I’m sure you’ve seen the tiny trinkets (like lockets) of yesteryear with tiny little hand-painted portraits of a loved one tucked lovingly inside (sometimes they were painted with ground up hair, or perhaps included a lock of it – the very practice that inspires jewelry designer Melanie Bilenker‘s gorgeous portraits). It was the best that could be done in a time before photography. But perhaps you didn’t know (because I sure didn’t) that between 1780-1830, a unique form of this practice arose: sending a loved one a teeny tiny portrait of your eye.
Sometimes this loved one could be representative of a relative or lover who had passed away; but, more often, these trinkets were exchanged between living lovers. Sometimes secret lovers.
As it happens, in 1784 Maria Fitzherbert met the young Prince of Wales at the London Opera. He was immediately smitten and proposed to her tout de suite. She accepted, reluctantly, and then left the continent hoping that he’d forget the whole ordeal. He did not, however, and when sent her a letter proposing marriage once more he included not an engagement ring but a portrait of his eye, saying:
“I send you a Parcel…and I send you at the same time an Eye, if you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance. I think the likeness will strike you.”
She accepted, went back to England to marry the Prince, and had a portrait of her own eye made as a gift for him.
It’s a quite charming gesture isn’t it, the gifting of ( a portrait of ) one’s eye? As windows to the soul, as they say, they’re also sort of a peak into the heart. There’s just something so lovely and intimate about looking into the eyes of someone you care about, and sometimes it’s hard if you’re feeling shy. So much can be revealed. And so, it’s oh so sweet to send a portrait of your eyes; it’s kind of like saying “Hey, it’s okay. I don’t mind if you see me, in fact, I want you to.” And it’s like a piece of their heart right there.