Sunday 21 January 2018

Treasures: Victorian ware jewels in the crown

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Etruscan Revival earrings sold at Adam's for €3,400
Etruscan Revival earrings sold at Adam's for €3,400
A Victorian ruby serpent necklace from Weldon's
Weldon’s currently has this Etruscan Revival opal pendant
Portrait of Thomas Butler

'How seldom one sees a woman who uses jewels properly," wrote the English author, Mrs Haweis, in 1889. "She either obliterates her eyes and complexion by too much dazzle, wearing brilliants as big as pigeons' eggs… or she goes to the other extreme and wears none, looking as if she had been disturbed at her toilet by burglars, or rifled by her creditors just before dinner."

The Victorians loved their jewellery. They also loved telling people how and when to wear it. Victorian books and magazines abound with instructions. Mrs Walker's Female Beauty (1837) was particularly strict. "In promenade or carriage, dress jewels are out of place," she wrote. The ball dress was a different matter. "All the resources of the toilet must be lavished upon it. No trivial embroidery or ornaments of gold or silver must glitter there: their place is supplied with pearls, diamonds and other jewels."

By the late 1800s, the magazines had started to praise people who didn't wear jewellery. In 1886, a young lady called Lucilla timidly wrote to the Ladies Treasury, enquiring if it was vulgar to wear jewellery at all.

You can see her point. Victorian jewellery reflects the tastes and customs of the time and some of it does look vulgar. The shapes are elaborate, the embellishment is excessive and some of the materials are, frankly, weird. Nowadays, most people are a little bit disgusted by the idea of wearing jewellery woven from a dead person's hair. The Victorians found it deeply symbolic.

For generations, Victorian jewellery was considered unattractive and outdated. Now it's coming back into fashion. "People are starting to see the quality of the pieces," says Garrett Weldon, a specialist dealer in antique jewellery. "I think people recognise the quality even when it's not their particular style."

A lot of Victorian jewellery was inspired by wildlife: animals, birds, plants, insects and reptiles, especially snakes. Serpent jewellery was popularised by Queen Victoria of England. She wore a serpent bracelet to her First Council and her engagement ring was a gold serpent studded with emeralds. The snake has meant many things to many cultures. In this case, it was understood as a symbol of eternal love.

Many more serpents followed - pierced by arrows or encircling hearts, swallowing their own tails, about to swallow birds, made in gold or jet or ivory, necklaces, rings, bracelets, or bangles with multiple coils. These were worn over long gloves and reached up the arm with the serpent's head lying on the wrist.

"Necklaces were the most popular, usually in fitted boxes," says Weldon. "They have a lovely fish-tail like flow, the body is tapered and the tail clicks into the mouth." A Victorian serpent necklace currently for sale at Weldon's costs €2,750. On October 18, a diamond, enamel and ruby serpent necklace (c.1845) sold at Adam's for €3,000. Stylised and highly flexible, it had an articulated body of snake-link chain with a sky-blue enamel head set, with a diamond head dress and ruby eyes. In June, also at Adam's, another serpent necklace (c.1840) sold for €3,200. This one had a green beryl crown and cabochon garnet eyes with a leaf dangling from its mouth. A third serpent, of similar quality, is forecast to appear at Adam's jewellery auction on December 6.

Another popular inspiration for Victorian jewellery was archaeology, especially following the excavation of Etruscan tombs outside Rome in the early 1800s.

"Jewellery with such fine gold work had not been seen since the burials themselves many centuries before," writes Claire-Laurence Mestrallet of Adam's. "The most beautiful examples were intricately wrought-gold earrings and necklaces bearing rows of pendants in the form of various mythological creatures such as harpies, mermaids and gorgons."

In some, the golden surface was covered with tiny golden granules. The 19th century jewellers could not work out how this was done.

The Italian jeweller Fortunato Pio Castellani, who observed the excavation of the tombs, set himself the challenge of recovering the ancient jewellers' lost techniques.

After an extensive search, he found a type of peasant jewellery, made in a remote part of the Apennines. This still used the ancient techniques, although it was considered lacking in design and style. The workmen were trundled off to Rome and trained to make imitation Etruscan jewellery. Many other Victorian jewellers imitated the style, which became a short-lived craze.

Etruscan Revival jewellery wasn't just about decoration. There was an instructional element too. "These accurate reproductions from the ancient world had a tremendous effect on Victorian women, who were seriously bent on improving themselves," writes Margaret Flower in Victorian Jewellery (1951). Ornaments of this sort, she argues, gave pleasure as much for their accuracy as their beauty.

Genuine Castellani jewellery is very rare and worth a fortune. This April, a gold and coloured bead necklace (c.1880) by Castellani fetched $100,000 (€91,193) at Sotheby's of New York. In Adam's October 10 sale, a pair of Etruscan Revival earrings (c.1860) sold for €3,400. From each, an oval malachite cameo of the face of Venus dangled with a gold and malachite amphora hanging below.

Weldon's currently has an opal pendant (€1,750) in the Etruscan Revival style. "It's as light as a feather," says Weldon. "There's a high level of symmetry but it's also very feminine."

So if you have some Victorian jewellery, treasure it. There'll be no more where it came from. It was made with skills and a timeframe that aren't available today.


In the salerooms


The auction of contents of Kilternan Lodge, Kilternan, will take place on the premises tomorrow and Sunday, beginning at 1pm on both days.

Kilternan Lodge was the property of Don Carroll, former Governor of the Bank of Ireland, chairman of Carroll Industries, which included the tobacco manufacturers PJ Carroll & Co, and (incidentally) sponsor to the showjumpers Eddie Macken and Paul Darragh in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although this is an old-style house clearance sale, with much in the €500 to €1,500 bracket, there are also a number of more valuable items. These include a pair of Victorian coade stone garden pedestals with urns (€2,500 to €2,500); a Regency four-door bookcase (€5,000 to €8,000); a Irish William IV mahogany three-pillar dining table (€3,000 to €5,000); and a George III drum table (€3,000 to €5,000). For further details, see


Portrait of Thomas Butler

Santa got a bargain when a graceful green 19th century Baltic sleigh sold for just €1,900 at Adam's auction of Country House Collections, which took place at Townley Hall on October 11.

Portraits, though, went for serious money. A Portrait of Thomas Butler (above), Earl of Ossory, Eldest son of James, Duke of Ormond, sold for €68,000, vastly exceeding its upper estimate of €15,000. The painting, which is attributed to Van Dyke, shows the Kilkenny-born Thomas Butler, 6th Earl of Ossory (1634-1680), in armour with his war horse in the back ground. Amongst the furniture in the sale, an elaborate Killarney work davenport desk, with inlaid decorative features, including towers, harps, hounds, ferns, eagles, castles and cottages sold for €31,000, exceeding its upper estimate by €11,000. For full results, see


The death of an artist is frequently followed by a rise in the prices of their work. This was reflected in the sale of a number of pieces by Patrick Scott (1921-2014) at deVere's Design & Art Auction, which took place on October 4. The surprise of the sale, 'Painting For Amnesty' (1981) in gold leaf and acrylic on canvas (61cm x 61cm), sold for €18,500; and 'Gold Painting 9/94' (129.5 x 130cm) sold for €13,000. Rainbow Rug, Design 2, Number 1 (180 x 119 cm), a heavy Vancouver rug designed by Scott and made by V'Soske Joyce, fetched €5,700. The auctioneers also reported a rise in the prices of Italian-designed furniture from the 1960s. A pair of 1960s Italian gold-upholstered easy chairs with splayed arms, tapering legs and brass feet almost tripled their upper estimate to sell for €3,200, while a compartmented wall mirror sold for €1,600. For full results, see

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