Books United Kingdom

The pins and chains of Victorian social history

A first-rate, scholarly account of the period told through an in-depth study of its jewellery

From left: Queen Victoria in mourning, about 1862, English jet parure in its original display case, about 1870, "Not for Joseph" song-sheet cover, 1867, depicting Arthur Lloyd, the music-hall performer who popularised the song

Anyone concerned about the current state of museum scholarship should be reassured by this extraordinary publication. The fruit of many years of research, it derives ultimately from the pioneering Hull Grundy Collection of 19th-century jewellery which was donated to various museums, but primarily to the British Museum, by Anne Hull Grundy, in the 1970s. Charlotte Gere, leading scholar of 19th-century visual culture, collaborated in 1984 with Judy Rudoe, curator at the British Museum, on the two-volume catalogue of that collection.

Twenty-five years later their continuing research has produced this sumptuous (though affordable) book, sumptuous not only in its excellent colour plates and its elegant layout, but in the rich layers of social history, literature and taste which complement the authors’ understanding of and delight in the jewellery. While the Hull Grundy Collection still plays a central role in the narrative, examples are drawn from numerous sources.

Only writers intimately familiar with the contexts within which this jewellery was created, and able to consider the subject over an extended period, could have discussed these jewels so illuminatingly. The length of gestation has had an additional advantage: the book’s completion in the age of the internet has allowed the authors to have access to The Times and The New York Times online, finding in their news pages and society columns a mass of new information about jewellery fashions in high society—so much material that they made the decision to confine themselves to those papers.

The authors state their intention to study “the way in which [Victorian] jewellery… reflected the preoccupations and aspirations of its owners”. They have concentrated less on individual jewellers and stylistic developments—though these play a crucial part in the narrative—than on trying “to understand how the Victorians used jewellery and what it meant to them, both literally and metaphorically”.

They apply to the study of jewellery an approach that has been gaining strength in the most recent generation of scholarship and is reflected in current displays at the Victoria and Albert Museum: instead of classifying and analysing the objects by medium and maker, the authors interpret the jewellery within the social culture that engendered it, with an emphasis on its use, practical or performative.

Gere and Rudoe interpret “Victorian” broadly, to include all western cultures, and address a stimulating range of themes: the varying roles of jewellery, the symbolic meanings (such as the language of jewels and of flowers) that would have been widely understood at the time (although they are largely forgotten today), the role of international exhibitions in promoting this material and the use of jewels as souvenirs of travel.

International scope

Although the emphasis is on Britain, its jewellery is placed in a much broader international framework. France plays a leading part both as competitor in matters of taste and as a powerful influence: the costume and jewellery wars between Victoria and the Empress Eugénie during state visits entertainingly epitomise the competitive friendship between their two nations. The development and use of jewellery in Italy, the US, Germany and further afield is studied by writers immersed not only in these artefacts but in the societies that produced them. They generally avoid making aesthetic judgements: this is perhaps a wise decision when faced with adornments made of human hair or babies’ or deers’ teeth, and a number of other visually disturbing objects, though many of the jewels are shown in richly inventive and visually exciting settings. The authors’ passion for their subject is evident throughout.

The debate over the status of jewellery as craft or as art is a recurring theme. For the famous Castellani family in Rome, whose gallery-studio-shop offered a history of civilisation through jewellery, and was regarded as essential viewing for cultivated visitors to the city, divisions between the commercial and the didactic were ingeniously blurred. For the family, their versions of ancient jewels were indisputably works of art.

The authors investigate the rising interest during the 19th century in antique jewellery, as well as of nationally-based and historicist adornments: whether Gothic or “ Holbeinesque” in England, the style romantique (broadly speaking, reflecting the early 16th century) in France, the Alt-Deutsch (Northern Renaissance) in Germany. The narrative is extended into an absorbing account of the cult of historicist jewellery in countries re-asserting their cultural, and by implication their political, identity in the late 19th century, notably the Celtic Revival in Ireland, and the re-emergence of ancient design styles in Scandinavian countries. The intimate relationships revealed between the jewellery and the society from which it emerged, as well as the links between jewels and other decorative arts, place what might be seen as an alluring but peripheral mode of creativity, at the centre of 19th-century culture.

Social contexts

Much attention is given to jewellery at court, both its use by Victoria and her close family as a public as well as private symbol, and the vicissitudes of the French crown jewels, sold in large part by the French state in the late 19th century. But the social range is very extended. Although stage jewellery is excluded, the writers portray the vigour and inventiveness of jewellery provided for members of high society, for the middle classes, for the fashionably artistic and the new woman who sought to escape from the tyranny of what she considered aesthetically unpleasing conventions in gems as much as in dress, for courtesans, for mourners (mourning jewellery is a repeated, and strange, refrain throughout the book).

The researches include objects that have often been regarded as ephemera, unworthy of attention. Thus, the authors discuss not only the significance of the diamond (associated with duchesses but also a “colourless” jewel, suitable for mourning) but, at the other end of the spectrum, “novelty jewellery”—amusing trifles that could be offered as casual gifts, such as “spider and fly brooches” or battery-powered electric jewels that could be switched on and off. They include a discussion of so-called “peasant jewellery” made by rural communities, which was popular in fashion­able circles throughout Europe later in the period, and was (erroneously) thought to reflect primitive approaches to the medium.

Nothing is too curious, nothing too frivolous, to escape the attentions of these hawk-eyed historians: Queen Victoria’s decision to wear her second-best bonnet for her Golden Jubilee, albeit adorned with lace and diamonds; the mayoral chain at Flint in north Wales, based on the chain designed by Castellani for the last Senator of Rome; the cult for ancient Danish jewellery styles stimulated by sympathy for Denmark’s spoliation by Prussia; the changing sounds of women’s clothing in the 19th century. Structurally the book achieves an ingenious compromise between the over-arching narrative and detailed description of individual objects with pithy picture captions.

Contemporary views

While aware of current critical analyses of the rise of consumerist culture in the 19th century, Gere and Rudoe interpret and discuss jewellery as far as possible through the eyes of contemporaries. Descriptions offered by designers and manufacturers in the developing field of mass marketing, exhibition catalogues, reactions in the press and from private individuals, the use of jewels in Victorian fiction (notably in the novels of Charlotte Yonge, where “a moral agenda for jewellery…becomes an overriding tendency”) and the rich evidence provided by a range of painted and photographic portraits, create a richly textured study of the role played by this (often deeply eccentric) aspect of material culture.

Although the authors are at pains to point out the continuing survival of some of the rituals associated with jewellery in modern society, one striking implication of the book is the contrast it draws between the elaborate variety of Victorian approaches to jewellery and the diminution this art has suffered in recent generations.

Now and again the authors perhaps explain matters that the reader might be expected to be aware of—such as the Salic Law or details of Victoria’s reign. It might have been helpful for the reader using the book as a work of reference if a summary of leading makers and dealers had been included as an appendix. And after such a finely crafted volume, the ending is curiously abrupt: a summary, even a glimpse of the future, would have been welcome. But these are small points.

The book is a triumph of visual and social history, a truly original publication, a vindication of museum scholarship with its ability to give close attention to the character and context of the individual object, and a pleasure both to look at and to read.

The writer is and independent curator, writer and associate lecturer, Courtauld Institute of Art

Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: a Mirror to the World (British Museum Press), 544 pp, £50 (hb) ISBN 9780714128191

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