By Laura McAlister
It was more than 20 years ago, but Nan and Dr. David Skier remember when they saw their first lover’s eye.
Dating back to the 18th century, lover’s eyes are typically jewels with a miniature, single eye painted on them.
David and Nan came across their first one at the Cyclorama Antiques Show in Boston, and the Mountain Brook couple was fascinated. The Skiers, who collect antique art from around the world, had never seen anything like this ring. It depicted a single eye painted on ivory, surrounded by jewels.
David, an eye surgeon, was immediately drawn to it. Nan was struck by the beauty of it as well as the love stories behind the miniature works of art.
The purchase of the ring at the Boston show was their first in a collection now believed to be one of the largest of lover’s eyes in the world. They have around 100 pieces, ranging from brooches, rings and pendants to small containers.
Some of the stories behind the pieces are known, but for most part they are a mystery, Nan said.
“They are very mysterious because we don’t know the artists for most, and we don’t know the subject,” Nan said. “We just know that each had someone who cared enough to commission this painting of their eye and set it into jewelry. Each has a story, but most are lost in time.”
The Skiers’ collection, “Look of Love,” is on display for the first time at the Birmingham Museum of Art now through June 10. A book cataloging the collection and the story behind the miniature eyes is also for sale in the Museum Store.
Nan said the exhibit is perfect for Valentine’s Day because each piece represents a love story.
“These tiny pieces of art are fragments of history, and they are beautiful jewels,” she said. “It was proposed (to exhibit the collection) by the curator because he felt they were too beautiful not to be seen, and there has never been a full-scale exhibition of this sort. We were also anxious to publish the catalog, which will be the definitive text on lover’s eyes.”
The curator of the exhibit is Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, the William C. Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The catalog includes essays from Graham, Elle Shushan, the premier expert on miniature paintings, and Jo Manning, a historian and novelist who imagined many of the stories behind the eyes.
The exhibit is dedicated to the late Barry Webber, a lover’s eye connoisseur who assisted Nan and David in building their collection and shared the unique story of how these works of art came to be.
There are estimated to be less than 1,000 lover’s eyes in existence. The first belonged to the Prince of Wales, later crowned King George IV of England.
The prince had fallen in love with a commoner, Maria Fitzherbert, and was forbidden to marry her since she was Catholic. History says the couple did marry in the late 1700s in private. As tokens of their love, they had miniatures of their eyes painted in watercolor on ivory and set into jewels.
“Having miniatures of the face was common those days,” Nan said. “It would be like the wallet-size picture people might carry. This was pre-photography, so the only way to have an image of a person was to have it painted by an artist.”
Since this was a forbidden love, Nan said, the prince had just his eye painted so only his lover Maria would know it was him.
“She would be able to recognize it,” Nan said. “And she did the same for him, so he had a miniature of her eye to wear.”
King George IV would later be forced into marrying another and producing an heir to the throne, but his love affair with Maria would last through the years. He even asked to be buried with the miniature, Nan said.
From about 1790-1820, the practice of having a single eye painted and set into jewels became popular among lovers. It was fashionable for husbands and wives to have lover’s eyes made, and many also used the jewels to memorialize a lost loved one.
While all the pieces have a story – known or unknown – they all also have a warning, said Nan.
“I remember the first one we bought and the warning,” she said of the ring she and David found in Boston. “It said, don’t wash your hands while wearing. It’s watercolor on ivory. If water gets underneath the glass, the image will wash away. It’s really amazing it’s been preserved, because these are very fragile objects.”
The ring has the image of a single eye surrounded by enamel, diamonds and pearls. It remains one of Nan’s favorites, though their collection continues to grow.
The Skiers recently purchased three more, which Nan said is “absolutely amazing,” considering how rare the pieces are. They won’t be included in the exhibit, but Nan said there will still be plenty for people to see and learn about while the collection is on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
Since the objects are small, those visiting the exhibit will be given the use of an iPad 2 that will allow them to find the image they’re viewing and enlarge it and view it from different angles on the iPad, as well as learn about the history of the piece.