Georgian Mourning Pendant with Portrait Miniature, Foiled Opaline Glass, Weeping Willow, and Urn

A poignant and lovely English mourning pendant, c. 1795-1805, of double-sided construction with cover glass, one side featuring a three-quarters profile portrait miniature of a woman in a white muslin chemise, her face bearing an enigmatic half-smile. The reverse side bears a mourning miniature of a three dimensional urn, crafted with mother-of-pearl, gold wire, and seed pearls, set atop a bed of gum-bound hair, headed by the initials “RE”, shadowed by a painted weeping willow, and all against a ground of foiled opaline flint glass (paste). The pendant is unusually heavy at 32.8 grams.

The urn, a rather novel mourning motif to emerge during the last quarter of the 18th century, was inspired by ceramics from the Greco-Roman world. Cremation was usual in ancient Greece; the ashes would be placed in a painted urn. The Romans, too, utilized funerary urns, placing them in collective tombs called a columbarium. The weeping willow, on the other hand, was adopted around this period for its anthropomorphic attributes: the tree’s bent frame, with its yearning and swaying limbs, was thought to resemble a weeping figure, back bent with grief (and thus symbolic of human sorrow). The urn and weeping willow were frequently employed in conjunction, popular since about 1780s and peristing well into the 1830s. That these images, with their humanists and secular bent, replaced earlier symbols of grim death’s head skulls and coffins, demonstrate shifting popular attitudes towards death in the Western world— one directly influenced by Enlightenment humanism. Gone was the willingness to stare at Death “face on”; mourning during the late 18th century was a sentimental, elegant affair. Mourning jewels too took on a lighter, more ephemeral appearance: enthusiasm for mournful sentimentalism added to the charm of wearing jewels to commemorate a lost loved one.

The foiled opaline paste seen at the back of this miniature is a type of flint glass, its pale milky appearance created by the separation of various oxides during the cooling process of its manufacture. First developed in France, to imitate the look of opals, the material was soon made by the English firm of Wickes and Netherton. Opaline glass was used for a wide range of jewelry: in fine paste parures (often paired with foiled quartz), as backing for portrait miniature and sentimental jewels, and also in mourning jewelry. It remained popular from 1770s until 1830s. However, this particular mourning pendant can be dated to the specific decade between 1795 to 1805, for the reason of the subject’s hair and sartorial styling, and due to the plain-design black and white enamel frame, which is nearly identical to mourning ring designs dating between 1795-1803.
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Date: c. 1795 – 1805, but mostly likely 1798-1801, Georgian era

Materials: watercolor, opaline flint glass (paste), sheet foil, human hair, mother of pearl, miniature pearls (natural seeded and imitation paste), gold filigree wire, black and white enamel, organic wafer, solid 9k rose gold (unmarked; tested with electronic gold tester)

Weight: 32.8 grams

Workmanship origin: English

Diameter of pendant: 48 mm

Diameter of miniature scenes: 42 mm

Depth of pendant: 13.8 mm (at maximal point)

Height of pendant: 60 mm (including bail)

Condition: the portrait miniature shows subtle age-related warping (it bows inward somewhat); it is however free from hairline-cracks or any structural damage. Two pearl beads in the urn-and-weeping-willow miniature had fallen off and one was missing; my jeweler carefully opened the cover glass and resecured these elements with HXTAL NYL-1, an optically clear non-yellowing epoxy used by museum conservators to restore glass and porcelain. Using a miniaturist’s paint brush, HXTAL NYL-1 was lightly brushed under all elements within the miniature, to ensure their stability and security for the years to come. The cover glass on both sides are well preserved: no scratches can be observed with the naked eye; under 40x loupe magnification, I can spot some artificial age-related surface wear. Enamel is well preserved on both sides. There is general light age-wear to the gold and enamel surface throughout. Due to significant copper content in the 9k rose gold, some areas of the frame has tarnished to a darker hue. By design, the cover glass on the portrait side does not sit flush against the frame (see video for details; described for accuracy, but not a condition “flaw”.)