Thursday 13 November 2014

LOVERS' EYES – by Elizabeth Fremantle

What could be more beguiling than secret love and what more tantalising than such a love advertised in a way that was indecipherable to all but the lovers themselves. By the middle of the eighteenth century the miniature portrait was the requisite token exchanged between lovers, to be held in a pocket or slipped beneath a pillow, or carefully nested in a box of treasures. The Elizabethan miniature had performed many functions, one being a sign of political affiliation but it was not long before the art was entirely hijacked by love. Miniatures had become the selfies of their day, reflecting a life less public than the one we live now, when such portraits were destined for only a few eyes. But for some the miniature lacked sufficient mystery and secrecy to convey their feelings, and so was born the lovers eye.

Worn as pendants or brooches and often intricately jewelled, the lovers' eye could be worn publicly, as a badge of unavailability, without revealing the identity of the beloved. Who other than a lover can easily identify a disembodied eye?  It is easy to picture the characters in a Jane Austen novel exchanging such tokens of clandestine affection, with perhaps even a mistaken identity causing an amorous plot to twist and turn. The symbolism is evident, with the eye being the window to the soul and the lover's gaze being so redolent of erotic desire. It was not considered demure or proper for a woman to look directly at a man, but rather allow the gaze to flicker furtively in his direction, so imagine the erotic charge of a female eye looking unstintingly out at the absent lover, a reminder of what they are missing but also a reminder to the wearer that they are watched.

But lovers' eyes were not always displayed; some can be found cached away in their own miniature boxes, so not the public signifier of love at all but perhaps a symbol of the kind of love that can only exist in absolute secrecy. It sets the imagination on fire to think of who such objects might have belonged to and the stories behind them – people whose lives and loves are forgotten in time, yet still exist in some small way in these bewitching eyes gazing out from the past.

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Clare Mulley said...

How lovely, both seeing and unseen. Note to self *commission lover's eye asap. I hope that one of these will feature in a forthcoming book Elizabeth?

Joan Lennon said...

I had no idea! If I'm honest, they creep me out a bit, but I'm excited to learn they exist - thank you!

Susan Price said...

Nor me, Joan! - Never heard of these. Thanks for teaching me something new.