They were popular through the Georgian period. The concept is that one would give a lover a hand painted miniature portrait of their own eye mounted in jewelry. To everyone who viewed the jewelry, it was just someone’s eye. When you view one eye out of context with the rest of the face, it’s not possible to tell who possesses the eye. It’s a mystery known only to the wearer- a secret shared by only two people in the world. Because of this, eye portraits became popular with people who could not publicly show affection for one reason or another.
In 1784, the Prince of Wales (later to be King George III) fell in love with a commoner and widow, Maria Fitzherbert. Her Catholic faith and the Royal Council would never consent to the union, but the Prince literally couldn’t live without her. After a suicide attempt by the future King, Maria consented to marriage, but fled to Europe instead of setting a date. Some say it was to quell his affections, some say she did it for the sake of her country. No one knows for sure.
On November 3rd 1785, the Prince of Wales wrote to Maria Fitzherbert proposing marriage a second time. In his letter, he included a ring with a portrait of his eye painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway (the superstar portrait painter of the day). The Prince added a post script which reads, “ P.S., I send you a Parcel…and I send you at the same time an Eye, if you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance. I think the likeness will strike you.” It is unknown if it was the letter or the ring that tugged at Maria’s heart strings, but she did return to England and married the Prince in a secret ceremony on Dec 15, 1785. Shortly after the ceremony, she commissioned Richard Cosway to paint a portrait of her own eye that she then presented to the future King. As all with all secret things in England, then and now, it was of course, common knowledge.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the eye portrait of George III, but I did find this one which shows a painting of Maria Fitzherbert and what is supposed to be the eye portrait that she had painted for him.
Will you be hiring an artist to create a miniature portrait of your eye to gift to a lover? If you do, there are some wonderful examples in existence to choose from…