One object, many stories: Mourning brooch
Date recorded: 23 Apr 2015
Kaz Cooke: Welcome to One Object, Several Stories tonight at the library. And also firstly would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land, the Kulin Nation people, the Borarong and the Boonwurrung here at the library. And also it will become clear why the Wathaurong of the Barwon river and Geelong area as well.
We are going to examine a treasure by the, which is right up there, much larger than it really is, as part of looking at items in the library's collection and in connection with the Victoria and Albert Museum Exhibition of Design Treasures here at the moment.
So we're going have a discussion for about three quarters of an hour and then you'll get a chance to ask questions of our wonderful experts.
So, I'd just like to introduce the others on the panel. Closest to me, Jo Ritali, who's the Collection Services Manager here at the library with nearly 20 years experience of rummaging about in major collections here and in Queensland. Her responsibilities include manuscripts, pictures, Australian history, and literature collections here at the library. So you know, just a few things.
Louise Burnet, who like me has worn her mourning-jet beautiful earrings. She's a specialist jeweller, gemmologist and diamond grader, and a collector from The French Jewelbox shop in the Block Arcade, which many of you will have, I'm sure, paused longingly at the windows of. She's intrigued by the history and provenance of antique jewellery and she's a second generation jewellery sleuth in the Block Arcade.
And further on my right, Lizzie Anya-Petrivna, the cultural collections curator from the National Trust of Australia. She's a Melbourne based curator and fashion historian. She's interested in 19th century clothes, natural history and domestic advice manuals. So, I think I might want to marry her. And she's completing a PHD on the workers of Melbourne who made artificial flowers and related objects. And she's curated exhibitions of ye old wedding fashion and Ms Fisher's costumes most recently.
So, I'll just introduce the brooch a little bit before the people who really know what they're talking about get a chance. This is a rather extraordinary object. It is made of the hair of two people woven together and gold. And it’s mourning jewellery. The idea of using hair to memorialise people was not just a Victorian phenomenon after Queen Victoria lost Albert, this was much earlier. It was in the 1840s. And, oh no, that's me pointing with the laser, that's not going to help.
So here are our two ladies, Carolyn Newcomb, and that's her on the right. A very early photo. We're not sure exactly when but I would think, I've got other experts here, but after 1860s-1870s.
You would have said earlier? Yeah. Yeah, ok. So that's really early to have a camera in the, in the colony.
And that is an artist's impression of where they look like, I don't know, they have the plague and bonnets and they're doing it quite hard near Geelong.
So Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb were fascinating women. They met up in Victoria very early and there's no doubt that from that moment they were constant companions and shared a bed, and in fact farmed together for a long time.
One of the fellows at the library here has done a marvellous job of looking at Miss Drysdale's diary and really translating that, that 19th century writing. And then when Miss Drysdale died, Miss Newcomb actually finished the diary as well. So we actually have proof in a way that of this whole story. And quite amazingly, we have a number of objects in the library that add to the story as well. And we can also see that they were the clients of an architect together. So up the top on the left, this is uh, from the architectural plans that the library holds in another collection. This is the ground-floor plan of their house. So, the bedroom at the front and the parlour and then at, where it says ground plan up on the top left, that was sort of the courtyard where all the drays and carriages would have come in. And there's the kitchen and the pantry and the stairs. So, the sort of, the story sort of starts to come together. And then that's a beautiful drawing of the outside of the house and the next one is a photo and you can see how closely it, you know, and that beautiful bluestone that is, that's part of our history.
But. So Ann Drysdale was a Scot who came to Australia when she was 47. She had some money and experience in farming, and a year after arriving, she met Caroline Newcomb who was 20 years younger. And Caroline had been in Australia for a few years already as a governess in Hobart. And, you know, when Caroline came to Melbourne in 1836 she was one of only 35 white women in the whole of Melbourne. There were 177 people altogether and, quite frankly, Caroline didn't really, she had her pick of the men and she didn't pick anybody. So she took a job as a governess in Geelong, and a year after they met, they decided to move together to this house called Coriole. And they were squatters. So they took and some would say stole 10,000 acres besides the Barwon River, which means that it was land from the Wathaurong people, part of the Kulin nations. And Ann bought money and property to the relationship and did the books, and Caroline bought youth, and horse riding skills, and a huge work capacity, and a knowledge of the colony already, and hands on farming.
And there, there is a little bit of, ah not controversy, but I think you could say that there was, there's a disagreement about whether they were lovers or good staunch Methodist companions. I don't think it's really any of our business what went on in in the bedroom. Possibly a lot of card games, some embroidery. But they, Anne died in 1853 and left everything to Caroline and many years later Caroline married a clergyman, many years younger again. She said that she was doing this for God, although her friends would not approve. And eventually she too was buried at Coriole in the grave with Anne. And she wrote, in the. And Anne Drysdale, who died earlier wrote in the diary, ‘Miss Newcomb, who is my partner, I hope for life, is the best and most clever person I have ever met with’.
And I'll just finish with saying, on the March 3 1854, which is about a year after Ms. Drysdale died, Miss Newcomb was carrying on the diary and she wrote, ‘Fine and very hot. I rode Frase's horse to town’, by which she means Geelong. She ‘did her errands, sold oats, 700 bushels at four and six, took Anne's and my hair to Patterson's to set in a brooch for Mrs Thompson, and he agreed to change my clock. Returned home for tea’. So, we know that that's, so that's the diary with that beautiful writing we have the volumes in the library. And that's how the brooch came to be.
So, all of us here have inspected the brooch and I'd like to ask, just to kick it off, what was the initial reaction of everybody when they first saw it? Jo?
Jo Ritali: Well I'm a little bit grossed out perhaps by the fact that it's made out of hair, although, I mean you can, you see a large version and we actually will have the, the brooch out itself a bit later. It's tiny and looking at it initially, I didn't actually realise it was made out of hair. So, at first I just thought oh wow, it's a very interesting looking item, a very beautiful looking item. But then yeah, when you think about it being people's hair and you know, I see hair on the floor and I just think eww. So that was probably my initial reaction.
Caz: Ok, so we've got one vote for ‘eww’. Louise?
Louise Burnet: I was delighted when I saw it. The lightness of it in colour was quite unusual and the quality of the work is particularly nice. So, for me to see it also in quite good condition, there's a couple of little bits as you would expect, but it's in really good condition. So, for me it was quite a joy.
Caz: And Lizzie?
Lizzie Anya-Petrivna: I was also struck by how white the hair was and how uniform it looked. I also sort of felt it was quite an exuberant looking thing as well. Very ornamental. But it was the kind of virtuosity of it that really struck me and I remember asking a few times if anyone had looked at it under a microscope or done any kind of forensics to sort of see what the sort of strands looked like and, yeah, to investigate further.
Caz: And, and that's one of the things that we'll talk to Jo about too. You know, how you find what things really are and what, perhaps where they really came from. But, first Jo, what is a library doing with a brooch? Aren’t you supposed to just have books? And how come you've got all of the other things that come into the story as well, because the library holds the brooch, the plans for the house, the diary and the photographs.
Jo: That's right, and it's actually really interesting because they've all come in separately. So they didn't come as a complete package.
Caz: That is amazing. And. And all those donations?
Jo: Yeah, they've all come in as donations, all of those items have.
So, the brooch was actually the first item that came into our collection and it was it was donated in 1933. So it's been with us for quite a long time. And really, all we know about that donation was that it was donated a Miss C McLeod. So, so I was determined to kind of find out a little bit more about, about how the brooch had come to the library. Or even just who Miss C McLeod was and what her connection was to the brooch. And we actually know that the brooch is associated with Anne Drysdale because there was a tag that came with the brooch that said, ‘This is the brooch of Anne Drysdale’. So that's, that's kind of how we made that connection, because at that stage we didn't have Anne's diaries in 1933. We didn't have any of the other material.
So as you know, the brooch was made for a Mrs Thomson, and Mrs Thompson was a really good friend of both Caroline and Anne and she was going back to England just about a year after Anne died. And in those days going back to England was like a two year round trip really, and so Caroline had the brooch made for her just before she left as a kind of memento I guess of that friendship that they had. But then how did we get the brooch if it had been, you know, belonging to sort of Barbara Thompson and they, she had a child, one child Jane, and Jane married and they had kids. But it wasn't, it didn't come from that family, so and then…
Caz: Did you use the genealogy, genealogy section of the library to do all that?
Jo: Sort of a one-stop shop here in a way, isn't it? Yeah. Some of that, some of that research is done through those resources, but also because Jane Thompson, Barbara's daughter, had married quite a well-known Melbourne identity and so…
Caz: Well, you make him sound like a criminal.
Jo: No, no, no, no. A substantially respectable identity. And so, they, he is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and so there's quite a lot of information about him and the children that they had. And so it was reasonably easy to follow that strand.
The Miss McLeod was much more difficult because I didn't have a first name, but there is a lot of references to a Miss McLeod in Anne's diaries and it seems like she was another great friend of the women. And I don't know whether it's the same Miss McLeod, because obviously it's, we're talking about 70 years later that the brooch is donated to the library. So it's either, it could be the same woman, or it could be a relative. So, we're still not 100% sure.
The architectural plans we're the next kind of items to come into our collection and they came through again a donation. A Reverend Brenton was the donor who owned the plans. So he, he gave them to the library, and then the diaries came in 1971. They were on loan for a long time and then the donation was finalised in 2010. So, you know, sometimes these things take 40 years to negotiate, and one collection manager passes on the history of the relationship with that person and obviously we keep a lot of files on that as well. But it can take 40 years for something to become a part of our collection.
And then the photographs of the most recent and they came to the library in 1987. They're by a photographer, John T. Collins, who had a very long relationship with the National Trust of Victoria. Used to go out and photograph all of their sort of heritage-listed houses and so, and often went back several times. So the photographs that we have, we have some from the 1970s and then we have some from the 1980s.
Caz: And is it a National Trust property now or is it privately owned?
Jo: It's a privately owned property.
Caz: Don't go and knock on the door. That would be rude.
Jo: But it's, it is, it is in the, I think it is heritage listed so…
Caz: It would have to be wouldn't it?
Jo: And it's on the National Trust Register, so they would go and photograph those houses.
Caz: Ok, wow, and so that's one of the reasons why I guess cataloguing is really important, so that people can make those connections between objects and things. So, we'll talk a little bit later about keeping things safe. But Louise, our specialist jeweller, are these common do you see them a lot coming into your business?
Louise: Definitely not. They, they have been ruined. I think they've, by and large, you can find sometimes frames with the hair missing. I think there’s been probably a very big backlash over time against hair jewellery.
Caz: That it's out of fashion?
Louise: Out of fashion and, and people really don't like it.
Caz: People like you Jo, people going ‘eww’
Louise: I imagine that's why it was donated. I can imagine somebody feeling it was important and going ‘nobody wants it’.
Caz: Yeah, I can understand how if it's not your friends or your, it's not someone in your family. I think we were all talking before that there's hair and there's hair, in a way.
Louise: There's a good core of Gothic folk out there who really love this stuff and do collect it heavily.
Caz: Help us out with the symbols, Louise. So there's a lyre in the middle and I quite confidently was telling somebody the other day that it had a little briar roses. But.
Louise: No, no.
Caz: So, I did, I did wonder.
Louise: Ok, the symbolism is extremely strong in this piece. Basically you’re gold as a starting point. Gold was, because gold can be melted and solid in alchemical terms, it refers to the transition of the soul. So there's a strong reason for using gold for this kind of jewel. And it also represents eternity and perfection. And the lyre in the centre is, it, it's got quite a few different meanings. I found some references. Well, it's Orpheus, the Golden Lyre of Orpheus, and I think Orpheus.
Caz: Who's Orpheus when he's at home?
Louise: He was the son of Apollo.
Louise: And, and all of this gets debated because there's more than one version of it being ancient stories, but the, the son god Apollo and one of the muses Calliope, who did verses in music. And so, so Orpheus was very famous for Eurydice. His wife was killed, suppose again variations on the myth, bitten on the heel at her wedding by a serpent and died, is gone to the underworld. He found her body and played his harp. He could make trees and rocks, and everything move, his music was so beautiful. So he charmed Hades and Hades took pity and said you can have your wife back. He rescued her from the dead. He's the only one ever to have done it.
Caz: What a reception. A wedding reception to remember.
Louise: Exactly, well they love a bit of drama don't they? Yes. But the, the problem with the story is that he got to the surface. So he comes out of the underworld, gets to the surface and looks back at her. And the condition was he mustn't look until…
Louise: Yep, she wasn't up yet. Deal breaker. She goes back to the underworld and he loses his wife. So umm.
Caz: That’s a lot going on in that broach.
Louise: Well, there absolutely is. Now there's also a cross. We know that Caroline was extremely religious. So the cross is also important. And our flowers, not roses, but forget-me-nots.
Louise: And forget…
Caz: Would they have had little blue, little blue jewels in them at any point? Or did they…?
Louise: Yes. They did in Victorian jewellery. A little, hmm, there's so much of it, sentimental jewellery and mourning jewellery is so, so huge that there's all sorts of variations. Enamel comes in a big later. They started to enamel forget-me-nots. But this is definitely the little five-petalled flower. It would've had a golden centre, flower blue, leaves are correct. It's, it's spot on. Quite naturalistic really if, if you know the flower and, and also, very, very known at the time.
There was a book Sentiment of Flowers from Robert Tyas, that was reprinted over and over and over through the '40s, 1840s that is.
Caz: So everyone would know the language of flowers.
Louise: Everyone, everyone knew it and forget-me-not was one of the really basic ones. And, and the quote, there's little verses in that book, and the one that is for forget-me-not was ‘It softly tells an absent friend that links of love should never rend’. So
Caz: Aw. Well, we're going to run out of time, so we better move on a little bit. But let's, that sort of Spirograph passion of the hair, I know both of you it reminded me of the knitting Nancy. So I wondered if perhaps that was what had happened with the hair.
Now Lizzie, you have done some research into the hair workers, and there were hair workers here in Victoria, I think and here's a chap who I think is making a merkin, but it does say in the book that this is from, that he is making hair jewellery. And behind him, those rather anatomical looking things are moulds that the hair was placed in to be sort of set into, into a shape, is that right Lizzy?
Lizzie: Yes so that kind of machine that he's using, that's almost like a lace pillow is all, is weighted around the base, so that the braids can, can happen. And it actually then travels down through a little hole in the middle, and it would be worked over a form. So the broach that we're looking at tonight would have been woven with a centre of a kind of rod to kind of keep its, keep its shape.
Caz: So if we have a look at some of the other, the patterns. And, and this here it says Albert's. And, now, in those days an Albert was a watch chain. So these ones here, that sort of braided hair that could be made into a chain, these that—don't look up Albert jewellery on the internet because it doesn't mean that anymore. Penis. A horizontal penis piercing now, which I don't think Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcomb had any knowledge of—so Lizzy, and Louise, these are the other kinds of designs and it, it looks like it was very easily-recognisable that these were sort of patents that people could perhaps go and order.
Lizzie: Well, I managed to find some really lovely information from the Police Gazette, and of course jewellers are often robbed. So, finding a list of a jeweller called Gant. He was a well-known hair-work jeweller in Geelong. He had his premises on Ryrie Street. And he was entering many, many competitions of, you know, of industry and expositions of colonial expositions and so on, and winning gold medals for his work.
And some of the descriptions just from the Intercolonial Exhibition for instance he's making roses and thistles and shamrocks, butterflies, his boomerangs, and waddies, a snake, all sorts of different objects. And when he passes away, his wife takes over from the business, and has her premises in Russell Street and is also exhibiting.
But she's making things like temples and architectural structures. So, these are listed on, in the Police Gazette as being stolen, and as well as just ornamental broaches, colonial gold-work, Alberts. Yeah, so, so quite a variety.
Caz: Wow, that's, that's amazing. That, so, that's just the side of the broach to show you how 3D it is. And you will be able to see it afterwards. We're going to have a look at a few things. But that was one of the things that really surprised me about it because when you see the front of it, it feels flat like a Spirograph. And there's just some more which, which also shows that lyre symbology was very, very common to be used with, with the hair.
That is the back, which I'll just leave up for a moment. So Lizzie, were the hair workers mostly young girls or were they very experienced?
Lizzie: Um well.
Caz: It sounds like quite hard to.
Caz: Weave a temple, and I have heard that there was a tea-set made, I think Louise found it online, out of hair.
Lizzie: So I guess it's get back to that kind of virtuosity and being able to take, take a handcraft and actually sort of excel and display your work. So that's where these sort of exhibitions were really great places for women to sort of show, show their abilities and sort of take some of these tasks and create them into an art form for themselves.
I found the Gant example really interesting because, you know, Henry is exhibiting while he's alive, but then his wife takes over and is exhibiting temples and all sorts of things. So I kind of wondered what the story was there and who was actually doing the work? And who you could actually attribute the hair work part of the jewellery business to? And who actually did the, using the, you know, I guess you can sort of look at it from the hard materials and the soft materials if you wanted to kind of divide it in that way.
The, it is I guess with a lot of these sorts of skills, which required dexterity, small hands are, you know, a necessity. I mean, if you're braiding strands of hair of up to, you know, about six strands, and you're weaving them on that machine, that sort of, device that we saw, you know, you'd have to be quite delicate at your, at your work.
Caz: And Louise, would it with that hair, the way that it's been treated there, would it be springy to the touch? They wouldn't let us touch the brooch. I did want to give it a poke and see if it sort of, you know, had any give in it.
Louise: It is very springy.
Caz: Is it?
Louise: Yeah, if you, if you touch it, it will, yeah, it's kind of how it holds. It gives. It does, it's still hair not in a natural sort of fall. So yes it does have the springiness of hair. I guess it's kind of dead once in comes out of our head anyway, but I just wonder, I've got a secret theory, you see, that this is actually a Shetland pony tail, and I wonder, without actually taking a piece of hair, which I don't think Jo would let us.
Jo: No. There will be no touching of the hair brooch tonight.
Caz: How do we know, or do we just have to kind of believe that it's human hair? What do you think?
Louise: Well, I, I, there was terrible scandal about hair. You can understand that hair weavers might be tempted to replace difficult, they brought, imagine extremely curly hair or.
Caz: Well this is said to be two people's hair and it does…look, look at your face hmm yeah…it does seem very uniform doesn't it to be two. I mean in colour and in consistency, to be…
Louise: Well do, do you want my two cents worth on that?
Caz: I do Louise. I do very much so.
Louise: I think it's one person's hair.
Louise: I think there was a locket in the centre, which you can see very clearly here, which is no longer in there. It would be right for the piece for the era and the style. And I think there was a glazed part in there and I suspect that Caroline's much darker hair would have been in that locket space. And it’s, and it’s gone.
Caz: Cause she was younger where as Ms Drysdale probably had the light hair.
Louise: Because I did loop it and it is in my opinion one person's hair. It's so even.
Caz: Wow, ok. And do you think Mr Patterson did it all himself or sent it to London? Or do you think the work was done in Geelong?
Louise: I think the work was done in Geelong.
Louise: Yep, definitely the gold-work, there were certainly good enough jewellers to execute a piece like this. And I asked my jeweller about it, and after he sort of wiped his brow and said ‘Oh hello, ooh I haven't done’, talking about the sheneers on the back, which are the sort of pipy looking pieces.
Caz: What are they called?
Caz: Sheneers. Yep.
Louise: He said, ‘Oh I haven't had to do anything like that’. And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh two days work’ and then he went ‘make that four’.
Caz: Right. Wow.
Louise: So, yeah, that gives you an idea of how much work would go into it.
Lizzie: And I guess just back to the, sorry Kaz, just back to that idea of is it, is it really their hair what's going on? I brought along a household manual, of course. I can't leave home without it; bringing one of my manuals out with me. It's a Cassell's Household Guide and there's a section on hair work, and it begins with sort of saying, oh, you must learn to do this yourself, so that you don't find yourself swindled and, and, you know, find yourself self-wearing the hair of a stranger.
And certainly the instructions provided are very simple. So it's all platting and curling. Adhering hair to goldbeater’s skin, which was the intestine of a lamb. Doesn't sound very palatable.
Caz: Sounds delightful!
Lizzie: But really, it sort of seemed like the ornate stuff was professional and some of the more simple displays were, were home, were amateur.
Louise: I did find an interesting, a piece of information that was in the middle of the 19th century. 50 tons of human hair a year was imported into England for use by the country's jewellers.
Caz: Do we know where it was from?
Louise: Europe, across Europe.
Caz: Oh, wow, ok. So that's…I'll just leave it on the back for a sec. Now we've got all the experts we need here, so I'm wondering if, if you found something like this in a drawer at home how would you clean something and I'm thinking probably a bit of Spray and Wipe and steel wool. I love saying things like that to Jo.
So Lou, firstly Louise, what, how would you? Would you ever touch it in your profession as jeweller?
Louise: Yeah, yeah, absolutely and, ok, you'd have it with some brass iron. If it's got. Well, well the first thing with this is the lightness of it, so it could easily have a stain spot or something like that.
I would go at it with a cotton-bud and some water, very gently. Just over, over it. And I would do that very slowly over the whole thing. You need it to dry out. You don't want mould. Hair often has mould because it's been immersed at some stage and not dried out properly.
Caz: Oh wow.
Louise: And the gold work, again, probably I would leave it alone. I think oxidized this kind of, because it's textured on the front that actually looks really good with a bit of bloom to it anyway. So I would be tempted to leave that alone. It doesn't need to be bright and shiny and new looking.
Louise: But certainly the hair I would recommend very gentle cause obviously.
Caz: But don't.
Caz: Take it to Louise.
Caz: If you find one.
Louise: Let me do it.
Caz: And Jo, what's the philosophy? What's the theory of the library? Does everything have to be cleaned up and gorgeous? Or do you never? Cause I have seen some broken jewellery in the collection. What's, how do you approach that?
Jo: I think for the library it's about, well, do we need, I mean we try to keep things as authentic as they were or they.
Caz: As they arrive or as they were in their heyday?
Jo: Well probably as they arrive, really. But we also have to make sure that things are able to be handled and stored and displayed. Because, you know, it's no point in us keeping everything in a dark vault and not being able to kind of make it accessible to people. So, a lot of the kind of treatment work that we do is, is around making, being able to make the material accessible. So, and not shiny and pretty accessible, but just so that it can be used or looked at by people.
So with something like this object, again because we are a library and we mainly deal with paper, so we do have conservators who work with our collection material and we mainly have paper conservators, so we would actually get a specialist textiles conservator, or an objects conservator to to do any work on this particular piece of jewellery.
Luckily for us the, the brooch is actually in really good condition. And that's because we've, we've, we've made a great effort to store it quite carefully in a specially made box so that it doesn't have to be handled a lot. So when you see it tonight, you'll see that it has its own box and it has a little tray that we can lift out of the box so that we don't actually have to touch the brooch, because hair is quite fragile.
Caz: And I, in fact I should just, I just want to interrupt, just to say that I have seen even little Safeway lapel badges from the 1970s treated with exactly the same care and, and having their own box. And there, there's a conservator here called Caroline Fraser who makes a beautiful box, everything fits in perfectly. And the ribbons that you can sort of pull the top layer out of and then underneath there's sort of some more things if, if perhaps it's a donation of several things from one person. And it's, it's part of the joy of being able to see that everything is treated with the same respect here, which I think's really interesting.
Jo: I think, yeah, I mean one of the things is that, you know, about, I mean one of the things that Caz and I were talking about when we were talking about the brooches, about how we value objects, or how we value material that comes into our collections, and of course, you know, monetary value is something that does come into play. But for us it's, there's a lot more involved in how we, how we assess material and, and so it’s historical significance. It, it could be association.
So this brooch is really important to us because of its association with Anne and Caroline, who were very interesting women in Victoria's history. Not so much because it's a beautiful object, but obviously, you know, that's important as well. But for us it could be quite, you know, it could be a really ugly piece of jewellery and we would still consider it to be really important because of its association with those two women.
So there's a whole range of things. So, you know, a badge, a Safeway badge can be just as significant to the library, because it might have belonged to someone who was really integral to Victoria's history. And so that's why we would, you know, we would put it in its own beautiful box just as we do with this one.
Caz: And that's, that's what I love about that collection. Is actually from a man who went to Collingwood Tech and he kept his Prefect's Badge and then went to work for Safeway for 35 years, and he kept his the badges that commemorated you know his 10 years, 15, 20. And they were obviously really precious to him, and it shows some of, you know, some more of Melbourne's working history that is not, not so pretty.
So, I just want to show some more things, just quickly, we'll, we'll whip through. But here's some hair jewellery we have in the collection, and Jo will be really familiar with, the things that belonged to Georgiana McCrae who lived down on the peninsula and was an artist.
And bottom right is a miniature that she painted of her dad, the Duke of Gordon, back in Scotland, who was, look, I'm going to say it because I can, he was a mad rooter. And he had three illegitimate children, and that's not in the library catalogue, but it's true. And so, Georgiana was one of them, and she came to Victoria and when he died she painted that portrait. It's in a pendant and about that big and it's actually in the exhibition that I've put together, the little one up on the fifth floor that you can see until November.
And on the back side of that portrait is—it's, it's a terrible photo cause I took it—but you'll have to take my word for it that on the left at the bottom is a basket-weave pattern of Georgiana's own hair on the back of that pendant as a memorial. And up the top, is the legitimate wife of the Duke of Gordon. The Duchess had bracelets made when he died with Jet and real diamonds and the ducal coronet on the top. And that was the top of the bracelet that went there. And then underneath hidden was her hair in a basket-weave pattern.
So they're all at it at the same time, but just in their various ways. And this is another brooch which we'll have a look at afterwards in the foyer. It's in the collection. And, I mean I think partly why hair was so important was that it was a way to connect with people who were gone because they were across the seas and someone had travelled a long, long way away. And it was, it was still quite dangerous to do that, you know? There was, there were no antibiotics, people would drop off from Diphtheria, or Measles, or whatever. So you didn't know whether you were going to see somebody again. So they didn't necessarily have to die for you to make the memorial jewellery.
But then, of course, when photos came along, much more popular later in the 1800s, things like lockets and that beautiful idea of being able to close a locket and have two faces together, which I think is very nice.
And, this, I've had a blog as part of my exhibition, which is about what people wear to show where they belong or to say something. And, so, these earrings that I'm wearing are the ones up on the left, and they're made of Jet and they're from the late 1800s. And I just thought I'd ask Lizzie and Louise, that was such a thing, wasn't it? Jet jewellery, and it, they feel like plastic, they feel really light. And I, when I first saw them, I thought they were, loved them, but that, but, but I particularly loved that they have sort of an industrial cogish kind of look to them.
Caz: Steampunk. But what was the deal with Whitby Jet? Was it discovered at the same time that Victoria lost Albert? Or why was Jet such a thing?
Louise: Yeah, it was, it was pretty close in time. She started to wear it.
Caz: And Whitby is the area in Yorkshire, isn't it, where they dug it out? Yeah, exactly right. Beautiful little town where Dracula landed. The, if you've been there it's so cute. And they still make Jet jewellery there, hugely expensive don't buy it there unless you have to. And its, it's fabulous because it takes a very high shine. And Whitby Jet was particularly fine. You can get Jet from other places, but there was a decent amount of it. They, it attracted then very good carvers, and they made all sorts of things out of it.
So the earrings that you got are interesting for that very geometric shape. When I first saw a chain from the same era. It's probably 1870, it's probably slightly earlier. I got the shock of my life. I thought, ‘oh, this is Deco’. Mm. This is quite a few years ago. And if…
Caz: Oh, she's really good at it now!
Lizzie: I'm much better now. She'd know now.
Louise: But no, there was some very industrial looking pieces in Victorian jewellery around the 1870s.
Lizzie: And I've also heard that you can tell real Jet by licking it? That it has a certain, because I guess there were other kind of natural polymers that were available at the time, like Gutter Percher and Vulcanite and those sorts of things.
Caz: Which are rubber, aren't they?
Lizzie: Yeah, and also had a kind of plasticky, sort of Jet-like…
Louise: They feel quite different. Jet feels harder, but lighter. Those other things have a softer feel to them. They also don't take that real shiny black. They're not quite as bright and shiny.
Lizzie: And we've got a lot of fake jet in the Trust's costume collection. And I remember I won't mention who, another curator mentioned that she had heard that you can tell the whether Jet was real by licking it. And I just wanted to know whether that was true? It would be quite inert, I mean its fossilised coal.
Caz: Yeah. I'll lick mine later and I'll report back.
Oh, see, we're, we're going to be talking until three in the morning. But down in the bottom left is a fabric poppy, about 1919, in the collection. And bottom, bottom right is a tiny badge about that big that looks quite modern, looks like it's sort of perhaps the bass player in Elvis Costello's band, but it was an actor called Max Clifton in the early 1900s. And, and that badge was passed down through his family as a memorial.
And here's, we'll be seeing these afterwards too. I just put these in because lovely metal and saved from the picture collection who also looks after objects, and Jo said that we could so that was exciting.
Cause, there are things that you'll see tonight that won't be on show possibly for years again, because once they come out they have to go back for their own protection. But these were sort of do-it-yourself lapel badges with the colours of the English flag on the left. Dardanelles 1915, and then of course Gallipoli 1915 as well. And this was a badge I found early on during my project, and it was a badge given to mums who had sons in the war. And you got one star along the bar for every son who died. And there was a very different reaction, some women wore them proudly and some women threw them in the bin. So, I thought that was really interesting as another form of memorial.
And here in the collection there are lots of textiles. And although there isn't a textile conservator, there are a few textiles in the, my exhibition upstairs. We, we got a conservatory in. And but, there was some things that I couldn't show and one of them was this, because it's in such bad nick. It's a morning cape and a little bit of an outfit. And you can see down in the bottom left, just a little—again a very bad photo, I didn't know they were going to be blown up on stage—but you can see the little Jet buttons and the lace. And I learned this word ‘top left’ that when the fabric is rent it's called ‘shattered’. Which, it does look a bit shattered. And Lizzie, you work a lot with, with costume and, and textiles. Will, will this sort of thing just stay in a box forever because it's so very fragile now?
Lizzie: Yes, once the shattering starts it's irreversible unless, you know, you've kept something in pristine condition and it's been in perfect, perfect in museum environment and it hasn't started the shattering process. You know, it's really, it's irreversible and it's inherent in the textile.
From the, in the late 19th Century. Of course, silk has always been sold by weight. And textile, silk was weighted with mineral salts that in, in, in the baths would create tin, a tin compound. So the fibres were all impregnated with these salts and over…
Caz: So, it's actually a metallic fabric, even though it's not shiny.
Lizzie: Yeah. It, it gives it a kind of scoop, a sort of froufrou, a weight. And so it could be sold and, you know, swindle people, because, of course, you're paying more for something that's an inferior quality. Or you could buying for its actual feel and the sound, the froufrou sound it might make, and…
Caz: The froufrou sound.
Lizzie: Well, you know,
Caz: No, I love it.
Louise: Like rusting petticoat
Lizzie: You know, when you, when you rub silk together, that rustling sound.
Caz: Yeah, yeah.
Lizzie: And of course, you know, over time it just turns the silk to powder. What is also quite troubling when this sort of occurs, and I'd advise wearing a mask, is that you can't always be certain that the right mineral salts were used, because a lot of people used lead and it would poison the wearer. And then you've got the added sort of chemical soup of the aniline dyes, which were sometimes fixed with arsenic. So umm.
Caz: Great. Snugly. And speaking of aniline dyes, because one of the first ones was mauve, wasn't it, and purple, and. When I looked at this dress, which is in the collection. And they come down in flat, in huge boxes that are about that tall and, you know, way long, from the storage in Ballarat. It's terribly exciting, and then you take off the lid and there, you know, there's crackling tissue paper. And there was this darling lying face down in the box for the last 100 and so years. And I was, I got it out because I knew it was mauve from the catalogue, and I thought it must be a half mourning dress, because Victoria, Queen Victoria, sort of decreed that it should be black and then grey or mauve, but it turns out to be a wedding dress. So it's not always what it seems. You have to know a bit more history.
We have to move on so that we've got time for questions. But, I just wanted to ask all of you, I know that it was considered that mourning was a fetish after Prince Albert died. Do you think all these things that we've been looking at are, umm, are weird? Or do you think it's just different in different times? That now we have tattoos, or we have Facebook pages or, you know, do, do you feel that this is something that somebody might do now, I guess, Jo? You know.
Jo: I mean, I don't. I don't think it's weird.
Caz: She does really.
Jo: I mean maybe the, the, the hair thing seems a bit odd. But, I guess it's, because of, I mean I must admit when I first saw the brooch I didn't realise that working with hair was such an industry at that time and that it was actually quite common to have different pieces of, you know, whether it was the Albert, or a brooch, or other, or bracelets made out of hair.
But I guess, you know, things, personal objects that have some, you know, real strong connection to an individual is something that you see throughout our collection and they come from all periods of time. So, yeah, I don't see that as being weird. And I think, you know, contemporary society does it as well, whether it's, whether it's something that they wear on their body, as in the form of a tattoo, or a piercing, or…
Caz: Like armband.
Jo: Yeah, or, or it's, you know, or it's, you know, the, the friendship bracelets and things that, you know, I remember from when I was a teenager and we all, you know, wore them. So, I think, I don't think it's weird.
Caz: And actually, so that we can get the questions in. I'm just going to get a little bit vulgar and ask Louise, if somebody turned up with this for you to sell and you popped it in the window of the French Jewel Box. What would the tag say?
Louise: Ok, I, without provenance, because obviously with the provenance it wouldn't end up with me. Umm. I would be probably putting somewhere around $2,500 on it.
Caz: Ok. And Lizzy what do you think it might have been worth back in the day? To have this made?
Lizzie: Mm, I think it might have been between £5 and £10.
Caz: Which would be what now do you think?
Lizzie: Oh, I don't like these questions I can never…
Caz: No, I know it is vulgar.
Lizzie: Oh, I, I, would say that that was. I mean if you think that a working man's weekly wage in to mid-to-late was about a pound or something or other. So you know you put that into context and it's an expensive.
Caz: That's two months wages.
Lizzie: Yeah, yeah.
Caz: Yeah. And Jo have you insured it?
Caz: Are you going to tell us how much for?
Jo: No, I can't tell you how much, cause it, we have a, basically we have insurance for our entire collection, so.
Caz: I imagine that you just get a form and write ‘everything's priceless’ on it.
Jo: Everything. I mean obviously the broach is priceless to us and it's interesting because we don't actually have an individual evaluation for this particular collection item.
Jo: It's never been out. Well, as far as I can tell it's never actually gone out on exhibition externally. It's been on exhibition here in our own building.
Caz: But didn't it go to Ballarat for the Scottish exhibition?
Jo: I don't, I don't know that it did or.
Caz: Oh, ok.
Jo: So, so that would be a point where we would get it valued.
Caz: I'm guessing you don't just call a taxi.
Jo: No, no we have very rigorous processes. Yeah. And hopefully no one from our conversation department is here and cringing at this point in time guys.
Caz: Oh, they're always cringing when I ask them things.
Jo: But no, it's so…we don't actually have a value amount for that particular item. And it, so I was quite interested to sort of hear what Louise would sell it for as an unprovenanced item, and then what we might then add to that considering that, you know, it's got all that history associated with it.
Caz: Well, before we all go out and have a look, cause I was reminded too of I think that you, that some people can use the remains of a loved one to be compressed into a diamond.
Louise: We have set one.
Caz: Oh, ok, so there you go. Oh, that's got the biggest gasp of the night, hasn't it?
Well, on that cheery note we might go out and have a look at the objects. But please do check out the exhibitions, both upstairs and downstairs. And before we go, I just want to say thankyou so much to the Library, to Pete on sound, to Zoe and Harry on door. Thank you to Tara Christian Palet for organising the whole shebang and doing some research herself.
A wonderful panel, all of whom have done independent research, well, all their lives, but particularly for this evening. So thankyou for coming.
And if we could thank Jo, Louise, and Lizzy as well.
Thankyou so much.
'In the middle of the 19th century, 50 tonnes of human hair a year was imported into England for use by the country's jewellers.'
– Louise Burnet
About this video
Kaz Cooke, author, cartoonist and 2013 State Library Victoria Creative Fellow, leads this intriguing discussion focusing on a single object from the Library's collection: a mourning brooch made from gold and woven human hair.
She is joined by a panel of experts who help tease out aspects of social history, design and curatorship revealed by the brooch:
- Jo Ritale – Acting Director Library Services & Experience, State Library Victoria
- Louise Burnet – gemmologist and co-owner of the French Jewel Box in the Block Arcade
- Lizzie Anya-Petrivna – Cultural Collections Curator, National Trust of Australia (Victoria)
In this video, Kaz shares the fascinating history behind the brooch, a classic example of Victorian-era mourning jewellery. She also introduces the two women who are integral to its story, Anne Drysdale (1792–1853) and Caroline Newcomb (1812–74), colonial pioneers and life partners who ran a successful sheep farm together on the Bellarine Peninsula.
More to explore
- Visit Kaz Cooke's Raiment and regalia display in the Changing face of Victoria exhibition
- Read Kaz Cooke's fabulous Fellow Frockery blog
- Watch 'One object, many stories: Lambswool book'