIGHT have been.  Jo Manning is the author and her imagination took wing. Highly recommended.

So-called "Memory Box" made of embossed and painted paper
containing eye miniature, c. 1830. Brown left eye.
1 1/8 x 1 1/4 x 5/8 in.

A patch box, a stick pin, the wallet, and the teacup -- what many uses have been found for the lover's eyes.  Nan and I discussed the fact that many of the eyes portrayed are from the left side, and we speculated on how such a choice could be made -- by the artist, the sitter or the person who made the commission?

Rose gold pendant surrounded by blue enamel with half pearls.
 Brown left eye. 1 x 11/16 x 1.8 in.

Richard Cosway, self-portrait (1742-1821) c. 1790
National Portrait Gallery, London

It amused me to note that one of the few lover's eyes that an be identified by its artist is by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) greatly celebrated in his day as a painter and a close friend of the Prince Regent, later George IV.  And yet, this particular piece is one of very few that is not bejeweled, but instead decorated with paste (fake) red stones. Rather ironic, I thought.

Gold oval brooch surrounded by foil-backed red pastes, c. 1790. Blue left eye surrounded by curls
Attributed to Richard Cosway

Many thanks to Nan Skier for gracious hospitality and fascinating discussion.
The Look of Love is a most interesting and beautiful exhibition.  You have a month, until June 10, 2012, to make it to Birmingham. Hurry!

 I will report on other treasures in the Birmingham Museum of Art shortly.

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