by Annabel Jackson
In 1784 George, Prince of Wales, provoked a public scandal – all for the age-old cause of love. Thirty-six years before becoming king, he fell in love with a Catholic widower, Maria Fitzherbert, when his regal status demanded he find a Protestant wife. He lapsed, pleasurably, from all decorum. But the court had eyes everywhere. How fervid transgressive love must have felt back then, blooming as it did right under the nose of salacious courtiers. But for all that it may have felt feverish, reckless and beyond the reach of the cool hands of doctrine, illicit love has always been, and always will be, an unquenchable source of hot gossip. George needed a mode of expression that burrowed beneath the pressures of pageantry, that evaded court tattle-tales. It was from this necessity – and perhaps fetishisation – of secrecy, that the artistic curiosity of the eye miniature was born.
Eye miniatures were self-explanatory objects: miniature paintings of a single eye that were attached to brooches, wallets, bracelets or rings. George wore one under his lapel. People like to rip off the royals; soon, it became fashionable to wear eyes all over your body, and to pretend that it was normal to carry around a toothpick-case that stares back at you. But to the contemporary eye, they’re disconcerting. I first stumbled across them at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where I viewed them through a magnifying glass that blew them up to life- size. I was drawn into a gaze that felt like an exchange, but was, of course, only a one-sided act of viewership. The first one I stared into had a pearly-white sclera that seemed to glisten by the iris; suspended drops of light hung by the tear duct. It was unnerving; I felt it was a perverse thing to be magnetised by. It seemed to gesture towards real communication, all the while remaining firmly, mockingly, life-like.
But there have been weirder, and more fruitless fads. At least eye miniatures are trying to achieve something more than mere whimsy. It is the task of the eye miniaturist to capture the ‘essence’ of a person. They have the same function as lockets: to keep part of a lover close to you, male or female, in almost talismanic form. They operate on the premise, that though your parents might have banned your good-for-nothing boyfriend from the house, at least you can still feel him against your chest. Eye miniatures take the emotional sense of ‘feeling’ and return it to its physical sense. They become a metonym of your admired object, or disapproved-of sweetheart, and offer a way of dealing with the pangs of their absence. They elevate your lover, too – one eye miniature I saw lets the flesh under the eye dissolve into a white and blue wash, both colours too bright to suggest any real-world substance. The skin is literally gleaming; it’s as if the eye is suspended in a heavenly glow. You’re left with a sense of perfection that I think can only be perceived through the unsettling lens of infatuation, the visual equivalent of an adolescent diary-writer raving about their newfound crush.
Miniaturists leave no room for signatures, so both painter and sitter are left anonymous. On the one hand, it was disquieting to view them in the museum, detached from their wearers, dislocated from a pin-pointed, lapel-pinned historical moment. It was like viewing a disused instrument, only comprehensible when played, but there’s also fun in making up narratives about these miniatures. A watercolour one from around 1840 shows two eyes from a slight side angle, and part of a nose that cuts off just before the nostrils. The lids are large to the point of looking swollen. The creases in the lids are almost tinged orange. It’s not entirely flattering, which is surprising given the context of all- consuming desire. The lack of context means you can overlay whatever narrative you like – is that suspicion in her eyes? Or ambivalence? Why do some eyes look upwards – is it from spiritual reverie, or sexual gratification?
For me, I can overlay these interpretations, because I feel so used to reading into eyes. It’s a habit I’ve grown into since childhood. In primary school, we would pick apart each other’s eye colours, sifting hazel flecks from brown streaks. A whole lesson was dedicated to calculating if the Mona Lisa was ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ by gazing into her eyes, with the rest of her face covered up. What I find so charming about eye miniaturists is that they were preserving that inquisitiveness – the possibility that eyes may indeed be the windows to the soul. But eye miniatures end up failing. The ‘soul windows’ formulation is rooted in the idea that eyes are a way in. But the effect of seeing an eye miniature is the feeling of being looked out at. George had the right idea in blinding it with his lapel; many others just let these eerie watchers hang loose. But perhaps a deeper reason I’ve become so attached to this eye/soul platitude is because eyes offer a form of communication that sits beyond our control. Our nerves dictate blinking, dilation, twitches. While words can be fabricated, eyes reveal the self within – a self that’s unmediated, driven by impulse. But no matter how finely the crow’s feet by the corner of the eye are finessed, or how deep the shadows within the lids are drawn, eye miniatures fail. They are static, when they’re trying to capture an essence that depends upon the communicative potential inscribed in movement.
The Georgian aristocracy held these miniatures close to their bodies as extensions of their emotional selves. An essence – even a failed attempt to capture one – was put into a physical appendage. In my childhood, I was taught to preserve sentiment through a code of compartmentalisation. Boxes and boxes of stuff mounted higher in our garage, for months at a time untouched and unchanged: towers of past feeling. Photographs with clammy, creased corners, and redundant family heirlooms, were stored; there was no sense of things needing to be worn. My parents still held to the concept of putting feeling into objects – how else
would they be able to keep hold of unreliable, ephemeral sentiment – but felt little need to lug them around, or put them on tantalising half- display. If George were growing up in the 2000s, he would have had a cardboard box in the garage with Maria’s t-shirt, a Polaroid photograph of her and probably a mixtape thrown in for good measure. When George and Maria broke up, this box would have become the monument of their relationship, full of relics. He’d seek out whiffs of perfume from her shirt, stare into the Polaroid from each angle to see how it changed as the light hit it. Memory comes alive again when it’s locked in material. Mere ‘things’ become a reserve of feeling, waiting to be untapped.
Now, the way I embalm feeling has less to do with stuff, and more to do with memory sticks and Photo Streams. We are becoming more cut off from material in our understanding of feeling and memory. I rely much more on phone homescreen images and the impalpable Cloud to remind me of halcyon days, and ensure they don’t get lost forever. Objects evoke – they trigger sensory returns to smell and touch and taste. Digitisation flattens. There are hundreds and hundreds of eyes stored in my camera roll. iPhone photography is too easy, too two- dimensional, to make each pair feel individually so well-loved. It is also too easy to resist (it’s been a good decade since my parents panicked at the last minute about forgetting the camera on family holidays). It lacks the soul of the keepsake. If essence is only visible through movement, both eye miniatures and modern photography disappoint. We can redefine essence not only as subconscious communication, but as the feeling that lies beneath our understanding of another person. Not a person’s empirical self – not their objective personality, or their ‘soul’ – but a personal, subjective interpretation of them, which is then reinterpreted in our minds as their true self. By this definition, we should all be cracking open our watercolours and painting eye miniatures. They are all about feeling and subjectivity. By contrast, the eyes in our camera rolls are offset by the blank spark of a flash that inevitably reflects. They are flattened into dispassion by pixels. The feeling loses all potency.
Most eye miniatures aren’t exact. There is one of a woman’s eye that is painted onto ivory and surrounded by a ring of pearls. It is dated 1845, towards the end of the whole fad. It is, like all the miniatures, a little blurred. It doesn’t have the feel of a sketch or of a watercolour, but almost of a blurred photograph – as if the camera had been dropped just at the instant that the shutter blinked. It seems to shudder. It has verisimilitude, as well as that feeling only the material can arouse. In this gesturing towards life, not life- likeness, it comes ever so close to the essence.
ANNABEL JACKSON reads English at Lady Margaret Hall. She was often mocked at school for incorrectly pronouncing the names of French authors, most notably the ‘t’ at the end of Albert and the ‘s’ at the end of Camus.
Art by George Wilson