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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Art of Victorian HairWork

Repost from an earlier blog roll:

Recently my good friend/name twin/and modern day pen pal: The Antiques Diva™ left a comment on a previous blog and emailed me that I "sooooo needed to write a blog on the Art of Victorian Hairwork Jewelry!"

I gladly agree that it would make a fascinating article as I have been collecting Mourning Jewelry for some nearly 20 years. My husband was the one who introduced me to antiques early in our newly wedded bliss and bought me one of my first pieces of Mourning Jewelry. That first piece sparked an interest that has continued to this day.

So, off I went to write the blog, and as I was doing a little more research on the internet to back up some of my hardbound references in the stacks in my "office" low and behold I found the perfect article in fellow blogger/journaler Dynasty of Lao and one of their favorite sites Curious Expeditions , which they have kindly gave me permission to reprint here:

The Art of Mourning
July 24th, 2008
taxidermy-chapter.jpgA yellowed and well-loved copy of Art Recreations sits tucked in the bookshelf. A modest brown leather book, the unsuspecting passerby would never know they were walking past a goldmine. Published in 1860, Art Recreations is a thorough guide to artistic pastimes for Victorian women. It offers detailed lessons in many standard art forms, like pencil drawing, grecian painting, and watercolor, but somewhere towards the last third of the book, the mediums veer into bizarre and thoroughly antiquated crafts. This back section begins with a deceptively simple guide to taxidermy. It opens graphically with,
“Take out the entrails; remove the skin with the greatest possible care; rub the whole interior with arsenic…after taking out the entrails, open a passage to the brain, which must be scooped out through the mouth…”
From there the book proceeds into the subtle art of aquarium preparation, wax work, “cone work” (the regrettably obsolete medium of pine cone), and the rather specific art of “Wild Tamarind Seed Work” (brought to England from the West Indies). All of it goes to show just how much time the unemployed VIctorian woman had on her hands. However, the most exciting lesson for these industrious Victorian woman with ample free time is the wonderful lesson in hair art.. as in human hair.
Necklaces for Locks of Hair, detailCurious Expeditions has long been interested in hair art. Spanning from a sweet memento between lovers to a macabre relic of the deceased, D and I had seen a few touching examples of this mourning keepsake at the Volkskundemuseum (Museum of of Folk Life and Art) in Salzburg, Austria. Unlike the complicated hair formations often seen in hair art, these were small, simple locks pressed between two rounds of glass. There was something mesmerizing and eerie about these two artifacts, physical pieces left from long forgotten people.
hair-brooch.JPGEven before the intricate hair art became popular in the 1800s, hair of the living was frequently gifted and worn. Hair bracelets and locks of hair pressed in glass were popular love tokens in the 1600s. Valentines and postcards with hair pasted on them were often sent as keepsakes to far away loves. Napoleon wore his watch on a chain made of his wife’s hair, and Queen Victoria was known to give locks of her hair away as gifts to her children and grandchildren. And at the Paris Exposition in 1855, fair-goers were delighted by a full-length, life-sized portrait of Queen Victoria, made entirely of human hair.
It is a strangely romantic gesture to give a bit of oneself away (in modern days a more extreme version is the bone ring, grown from bone samples of your loved one). But it is the darker side, the desire to keep a bit of the departed alive and with you, that so fascinates us here at Curious Expeditions.
queenvictoria1897.jpgIt was thanks to Queen Victoria that mourning jewelry came into vogue in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861, and Queen Victoria remained in mourning for him for the rest of her life, a full 40 years of black. As with many aspects of their strained moral earnestness, Victorians reflected Queen Victoria in her habits and ethics. Thus, strict mourning customs came into fashion. Mourning widows were not allowed to leave their homes without full black attire and a weeping veil for one year and a day (called “full mourning) after her husband’s death. During “second mourning,” the next nine months, the widow was allowed some small ornamentation, like mourning jewelry and lacy embellishments to her black attire. The art of proper mourning was vital in demonstrating the wealth and class of a family. It was of the utmost importance to appear fashionable in these times of grief, and many wealthy woman dressed their servants in black as a grand show of a household in mourning.
catalogdesignsartistichair18.jpgBesides fashionable dress, mourning jewelry was a further symbol of dignity and social status. Much of mourning jewelry was made of jet, or “black amber,” a solemn fossilized coal. Hair jewelry also became common, with locks of the deceased’s hair set into bracelets, brooches, rings, watch fobs, earrings and necklaces, often clipped off right at the funeral parlor. Soon jewelry makers found themselves immersed in a new industry of professional hair art. Great distrust encircled these professionals as rumors flew that bulk hair was used in place of the actual hair of the deceased. Many suspected that their “custom pieces” were in fact mass produced. Thus, the diligent Victorian lady took it upon herself to learn the fine art so she could know for certain that it was in fact the deceased’s hair she wore around her neck, and not wisps from a stranger.
stone.jpgEventually, this art broadened back out from objects of memento mori to keepsakes and elaborate pictures of flowers, wreathes, weeping willows, and landscapes made of hair. And of course, in a repressed society such as the Victorians found themselves, everything was fraught with symbolism in hair art. A willow meant forsaken love, lavender meant distrust, a conch shell meant reincarnation, and a zinnia meant thoughts of absent friends. The technique is a painstaking assemblage of bunching, twisting, knitting, weaving, brushing, and braiding. Though some of these complex pictorials were made from the hair of the deceased as memorials, they just as often used hair from the living, incorporating hair clipped from members of an entire church, school, or family.
34hairwreath.jpgToday, the practice is all but dead. The Victorian Hairwork Society, however, is a collective of artists keeping the tradition alive with their skilled hands for any nostalgics who may be interested in commissioning pieces. Of course there’s always Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, which proudly exhibits hundreds of Victorian hairworks. Rooms filled, floor to ceiling, with the hairy remnants of Victoriana past. Photographs may capture a moment in time, a mere instant in a person’s life, but their hair…it was a part of them. Perhaps Leila says it best, “When I look at hair, I see more than hair. My museum is filled with other people’s families. It tells a story, but there’s a lot more story that I won’t be able to know ’till I get to the other side and meet them.”
For more on Victorian Mourning Customs, we recommend Morbid Outlook.

Thanks to Curious Expedition for the wonderful article on a subject that is close to my heart, and many thanks to Dynasty of Lao for their kind words of encouragement.

Some interesting books you may want to check out:"
Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry by C. Jeanenne Bell, G.G.
On Women & Friendship A Collection of Victorian Keepsakes and Traditions by Starr Ockenga
The Art of Hair Work by Mark Campbell (reprint)
Victorian Americana by Evelyn Swenson

Hope you enjoy,
Happy Treasureing,
VictorianCobweb

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