In 1784 Marie Anne Smythe Fitzherbert was already a two times widowed woman, and she was just 27 years old. Woman with some far noble kinship, Mary is still a common person, furthermore Catholic: that was the farther from being accepted as a wife by the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. These considerations did not pass through the mind of the future George IV when he met Marie for the first time. He, who was only 21, was completely blown away and wanted to marry her straight away.
An impossible union, because George III would have never allowed that marriage, and the paternal approval was unavoidable, sanctioned by the Royal Marriage Act in 1772. She was a widow, non noble and Catholic, but it’s known, love is blinded, even when you are a prince. The young woman was frightened by the proposal, followed by the threat of a suicide if it was not accepted, to the point that she went to London and moved to Europe, where she remained for more than a year, hoping that the prince forgot her. But the heir to the throne did not give up, and in a letter of 1785 asked her to come back to England and renewed his marriage proposal. Instead of an engagement ring, he sent to her something else, that in his P.S. of the letter described this way:
I send you a package, and at the same time I send you an eye, if you haven’t completely forgotten the whole face. I believe that the resemblance will strike you
The art historian Hanneke Grootemoer explains that it was a “tiny portrait painted in miniature of the prince’s right eye, made by his friend miniaturist Richard Cosway”. It is unknown whether it was that gift which convinced Marie, however, after a while, she came back to London and secretly married the prince.
That miniature of the eye inspired a trend connected to courting:
They became the “Eyes of the Lovers”
After a while the trend changed and the miniature of the eyes became mourning jewels, with pearls or tear-shaped gems, as if the dead was crying its own death.
It was a brief trend, lasting less than a century and maybe for that reason today there are very few examples left. Amongst those it is difficult to identify which ones were lover jewels and which mourning ones, even because often the identity of the subject was unknown as the one of the author, apart from when they were works of famous miniaturists like Cosway.
Even in their undeniable beauty, those eyes, so attentive, leaves with a sense of uneasiness, and one of the curators of the exhibition of miniatures in 1917, said:
“after having lived amongst these tiny paintings for several days, I felt fondness for a hostile critic who mentioned how these eyes, always attentive would make him awkward to the point he wanted to hit them with a coal hammer!”.
George IV and Marie Fitzherbert went through a “friendly separation” in 1794, even though their marriage was never considered valid, so that in 1795 George married the Duchess, his first cousin, since his father agreed on fixing the massive debts only once the wedding had occurred. The prince though never forgot his Marie, so in 1796 wrote down his testament, just 3 days before the birth of his firstborn, where he left all his mundane property “to my Marie Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart and soul”.
The two morganatic spouses made peace in 1798 and him, considered as a quirky character, split (but they forbid him to divorce), from his legitimate wife, who died 3 years afterwards in suspicious circumstances. George had a series of lovers, and some love children before, during and after his relationship with Marie. On the other hand Marie, when George IV died, managed to demonstrate to be his wife; she refused any type of noble title and asked only to have the chance to wear mourning clothes.
All pictures belong to the public domain. None of these pictures represent the miniature of the eye of George IV.