Once upon a time I was a classics scholar, so most everything I’ve got in terms of compos mentis (mastery of mind, I mean) comes from my preteen struggles with conjugation and declension of Latin verbs and nouns and the Herculean labors that came in my co-ed years, when I was determined to read Plato in the original attaboy lingo. I breezed through Virgil’s Aeneid then slogged through the Symposium and a little bit of Lucian. So satisfying did I find the arcane process of interlinear translation that I thought I’d be doing it into old age. Turns out, people will pay you to work as a journalist but the demand for Greek and Latin scholars has been on the wane since before Cleopatra was dipping pearls into wine. Having very little workaday usage, my translation skills have withered considerably. I still remember what eureka and callipygous mean, as well as phrases like caveat emptor, e pluribus unum, et cetera. But I can’t speak Greek anymore and I read Latin worse than a Roman schoolboy.
And yet however dead those languages may be to me now, a lot of etymological stuff stuck with me. The word for the dark circular opening in the center of my iris, for instance, is pupil, which comes from the Latin word pupilla, which is the diminutive of pupa, which means “little doll” or “puppet,” and refers to the tiny image of myself that I see reflected in the eyes of another. “The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection,” which opened Feb. 7, at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), includes more than a hundred steady gazes coming out eyes of every size and color, but the reflections of the viewer are more subtle. Evidently the world’s first major exhibition of lover’s eye jewelry, “The Look” is an array of miniature masterpieces: tiny intricate paintings on bracelets, brooches, lockets and rings, ivory lozenges and pendants circled by pearls, each one depicting an open eye. They are tokens of affection, mementos of mourning, bijoux presented in friendship and ardor — and each has a story. Look long enough and you begin to see yourself in them all.
“The Look of Love” runs through Sunday, June 10. Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, the William C. Hulsey Curator of American Art at the BMA, organized the exhibit with the participation of the collectors, Dr. David and Mrs. Nan Skier of Birmingham. Featuring 103 pieces, the Skier collection is considered to the largest of its kind, as only 1,000 lover’s eye miniatures are thought to be in existence worldwide. The BMA exhibit includes 98 decorative and functional objects — jewelry, watch keys, toothpick cases, even a tri-fold wallet — each of which features a hand-painted eye miniature. Admission to the exhibit is free. On Saturday, Feb. 25, the BMA will host “Trinket or Treasure,” a day of jewelry appraisal featuring Gloria Lieberman, vice president of Skinner Auctions of Boston. Lieberman will conduct appraisals from 10 a.m.-noon and again from 1-4 p.m. and deliver a public lecture at noon. Participants will pay a fee of $25 for up to two objects and $20 for each additional object.
For Your Eyes Only
The history of lover’s eyes is brief and political and starts with a story of forbidden love. In 1784, the 21-year-old Prince of Wales (later George IV) fell for a Catholic widow named Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. The pairing was problematic for a couple of reasons — her Catholicism and his age. Under the Royal Marriage Act, the prince couldn’t marry before age 25 without his father’s consent and King George III wasn’t about to let the royal heir wed a bead-rattler. Besides, Mrs. Fitzherbert kept turning the prince down. She finally accepted his proposal after he staged a suicide attempt but their engagement lasted less than 48 hours before she fled to the European continent, hoping that her absence might mitigate his ardor. Of course, it went the other way. On Nov. 3, 1785, the Prince wrote to Mrs. Fitzherbert with a second proposal of marriage, but instead of sending an engagement ring, he sent her a miniature he’d had commissioned from the artist Richard Cosway — a picture of his own eye.
“P.S. I send you a Parcel… and I send you at the same time an Eye,” the prince wrote. “If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance, I think the likeness will strike you.”
The peculiar gesture evidently achieved its desired effect. Mrs. Fitzherbert returned to England in time to marry the prince in a secret ceremony on Dec. 15, 1785. Not long after the wedding, she commissioned Cosway to paint a miniature of her eye to give as a gift to the prince, and thus began the practice of exchanging eye portraits. For the next few decades, having your eye on someone had a whole new meaning.
Not quite 250 years later, David and Nan Skier (pronounced SKY-er) were standing in front of Edith Weber’s booth at the Cyclorama Antiques Show in Boston when they caught their first glimpse of a lover’s eye. The couple shared a background in art, as both had studied it at Syracuse University, and were already collectors, with some notable holdings of paintings from the Ashcan School of early 20th century America. But that first lover’s eye they saw — a brown left eye atop a rose gold ring and encircled by diamonds, pearls and blue enamel — held special appeal. David is an eye surgeon. Nan’s background in art has long since been bolstered by an interest in social history. Here were many of their divergent interests converging in a work of art small enough to be hidden in the palm of one’s hand or a pocket.
“We couldn’t have anticipated that the purchase of this ring would begin decades of discovery, seeking out these rarities which are at once works of art, precious jewels and fragments of history,” Nan writes in the preface to the exhibition catalogue.
When I met her at the BMA last week, during the fast-paced final hours of the exhibition’s installation, that first ring was the first thing Nan wanted me to see.
“It was the first,” she said, “and it may still be the most beautiful.”
The ring is on display in one of 12 bespoke cases, custom-made with Regency-period detail by the BMA’s full-time exhibition designer Terry Beckham and his supporting staff. To create groupings for each case, Boettcher worked closely with the Skiers to identify a few themes in the collection — “Tokens of Love,” “Mementos of Loss” and “Identities Revealed.” The latter is based on the four pieces for which the names of the subjects are actually known. Laura Wallace, a friend of the Skiers and a BMA docent, did extensive genealogical research on the people whose names were known and her findings are included in the display as well as the exhibition catalogue.
While the gallery walls have been painted a rich amethyst color, the single greatest challenge of displaying the eyes was getting the lighting right (and that brings me back to my meditation on the pupil — it varies in size to regulate the amount of light that reaches the retina). Remember that all of these eyes are tiny — miniature watercolor paintings on ivory or paper, surrounded by pearls and other gemstones no bigger than human tears. Many of the eyes are surrounded by what Boettcher calls “an ethereal haze” — wispy and foggy blue-grey clouds meant to represent the afterlife. Arranging the array involved illuminating every eye and bridling the shadows. The final exhibition is the result of a meticulous three-and-a-half year curatorial process in which professionals and volunteers from every department of the museum participated.
“The Look of Love” will mark the first time the BMA has integrated iPad technology into an exhibition. Nearly two dozen iPads will be available for visitors (with a photo ID) to check out as they enter the exhibit and a “Look of Love” app will soon be available for download from Apple’s online store. The app, which was designed in-house at the BMA, corresponds exactly to the exhibition.
“I think it’s a very elegant app that invites close study,” Nan says. “It allows you to zoom in and see every brushstroke.
As resplendent as “The Look of Love” is, the exhibition catalogue represents a unique achievement in showcasing the interrelatedness of the arts. In addition to full-color photographs of the entire collection, scholarly essays by Boettcher and portrait miniature expert Elle Shushan, the hardcover publication includes five fictional vignettes by the novelist and biographer Jo Manning, each of which is inspired by a different eye miniature. (By permission of the author and publisher, one of those vignettes appears in its entirety on page 31 of this week’s print edition of Weld.) Boettcher and the Spiers commissioned the stories especially for the catalogue. As far as any of them know, the publication represents the first time a fiction writer has been formally invited to collaborate in an exhibition.
“Because of our interest in the 18th century, my husband had gotten me a copy of her book My Lady Scandalous, which is about an 18th century courtesan,” Nan explains.
That book included a photograph of a lover’s eye, with an inscription that read, “From the collection of the author.” As it turned out, that single piece was the collection, but it was enough to forge a friendship between Manning and the Skiers, which eventually led to the author’s participation in creating the catalogue.
Manning’s stories include period pieces as well as contemporary settings and characters: she alternates between historical fiction and present-day diction, keeping each piece ekphrastic. (There’s that Greek sneaking out again: “Ek” means “out” and “phrasis” means “speak,” and the verb “ekphrazein” means “to proclaim or name an inanimate object.” Anytime anybody tries to artfully tell the story of a piece of art, that’s an ekphrastic enterprise.)
“Her stories are so inventive, so representative of the numerous possible narratives each eye possesses,” Nan says.
For the Skiers, originating and creating the exhibit and catalogue has doubled and redoubled the meaning of the whole collection as well as of each piece.
“For the BMA to originate an exhibition, to originate a catalog and scholarly publications, that’s incredibly meaningful,” Nan says. “Of course, this collection means quite a lot to us personally but it means even more to be a part of putting the Birmingham Museum of Art on the map in this way.
“We knew these were fragments of history and pieces of jewelry, but Graham has taught us to look at them as miniature works of art,” she adds.
Furthermore, Nan says, they are vivid evidence of human existence.
“You realize how poignant these stories are,” she says, “how every eye in the collection represents a person.”
I suppose it’s the welcome weight of all those stories that makes me recommend the exhibition. When you look into those eyes, I don’t know what you’ll see there. It won’t be a reflection of your tiny puppet self, but it might be love, whatever that looks like.
“The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection” opened on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and runs through Sunday, June 10. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more details, call (205) 254-2565 or visit www.artsbma.org.