An early nineteenth century mourning scene composed entirely of human hair
Photo: Chronica Domus
During the early days of this blog, February 2014 to be exact, I wrote about a piece of mourning art that graces the walls of our drawing room. You can read that essay, titled Mourning Howard, here. At that time, I had every intention of writing about some of the other pieces of mourning art in our collection in a series of posts. For some reason or other, I never quite got my act together, until today that is.
Memorializing the dead, whether in the form of jewelry (rings, brooches, pendants), or artwork (embroidery samplers or theorems), was at the height of its popularity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period to which my husband and I have chosen to focus our collecting interest. In the days predating the advent of photography, commissioning a piece of mourning hair work was a far less costly alternative than an oil portrait of one's loved one. Naturally, this greatly contributed to the art form's popularity.
As peculiar as this may sound, the diminutive four inch diameter composition (frame included) shown above is formed entirely of human hair. Yes, you did read that correctly, human hair. We purchased it from a dealer located on London's Portobello Road, during the Saturday morning market we frequent whenever we find ourselves in London. The person that sold it to us had unearthed it in France, a country famed for producing exquisite mourning hair art. Mounted in a round ebony wood frame and held under glass with the aid of a brass collar stamped with delicate tracery, it is my favorite piece in our collection. I've yet to see another quite like it on my travels. To the best of my knowledge, I date it to around 1830 or 1840.
Unusually, this is the only piece of mourning art we own that does not show a sentimental dedication to the person being mourned. Typically, the deceased's initials, and on occasion the year of death, are depicted on a tomb or gravestone. Another feature that sets this particular piece apart from others in our little horde is that the hair has been collected from several sources. The norm, of course, was to utilize the deceased's own hair. As you can see above, the dark strands form an elegant weeping willow tree, a symbol of mourning, which stands in stark contrast to the lighter straw-colored hair of the urn, tomb, and plinth. Each piece of hair has been skillfully adhered to a thin disc of ivory cut lengthwise from an elephant tusk, a material now rightly made illegal in many countries, but not so at the time of construction.
I've often wondered what it is that makes this elegant and severe study in mourning art so very special, and why it was that multiple sources of hair were utilized in its creation. Had several members of the same family died together in some tragic set of circumstances, an incurable illness perhaps? I wonder too if this piece had been created to be used as an example of a hair artist's work, demonstrating his skill to potential patrons, and his artistry and dexterity in pounding, layering, and aligning the fine strands of hair to form a pleasing mourning scene.
A grouping of mourning hair art reflected in the small Regency convex mirror that hangs in our vestibule
Photo: Chronica Domus
Whatever its intended purpose, it is of little matter to me for I take great pleasure in its beauty as it hangs, alongside a grouping of other mourning hair art, in our home's vestibule.
If you wish to learn more about the fascinating business of mourning, I highly recommend you visit Art of Mourning's website for a glimpse into the history and symbolism of mourning.
Do you find this particular art form a little macabre for your tastes, or do you, like us, delight in its sentimental beauty?