Salt Life and Death

“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”

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Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.

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This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω

Portrait Brooches: Preserving Appearance in a Time Before Photography

This English Regency-era portrait of a pretty brunette with a ruff-like collar and giraffish neck is an example of the type of image available from a local artist.

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Portrait brooch of an unknown woman. The painting was made during the second decade of the 1800s, but the body of the brooch is from the 1850s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Before the earliest known photograph was taken in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphone Niépce and the first picture of an individual taken in late 1839, miniature painted portraits were treasured by those who could afford them. The first known portrait miniature (and possibly the first self-portrait) was painted in 1450 by the artist Jean Fouquet, and until the late 1500s, portrait miniatures remained the possessions of those at the top of the social pyramid. The kings of both France and England employed court miniaturists whose earliest works are of royal spouses, children, and other close relations. From there, the painting of miniature portraits spread, encompassing the nobility then the gentry, in an expanding ripple. By the 18th Century, every European nation and the North American Colonies boasted both well-established and itinerant artists.

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The first known portrait miniature is a self-portrait by Jean Fouquet, painted in 1450. This monochrome gold picture is now in the Louvre.

The English Regency-era portrait above of a pretty brunette with a ruff-like collar and giraffish neck is an example of the type of image available from a local artist. Painted in about 1818, it would have been taken from life, probably by a painter who journeyed to the home of the subject for the number of sittings required to complete the portrait.

“The miniaturist chose a high work surface or placed his easel—a box with an adjustable, slanted lid—on a table. This was moved nearer the window, and the painter sat down—so as not to cover his work painting with the shadow of his hand—then the light fell onto his work from his left. A room facing north had the advantage that the painter was not disturbed by direct or moving sun rays,” notes Bernd Pappe of the Tansey Collection of miniatures, housed in Bomann Museum in Celle, Germany.

At this date, the artist usually painted on a thin tablet of ivory glued onto a supporting card, using paints that either he or she mixed with binder, or—increasingly after 1700—were sold premade.

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Pinchbeck or low-karat gold and black enamel mourning brooch with an amateur portrait painted on a small ivory tablet, probably from the 1830s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The new availability of premixed paints and ivory sheets turned those who could afford to dabble into portrait artists, too. Well-bred children were expected to have accomplishments, and within the family, portrait sketching was a laudable pastime. It was surely a family member or friend who painted the image beneath the crystal of the mourning brooch above. Of gold and black enamel, it dates to about 1820. The brooch is one of several that I own showing the deceased as portrayed by an amateur—clearly not by someone who made their living as a miniaturist. Because it dates from before the availability of a photographic portrait, one is left to wonder whether the portrait was painted before the brooch and was later repurposed after the sitter’s death, or if it was painted from memory later. In either case, the possibility of this being the only likeness of the subject is considerable. Ω