Eye miniatures became a popular item to exchange among lovers and although the fashion began in the late 1700s it reached its zenith around 1803 or 1804. Among some of the earliest pieces produced was one given by the Prince Regent (the future George IV) to his lover and mistress Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. The gift of the prince’s right eye was created in 1786 by miniaturist Richard Cosway, husband to the Italian-English artist and educationalist Maria Hadfield who enchanted Thomas Jefferson.
“Cosway charged the prince five guineas for painting tiny eye miniatures of the prince and of Mrs. Fitzherbert, which … were encased in gold lockets. These precious works were exchanged as gifts, presumably to be worn by the lovers. Nine years later, Cosway painted another eye miniature of the prince and also one of his mouth … both undoubtedly intended for presentation to Mrs. Fitzherbert.”
When the prince sent his first eye miniature created by Cosway to Fitzherbert, he also included a note that stated:
“I send you … an Eye … If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance. I think the likeness will strike you.”
Cosway created eye miniatures for other people that supposedly include Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. She was an English actress who married William Hamilton, a British diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and volcanologist, in 1791. She had Cosway create an eye miniature for her husband, who was about thirty-five years older than her.
Around this same time, when someone died, people gave the deceased person’s eye miniatures, hair jewelry, or mourning jewelry to surviving loved ones. Lady Hamilton had begun an affair in 1798 with the famous naval hero Horatio Nelson, and, so, when her husband died in April 1803, she gave the eye miniature made for him to Nelson. At some point Nelson supposedly gave his eye miniature created by Cosway to her.*
Cosway wasn’t the only artist to produce soulful eye miniatures. George Engleheart one of the greatest English painters of portrait miniatures and a contemporary of Cosway’s not only carefully reproduced in miniature form some of the famous paintings executed by his mentor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but also produced eye miniatures. In fact, Engleheart’s eye miniatures were said to be “exquisite.”
“The eyes painted by Engleheart are of singular beauty, and must have entailed a considerable amount of skill and attention. They are clear and liquid, and the colours are beautiful modulated.”
Anthony Stewart is also known to have produced several eye miniatures. One of them was the eye of Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington. Her eye portrait was said to have been created while she was living at Gore House in Kensington. Of this miniature it was reported in 1904:
“The eye of Lady Blessington is set in a chased gold locked, and it remained in the possession of Stewart’s descendants till it was sold at Christies, and found a home in the fine collection of Mr. Michael Tomkins. … It is a fine piece of dainty work, possessing considerable charm, but is hardly equal in liquid effect to the earlier work of Engleheart.”
Another painter of eye miniatures was William Pether. He was a cousin to Abraham Pether, a landscape artist recognized for his skillful representations of moonlight scenes. William is credited with having produced several eye miniatures and, furthermore, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he “is known to have made some signed eye miniatures,” something that many artists did not do.
Because Cosway was among the first to have created miniature eye portraits some people have speculated that he started the fashion. Nonetheless, exactly how eye miniatures originated remained unclear in 1906. That is when Pearson’s Magazine pondered how it all began in an article titled “Eye Miniatures” written by Doctor G.C. Williamson, an expert on the subject.
“It is possible that the extreme care with which some miniature painter copied the eye in a portrait, upon which he was at work, may have given the suggestion that the eye alone was sufficiently beautiful to be the subject of a painting. It may, perhaps, have been that a beloved son was leaving for foreign parts, and there was not time to paint his whole portrait, and the mother had to content herself with a representation of his eye. The origin of the fashion might have arisen in the wish expressed by some lover that the eye of the fair maiden whom he worshipped should be always with him; or she, on her part, may have presented him with her eye ere he wandered on the Grand Tour, that he might feel it was ever before him, watching over him in all his travels.”
Another opinion on how the eye miniature came into existence comes from a twenty-first century Professor of Art History Hanneke Grootenboer of the University of Rochester. She has perhaps the most convincing argument as to the fad’s origins. She maintains that “eyes as a decorative object might have begun as fancy tailcoat buttons which already often had whole miniature landscapes on them.”
Grootenboer also reports that these eighteenth-century eye miniatures appeared long before photography and that the giving of them essentially allowed lovers to not only offer their beloved a portrait but also allowed lovers to gift a part of themselves. Long known as the window to the soul, the eye may have thus seemed to be the ideal present and the reason why eye miniatures were often viewed as exceedingly sentimental and romantically valuable: Ann eye could gaze at its lover. It may also be why lovers everywhere wanted to embrace this fashion that today we view as unusual.
The eye miniatures also seem to have been a French import into England around the 1780s. Indicative of this is that people were aware that the eye miniature fad had originated in France and this knowledge was apparently common enough that various people mentioned it. One person who did was Horace Walpole, an English writer, art historian, man of letters, antiquarian, and Whig politician. He wrote a letter on 27 October 1785 to the Countess of Ossory stating:
“When human folly, or rather French folly, can go so far, it would be trifling to instance a much fainter silliness; but you know Madam, that 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.”
One eye miniatures became known it did not take long for everyone to embrace the fashion and for lovers everywhere to be sending one another an eye miniature as a token of their heartfelt affection. Eye miniatures were also useful tools for those lovers who wanted to remain secretive as an eye would only be recognized by its recipient and therefore even if the lover wore it in public, identities could remain private.
Although lovers everywhere might be exchanging eye miniatures with each other, Williamson reported that although “some of the miniatures reproduced are pleasing, … the effect is not always agreeable.” In addition, eye miniatures usually included the eyebrow and were produced of a varying quality:
“The prettiness of workmanship that has come to be considered as essential to the miniature necessarily involves a certain amount of conventionalising, which means that the character-record suffers more or less. Such a result is almost inevitable, for artists are constrained as a rule to satisfy the inclinations of their sitters, who are much more likely to desire the reduction of any facial peculiarity than to see it emphasised or even registered faithfully.”
It was not just lovers who exchanged eye miniatures. Sometimes whole families had eye miniatures created for one another. That was the case with the John Lumsden of Cushnie, Aberdeenshire, who supposedly had the eyes of his seven children completed by Cosway. Another family who embraced the eye miniature craze was the Beauchamp family. However, they also had it “carried out to its logical conclusion, as all the members of the family seem to have had miniature portraits done of their right eyes, and one of them of the left eye also.”
Despite the varying quality of eye miniatures and the special requirements sometimes requested by sitters, these portraits could be found on a diversity of trinkets. They appeared on rings, snuffboxes, lockets, watch fobs, brooches, pendants, and toothpick containers. In addition, often on the backside of these trinkets was a compartment to hold a piece of the lover’s hair. These miniatures were also framed in a variety of styles with some of the more expensive of these dainty treasures being surrounded by precious stones or costly pearls.
After the eye miniature fad lessened, Sir William Ross supposedly revived the fashion for a brief time. He did so after he painted the eye of Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, known better as the Baroness Burdett-Coutts. She was considered the richest heiress in England in 1837 after she inherited her grandfather’s fortune of around £1.8 million and was known to have donated large sums of money to the Ragged School Union.
Queen Victoria also revived eye miniatures temporarily in 1840 and 1850 when she began using them as presentation pieces. Most of these eye miniatures were commissioned through Sir William Charles Ross, who was the Royal Miniaturist to the Queen. The Queen ordered eye portraits of her children, friends, and relatives, with one relative specifically mentioned. It was Victorie, one of Queen Victoria’s cousins who died in childbirth. She was the wife of the Duke of Nemours and the Queen presented Victorie’s eye miniature to him shortly after her death. Queen Victoria also wrote:
“[I gave him] a copy of the miniature of her [Victoire’s] dear eye (the original is mine), he having lost his, also a photography of a profile I did of dear Victoire in 39, which he thought (as I really think it is) very like.”
Once the fashion for eye miniatures had ceased, people in the late 1800s began to collect these treasures. Among those who had a great collection of these gems was J. Pierpont Morgan, an American financier and banker who dominated corporate finance on Wall Street throughout the Gilded Age. Supposedly one of the “most interesting” of the miniatures he owned was the eye of Fitzherbert executed by Cosway and worn by the prince on his wrist as a bracelet. The miniature was described in the following manner:
“It is most beautifully painted, and shows the eye as if rising from bluish-grey clouds. There is a slight suggestion of cheek and forehead, the latter half covered by light flaxen hair.”
The eye miniature had faded when it was supposedly revived again for a short period in the early 1900s. It happened after England’s Queen Mary had an eye miniature produced of her eye. The idea then sprouted up in New York. From there it spread across America to California where in the early 1910s a San Francisco artist named Miss Minnie Taylor embraced the fashion.
She decided to copy the eyes of Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine and did so by duplicating in miniature “the eyes of the great conqueror and his wife from the originals in the famous Wallace collection in London.” Supposedly, it happened because she was “always … seeking to find the soul of those with whom she comes into contact; hence this painting of the eyes … had a special appeal for her.”
Eye miniatures were also popular enough during the early 1900s that thefts from collections sometimes happened, but perhaps not for the reason you think. One reported theft occurred at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in London in 1905. There four eye miniatures created by English artist Lesa Hallam, born in 1879, were stolen. The Ross Gazette noted:
“[I]t is strange that these should have attracted the cupidity of the thieves. They cannot be sold. The painting of eye miniatures is such an absolute novelty that the attempt to sell them would bring immediate detection. They were no doubt, stolen merely for their frames [as one] of them was set in a gold pin.”
*Williamson held an exhibition in 1905 that “included the two eye miniatures attributed to Richard Cosway that were believed to be those of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. [Grootenboer maintains that] the attributions as well as the identifications are doubtful.”
-  J. Aronson, S. Lloyd and M. E. Wieseman, Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum (Cincinnati: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 24–25.
-  S. Schama, The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 170.
-  The Connoisseur: An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1904), p. 149.
-  Ibid.
-  Metropolitan Museum of Art, European Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), p. 201.
-  Pearson’s Magazine (London: C. Arthur Pearson Limited, 1906), p. 189.
-  S. Schama. 2016, p. 170.
-  H. Walpole and P. Cunningham, The Letters of Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, Letters (London: R. Bentley and Sons, 1891), p. 26.
-  The Queen, “Notes on the Magazines,” February 10, 1906, p. 240.
-  Morning Post, “Art Exhibitions,” March 2, 1905, p. 9.
-  G. C. Williamson and H.L.D. Engleheart, George Engleheart, 1750-1829, Miniature Painter to George III (London: G. Bell & sons, 1902), p. 33.
-  H. Grootenboer, Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 56.
-  Northern Daily Telegraph, “Eye Miniatures,” January 26, 1909, p. 7.
-  California’s Magazine (San Francisco: California’s Magazine Company, 1916), p. 184.
-  Ibid.
-  Ross Gazette, “Notes From the Metropolis,” May 18, 1905, p. 3.
-  H. Grootenboer. 2013, p. 189.