For the final Age of the Beard exhibition event, we were joined by the artist Jane Wildgoose for a talk on the art of Victorian hair jewellery. Jane works across a wide range of disciplines exploring the values, narratives, and memories that become attached to remains of all kinds and expertly guided us through the obsession that the Victorians had with creating relics of their loved ones using hair.
Jane opened her talk with an overview of Mark Campbell’s 1867 book The Self-instructor in the art of hair work, dressing hair, making curls, switches, braids, and hair jewelry of every description, a comprehensive manual on hair work. Jane explained how we might have different ideas today about what constitutes a “very easy” construction, highlighting the square chain braid which required the maker to count out 1,280 individual strands of hair and attach a small weight to each, among other “simple” tasks.
Jane told us how manuals like this had purposefully led to suspicions that commercial hair workers were not to be trusted, insisting that doing the work yourself was the one sure way to ensure that your loved ones hair was used and not substituted.
The Victorians saw hair as an emotive link to loved ones past and present. Clippings, such as those of a child’s first haircut, would be saved as important mementos of life’s meaningful occasions.
Jane described how Queen Victoria used hair as a commemorative material and from her engagement to Albert onwards, was never without a lock of her loved one’s hair, as seen in the locket she wears in this Winterhalter portrait, Albert’s favourite.
This portrait from the Royal Collection shows a 24-year old Queen Victoria, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Image supplied by The Royal Collection / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
There can be no doubt that Florence Nightingale, too placed value on hair as a relic. There are three pieces in our museum collection, a locket, which is kept with a note stating: “FN’s bracelet; containing her Father’s, Mother’s, Parthe’s [Parthenope] and Shore’s hair which she wore under her sleeve all the time in the Crimea, given by her to LSN [Louis Shore Nightingale]”; a bracelet, which she gifted to a Miss Tilney on 17th September 1859 and a gold locket with a Turkish motif containing hair, engraved “Florence Nightingale June 1858” (pictured)
Bracelet (Object Number: 0174) and locket (0228.1) / © Florence Nightingale Museum
Jane described items such as these as ‘home relics’ – hair was seen as sacred and was used again and again in the Victorian period to demonstrate affection for, and pay tribute to, loved ones. Hair was understood to mean sentimentality and these pieces were ‘beyond all price’, a phrase which became the title for an exhibition Jane put together at Waddesdon Manor in 2015. As part of her research, Jane visited Leila’s Hair Museum in Missouri, a fascinating collection of hair work, the only one of its kind. Jane spent three days there with Leila learning the techniques which she had taught herself by reverse engineering items in her amazing museum collection.
Photo of Leila Cohoon courtesy of Adam Green (adamgreenimagery.com) / © Leila’s Hair Museum
After the talk, Jane kindly let us look at some of the pieces of hair work from her own collection. It was fascinating to see these pieces up close and to be able to handle them – they truly did have a soul and energy to them which gave me a sense of the love and loss that they represented. The closing discussion meandered around whether using hair in this way was something that had long been relegated to the past but, with the myriad examples that audience members gave of their own experiences of using hair as memorial, we concluded that it was still very much a tradition, even if the intricate use of hair in jewellery was sadly no longer being crafted to the same level. There was a general agreement that relics were an important part of the grieving process, that they would always be used, and that the commercialisation of this was a tradition too that seemed to be continuing, with recent developments such as memorial tattoos – where a loved one’s ashes can be embedded into the ink.
Selection of Victorian hair work jewellery pieces / Wildgoose Memorial Library collection