Memorial Jewellery

Close up of a portrait of Elizabeth Basset wearing a hair earring

Watch an online talk with the artist and collector Jane Wildgoose, speaking about the memorial jewellery in The Portland Collection.

Pieces include the pearl earring worn by Charles I at his execution, and the heart-shaped earring with a hair tassel worn by Elizabeth Basset in her portrait by Daniel Mytens.

For a lot of people when thinking of mourning and memorial jewellery we think of Queen Victoria.

The fashion for wearing portrait miniatures goes right back to the 16th century, the loop on the top of them allowed to wear them suspended from a ribbon around the neck, and very often they included hair in them.

There was a Christian doctrine of relics, there were primary relics and secondary relics. Primary relics are hair, teeth and bones by Christian martyr who’ve been sanctified. Secondary relics were pieces of cloth or other items worn close to the body, like the earring in The Portland Collection. There is a handwritten prominence that goes with this earring, and it says that it was taken from the King, my grandfather, Charles I’s, a year after he was beheaded. It was given to Charles I’s daughter Mary, and it was after given by her to her son, William, who gave it to the first Earl of Portland. Things kept of Charles I after his execution were considered to be relics of the martyr.

[these earrings] relate to Elizabeth Basset, they belong to her and the red one has been identified in this portrait of her by Daniel Mytens. Like a lot of jewellery with hair in it, it wasn’t all made for mourning, some was made as a love token or a symbol of marriage. That is how this one functions, it contains the hair of William Cavendish, her husband. It’s interesting that in the painting we actually see a much longer lock than survived. But the second commemorative jewel is really interesting, it’s a black heart shape again, it’s got a diamond in the centre, and an eye painted around the diamond with very stylized teardrops falling from it, possibly like a pearl. Once again it has the prominence and it tells us that it is the hair of her mother-in-law, William’s mother, cut off a couple of years before she died. In her painting it shows where we really know that these are singular earring not pairs or one lost; she is wearing a single drop pearl earring in the other ear.

Does our earring [Charles I’s] signify tears? It certainly appears in almost every portrait of Charles I, and if we stop and think about it, it is extraordinary that he was wearing it when he went to be beheaded. It’s shown in a very early portrait of him aged 15, and lets think of the Latin inscription on the page, and it says sometimes tears are the power of speech. He went on wearing that pearl throughout his life and he took it to his death.

Now we move to the 18th century ring this extraordinary sapphire ring, very rare, very valuable. Massive stone, which is very rare and valuable too because the very very deep blue colour mounted in gold and white enamel. White enamel was associated with mourning for children, babies, and women who are unmarried. It has a coat of arms on the back so very clearly related to someone and that someone, their name is written around the outside. Once again, it’s like a record of life, writing, “here is the Henry Cavendish Lord Harley born on the 18th of October 1725, who tragically died four days later on the 22nd of October 1725.” And there is an inscription in the inside of the ring in French, “a life so short so much sorrow”. This was the son of Henrietta Cavendish, who received the bracelet of hair from her friend Barbara Chiffinch. She was married to Edward, second Earl of Oxford and they had a daughter Margaret, who was 10 years old when Henry was born and died.

Jane Wildgoose

Jane Wildgoose is an artist and collector. She has developed a private collection dedicated to memory, mourning and remembrance, and works with historic collections to tell the stories of remains of many kinds.

Her clients have included Yale University, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Waddesdon Manor and Kensington Palace. She is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Life-Writing Research at Kings College London, is a NESTA Fellow, and was co-presenter of On One Lost Hair: a programme for BBC Radio 4 investigating a wisp of hair from the head of Lord Nelson purchased on eBay.

Her exhibition ‘Life is Very Sweet’ showed at The Harley Gallery in 2010.

Find out more

Plan your visit to the Museum to see Charles I’s pearl earring.