A late 18th century Georgian hairwork sepia of a harbor, converted from a brooch to a pendant in the Neoclassical style with hanging chains and a chased circular bail, worked in solid 18k yellow gold (the bail 14k). The composition is whimsically detailed with an adult and child welcoming a returning figure on a boat, Roman-style ruins, a castle, a steepled church, and, in the far distance, a ship at full mast and a windmill. The ‘ships in harbor’ theme and lack of an inscription suggest this piece is sentimental in nature. The composition takes inspiration from and is based on circulating prints of Enlightenment era genre paintings, such as Harbour Scene with Antique Ruins by Jacobus Stork, Ruins by Jan Joost van Coosiau, and Harbor with Roman Ruins by Leonardo Coccorante. Architectural ruins were popular motifs in Neoclassical landscapes, invoked for proto-romanticism and to serve as a visible link to classical antiquity. Ships and harbors were the economic lifeblood of maritime powers like Britain and the Netherlands, but in a sentimental context they both symbolize friendship and social or familial anchoring (the idea of a ‘taking harbor’ or returning home).
The painterly details in the present hairwork composition was achieved by mixing ground hair with sepia paint and gum arabic, the hues of human hair being naturally suited for a sepia palette. Prior to the advent of photography, such hairwork compositions were treasured ‘trinkets’ and keepsakes from friends and family, gifted and received as emblems of love or mourning, and as a way to keep a part of someone beloved ‘a hair away’ in a literal sense. To quote an 18th c poem: “All things but friendship such as your / Inconstant pass away / This lock the emblem of your love / Like that will ne’er decay” (Mary Granville, 1728). A similar sepia hairwork harbor scene can be seen on a late 18th c clasp in the British Museum (2008,8007.6); another example of this type is illustrated on p. 89 of Antique and Twentieth century Jewellery by Vivienne Becker.