Victorian Mother and Daughter 50 Years Apart and Did the Portrait Painter Cheat?

Since my last post about Eliza’s underwear, I have spent some time looking at the photograph of her and this portrait of her mother, from 1840. I am fascinated by family likenesses as a result of having grown up with a dead mother with a face just like mine. You wouldn’t need great powers of deduction to work out that Eliza took after her father, although maybe there’s a resemblance about the eyes. Maybe.

What also interested me was the brooch on Eliza’s neck and the one on Sarah’s chest (her name is rightly Eliza Benton. The caption is wrong). Could it possibly be the same brooch? I wonder if the portrait painter exaggerated the size of the brooch to cast Mrs Johnson in the best possible light. What do you think?

I think I’m probably reaching; trying to find the threads that connect us to each other in a neat and tidy narrative.

Speaking of strands that connect though, I did find a picture of this lovely Victorian hair brooch. Hair from deceased loved ones was routinely used to create beautiful, if slightly macabre, mementoes. The seed pearls in this brooch represent tears. Long hair was used to make bracelets and rings or lockets containing the hair of deceased loved ones were often given to friends and family.

Godey’s Lady’s Book advertised hair jewellery and had the following to say,

“Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.”

Now, while I appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of the keepsakes, I must say that I find it all too grim for speech. But perhaps it’s another reminder quite how removed from us and sanitized death has become. We don’t connect the meat we eat to animals anymore (Barb Drummond has grappled with this idea in her amazing blog Text History . Visit it if you haven’t and read the article about British kids who think that eggs come from wheat, butter from chickens and milk from pigs!) and a good number of us will spend our whole lives never seeing a dead human body. Death does not sit in our living rooms with us and I find descriptions or photographs of dead children almost impossible to look at. When our hamster died, I was sorely tempted to quickly buy a replacement and not tell the kids that Ben was dead. Eliza and Sarah (also Eliza, really) were from a different time, when you wore your grief on your left-breast pocket.

p.s. I did tell the kids that Ben had died. We had a very moving funeral at which Yoda and Sai Baba officiated. He rests in peace.

7 thoughts on “Victorian Mother and Daughter 50 Years Apart and Did the Portrait Painter Cheat?

  1. There was an amazing exhibition at the Holbourne Museum, Bath a few years ago which showed children in art, and there were very few before the 18th century, due to the high mortality rate. Even then, some of the children were already dead when the paintings were finished. I can see how hair from the dead can be creepy, but it is also a physical link with the dead. there was also the tradition of giving mourning rings to friends and relatives as part of the funeral. Death was a way of giving charity in return for the poor praying for your soul, hence the mourning bell – this is creepy, as it would toll the age, sex of a person dying, so while you are breathing your last, everyone would know about it, and would be praying for you to be on your way without suffering.

  2. I find this very touching – that quote is beautiful and speaks of tenderness, so much tenderness, a recognition of love as an on-going state after death. I don’t find the hair creepy… but you’re right about how sanitized death has become. Why must we hide away from the absolute reality, the certainty of death? Why must it frighten us so. Me, I know what it’s like to feel bereft, but also I know the feeling of someone, in some way remaining. (Don’t get me wrong, I am still afraid.) Your fascinations are very interesting to me…

    • Wow! Thank you for such a beautiful comment.

      Death and Memory is the big theme for me 🙂 When I was 5, I had more ghosts than family and I don’t think I knew what they left behind other than a huge shadow. When I was 13, I thought they were dead so that I could believe in angels. The shadow was very big indeed, and I needed those angels. When I was 20, I stopped believing in angels and thought that eternal life rested in memories. I treasured these and I lived in the sun. Now, bearing down on 40, I think that memories are just stories we tell ourselves. They can shift; the past can change. I can put all of the pieces together in a hundred different ways. Now I laugh a lot. I play make-believe and dress-up. I have my dad’s hands (they live), my mother’s eyes (they live), my son has my mole…but I’m going on and these days I’m not adept at thoughtful.

      Love your gussets!

  3. Those hair brooches etc do see quite macabre to us, and I admit that although I love historical artifacts they are just a bit too freaky for me! 🙂

    We are lucky though, and have photographic evidence of those we love who are no longer with us. When I am missing someone I can pull out a photo and do a bit of sad reminiscing. When that kind of jewellery was popular it would have been the only way of ‘seeing’ that person again. If you had no photos of your parent or child I think you would really treasure that tiny part of them you still had left.

      • We’re just lucky that hair was the thing they kept as memories. “Here is Granny’s toenail clipping” just doesn’t have the same romance as slightly weird hair, does it! 😉

        You have reminded me that I need to do some photo printing too. Having them in the flesh(paper!) is much nicer than looking at a screen.

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