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Photo: Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection.
Gold brooch surrounded by a rope of brown hair (ca. 1835), an example of a short-lived craze in England.

King George IV of England was a pretty wild youth, and when he clapped eyes on one commoner that he knew he would never be authorized to marry, he sent her a picture of his love-at-first-sight eye. She sent an eye picture back. They married in secret, a marriage later abandoned.

But England was left with one of those nutty crazes for which it is is well known.

“Lover’s eyes” became a thing. The fact that they were worn close to the heart on lockets and pendants makes me wonder if the antique-locket side of Suzanne’s jewelry business, Luna & Stella, might have come across any.

Lauren Moya Ford reports at Hyperallergic on a new book about a collection of the mysterious miniatures.

“From the moment the Prince of Wales (later, King George IV of England) laid eyes on Maria Firtzherbert at the London opera in 1784, he knew it was love. But Fitzherbert, a Catholic, twice-widowed commoner, knew that British law would never allow their union. She fled to France to escape the future king’s ardor, but Fitzherbert’s absence only inflamed the prince more. In his passion, he sent Fitzherbert a miniature portrait of one of his eyes. She reciprocated with her own eye miniature, and one month later, the two were married in a secret ceremony. The scandalous tale of love at first sight set off a craze for eye miniatures across England that would stretch for nearly four decades. 

“A new book, Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection (D Giles Limited, 2021) edited by Elle Shushan, features a richly illustrated cache of over 130 of these bejeweled, hand-painted treasures. Eye miniatures are typically made of painstakingly detailed watercolors on polished pieces of ivory, and surrounded by carved gems, enameled metals, and human hair. These exquisite, enigmatic objects are frequently unsigned, making the majority unattributable to a single artist, and because they depict only a single eye and sometimes a stray lock of hair or eyebrow, the sitter’s identity is also often obscured. …

“Most lovers’ eyes were worn as jewelry, especially on brooches, lockets, and pendants worn close to the heart. Others decorated small functional boxes and etuis used to hold toothpicks, false beauty marks, and other trinkets. Most eye miniatures were exchanged between lovers, though they were also given to close friends and family members. Others were produced as memorial tokens after a loved one’s death. In this case, the eye is often surrounded by clouds to symbolize the subject’s ascent from earth.

“But it wasn’t just the eye itself that carried meaning in these small portraits. An essay by art historian Graham C. Boettcher explains the messages conveyed by the miniatures’ accompanying diamonds, coral, and other gemstones. Pearls, for example, symbolized purity but also tears, and often framed the portraits of the deceased, while garnets represented friendship.

“Another essay by Shusan details the ways that eye miniature artists utilized the language of flowers, or floriography, in their work. For example, a miniature thought to be the eye of Mary Sarah Fox surrounded by foxgloves may be a play on the sitter’s last name, but could also connect the sitter to the energy, magic, and cunning that the flower was then considered to represent. In addition to eyes, some miniatures also featured locks of the sitter’s hair, another fragment of a beloved body to be captured and cherished by the miniature’s owner forever. 

“Although the king later abandoned Fitzherbert for a more legitimate marriage, he requested to be buried with her eye miniature placed directly over his heart upon his death. In this way, he took a piece of his lover — and her watchful gaze — with him to the grave.

Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection, edited by Elle Shushan and published by D Giles Limited, is available on Bookshop.”

Photos showing an array of these mementos may be seen at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: @JasonThorne_RPP on Twitter
Seattle artist Stacy Milrany has come up with a new twist on the Little Free Library concept: Take some art, leave some art.

You know about the Little Free Library movement (e.g., here and at Fake Flamenco, here). And you know about the miniature art gallery that blossomed in Boston at the start of the pandemic (here). But did you know about the Little Free Art Library in Seattle? You may be interested to see how the idea evolved from something the artist had done for her mother. Cathy Free at the Washington Post has the story.

“Stacy Milrany probably runs the only art gallery in the country where visitors are encouraged to walk away with the art. And as far as she knows, her Little Free Art Gallery in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood is likely the only museum where all of the works will fit neatly in a pocket.

“Milrany’s miniature gallery, which opened for public view on Dec. 13, sits five feet off the ground inside a white wooden box in front of her house. The head curator and painter said she based her idea on the popular Little Free Libraries in neighborhoods coast to coast.

‘The idea is pretty simple — anyone is welcome to leave a piece, take a piece or just have a look around and enjoy what’s inside,’ said Milrany, a painter who runs a small, appointment-only gallery featuring her works. …

“Milrany gave her wee museum a contemporary design [and] installed a tiny bench and small plastic people who, she said, appear to be reflecting on the art. The bench and people are part of the permanent collection and not for the taking. …

“Said Milrany, ‘Just the surprise of seeing what people put in there has made this super fun for me.’ So far, she has seen works featuring bulldogs, masked heroes and a chicken farmer, as well as intricate collages and painted seashells.

“It was March 2019 when she first started creating miniature art pieces. … Milrany’s mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and was about to begin chemotherapy treatment in Portland, Ore., about 2½ hours away from her home.

“ ‘I decided if I couldn’t be with her every day she was going through treatment, I could offer a little piece of something via UPS every single day — something made by a human hand to add some brightness to those dark days,’ she said.

“Friends and gallery visitors offered to help when they learned what Milrany was doing for her mother, and together they created 140 pieces of mixed-media pieces of art measuring 4-by-6 inches each. Her mother, who is now healthy, said the daily deliveries helped her to get through the most difficult time of her life, Milrany said.

“When the pandemic took hold in Seattle last year, she decided to expand her idea and paint 500 more small artworks and send them to people who were isolated because of the virus. She called her project ‘Dose of Art.’

“ ‘I put a notice on Instagram and people started asking me to mail them to people who were in nursing homes or their moms or dads who were home alone,’ Milrany said. …

“Then last month, Milrany came up with the idea for her Little Free Art Gallery.

“A carpenter friend helped her build an 18-by-15-inch cedar display case, paint it white and install it on a post out front, along with a sign:

“ ‘Welcome to the smallest free-est art gallery in the world. Have a look around! If you’d like to take a piece, please leave another piece in its place for the next art-lover who comes around.’ …

“ ‘In three days, 10 pieces had come and gone,’ Milrany said. She was a bit saddened, however, to discover that one of her plastic miniature gallery figures — a character she named Chef — had gone missing.

“Milrany posted a sign asking for the return of her ‘4.7 inch chef and arts patron’ — and a week later, an anonymous donor mailed her an entire new set of whimsical plastic people to place inside the museum. …

“Many of the people who tuck artwork inside her gallery are Seattle-area artists, delighted to find a new venue for their work.

“Artist A. McLean Emenegger created a piece that features her grandfather as a young man, enjoying some time with a friend. ‘It’s a nod to joyful abandon,’ said Emenegger, 53, who added beeswax, sewing thread and bits of turquoise and coral to an old family photo for her contribution. … She said, ‘There’s something charming and reassuring about the Little Free Library concept. And translating that into an art exchange is genius.’

“Burton Holt, an artist who primarily creates works with found objects, donated a piece he’d made from colorful rubber bands. ‘The gallery is a real shot in the arm for the neighborhood in these difficult times,’ said Holt, 80, a retired ship captain.”

More at the Washington Post, here. Follow Milrany on Instagram @stacy_milrany_art.

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Photos: Shelter in Place Gallery
Shelter In Place is a miniature, coronavirus-inspired gallery. It was launched by artist Eben Haines, who built the maquette and invited artists to submit works to scale.

If I didn’t believe that for most of us the lockdown would last a lot longer than the current “opening up” stuff, I’d write a post about happy I am to read books to grandchildren again and how sorry I am to see artists abandon their wildly inventive pandemic pursuits.

But I’m pretty sure most of us will still be self-distancing for many moons and enjoying the output from creative people that might never have happened but for coronavirus. I love following @covidartmuseum on Instagram, for example. Some of the submissions are a little too weird for me, but most of them make me laugh out loud. Another great source is the arts website Hyperallergic, where I recently learned about a miniature gallery called Shelter in Place.

Valentina Di Liscia wrote, “In the past month, a Boston gallery has managed to mount 15 exhibitions of brand-new works, with a rigorous program still to come. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, arts institutions around the globe shuttered one after the other; meanwhile, Shelter in Place Gallery [@shelterinplacegallery on Instagram] was not only founded during the crisis but continues to thrive.

“Of course, there’s a catch. Shelter In Place is a miniature gallery, measuring 20 by 30 inches and exhibiting scaled-down works in a model structure created using foam core, mat board, balsa wood, and plexiglass. Artists can submit works at a 1:12 or one inch to the foot scale, allowing them to create and show even ambitious, seemingly large-scale pieces — a romantic, suspended latex installation by Mary Pedicini; wall-to-wall canvases by B. Chehayeb — while traditional exhibition spaces remain closed. With high ceilings and skylights that flood the space with sunshine, the condensed gallery is impressively lifelike, giving artists room to get particularly creative. …

“The brilliant concept was devised by Eben Haines, a painter and graphic designer for exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston.

‘With the ongoing shutdowns and lockdowns across the globe, artists are having to stay home … So I’ve built SIP gallery as a new platform for Boston Artists (and eventually from all over) to allow for large scale artworks to be made at a desk or dining room table.’ …

“The idea first came to him back in 2018, long before the pandemic, when Haines was asked to participate in a group show at the Porch Gallery in Minneapolis titled Art Fair. The concept was simple: each artist received a 10-by-10-inch, white-painted MDF box that would serve as an ersatz fair booth where they could show scaled work. …

“Months later, as a rainy day project, he decided to create his own 1:12 scale model to house maquettes for large-scale works that he could not produce in his studio due to space or financial constraints. ‘But then the weather got better, and the more or less abandoned model stayed tucked away in my studio,’ he said.

“Enter the current crisis. Haines was one of more than 300 workers furloughed from the MFA Boston, which closed its doors in March … Haines dusted off the gallery model from years back and began making miniature paintings, initially as a strategy to continue working in his reduced studio space, which had shrunk from 400 square feet to a mere 10. But it dawned on him that other artists might be in a similar predicament, confined to less-than-ideal work conditions and aching to share their creations in a meaningful way. …

“All of the works on view are original, and it prioritizes new pieces as opposed to small copies of existing ones. Digital copies are all but prohibited. … So far, all works have arrived ready to be hung, which has made installations easier. …

“Haines emphasizes the project is not commercial; instead, any sales inquiries received are rerouted to the artists themselves, or to their galleries. Nicole Duennebier’s exhibition, for instance, nearly sold out before they could deliver the mini-paintings back to her gallery, 13FOREST. …

“Said Haines. ‘One of my ambitions for this project, besides urging people to step outside of their crisis mode for a little bit, is for artists to be able to use their submission proposals and photographs of their installed work to send to galleries, residencies, or grant programs, and have some momentum when the country opens back up. …

” ‘We’re honestly so busy with the local response we’ve had that it seems daunting to open it up, but once going to the post office gets a little safer and easier, I’d love to be able to show work from outside Boston,’ said Haines.”

Read the whole article at Hyperallergic, here. The pictures are amazing.

Wilhelm Neusser, “Untitled Bog Painting” (2020), oil on linen, a miniature.

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Photo: Wikimedia
Paper theaters like the one above were popular with children in England in the 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson never forgot his.

Children love to put on plays. I know I did, and I see my own grandchildren acting out stories as if on “The Stage.” One form of children’s theater, popular in England in the 19th century, involved paper cutouts.

As Amelia Soth writes at JSTOR Daily, “In the Regency era (early 1800s), live theater was so popular that it regularly inspired riots. In 1809, when the Covent Garden Theater tried to raise ticket prices, audiences were so incensed that they revolted. For more than two months straight, they shouted, shook rattles, rung bells, and even brought pigs into the theater to drown out the actors. The protest was successful, and the administration gave up on the price hike. …

“People were hungry for entertainment. And in this time before Netflix and YouTube, enterprising toymakers developed a novel way to bring entertainment into the home: paper theaters. For ‘one penny plain, two cents colored,’ you got a tiny cardboard stage about the size of a paperback book, complete with a proscenium arch, curtains, and sometimes even a paper audience. The characters were laid out on sheets of paper, frozen in dramatic poses: villains brandish revolvers capped with clouds of gunpowder, jolly sailors hook arms and dance, clowns emerge from barrels. …

“Then there are the sets, storybook illustrations of extravagant palaces and howling wildernesses, to be slotted in and out of the back of the theater, behind the cavorting characters. The scripts that came with them were as miniaturized as the stage, heavily abridged and censored for children’s ears and attention spans.

“Despite the scripts, it’s easy to imagine how these stories would have expanded in the hands of the children who played with them — how the plots would zigzag, how the characters would migrate from one story to another, how scribbled additions would enrich the pre-drawn scenery.

[When] Goethe’s son August put on shows in his paper theater, the family cat always served as one of the performers. …

“The magic of the paper theater was not that it allowed children to replicate a beloved play in their home; it was that it provided them with the raw materials either to copy or create, to follow or subvert, as they saw fit.

“Perhaps this is why this short-lived children’s toy left such an enduring cultural legacy. Before Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, before Jean Cocteau directed his iconic, dreamlike Beauty and the Beast, before Wagner composed his Ring Cycle, they each acted out their big stories on these tiny stages.

“As the literary scholar Monica Cohen points out, Stevenson’s Treasure Island reads almost like a paper-theater drama writ large. Pirates were an unshakeable cliché of Victorian melodrama, and the grim tales of cruelty and violence that featured on the Victorian stage were brightened into candy colors in their miniature theater editions. Likewise, Stevenson’s dashing pirates come to us filtered through a sunny lens. ‘As a toy theater pirate,’ Cohen writes, ‘Billy Bones is a copy of a copy.’

“Remembering the shop where he purchased toy theaters in his youth, Skelt’s Juvenile Drama, Stevenson wrote: ‘Every sheet we fingered was another lightning glance into obscure, delicious story; it was like wallowing in the raw stuff of story-books. I know nothing to compare with it save now and then in dreams, when I am privileged to read in certain unwrit stories of adventure, from which I awake to find the world all vanity.’

“He continued, ‘What am I? what are life, art, letters, the world, but what my Skelt has made them? He stamped himself upon my immaturity. The world was plain before I knew him, a poor penny world; but soon it was all coloured with romance.’ ”

Read more here.

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The Concord Museum has an exhibit on dollhouses right now, and I walked over to check it out. I’ve always liked dollhouses and even sought out one for Suzanne  when she was in utero.

At the museum, children were playing happily with the sturdy contemporary dollhouse they were allowed to touch, but I suspect the people most intrigued by the glassed-in displays from the Strong Museum and various private collectors were the adults.

The Concord Museum is a history museum, and so I was less troubled by the accurate recreation of inequality in the miniature scenes than by the lack of relevant commentary in the placards. I couldn’t help thinking, for example, that some of the black schoolchildren who pass through the museum might be troubled by one dollhouse and might appreciate some discussion of the life of the servants in the attic and kitchen. But the placard was silent about wealth, poverty, and the legacy of slavery.

Another aspect of social history that seems fundamental to a discussion of dollhouses involves the many women who created them as a hobby.

Women who had servants in the attic and the kitchen were not folding the laundry. They were not cooking or tidying up. They were not raising their children. They did not have jobs. In short, they had almost nothing useful to do — a recipe for depression.

I often wonder about the psychological constraints that kept such women from giving themselves permission to go out into the world, as Jane Addams or Beatrix Potter did, each in her own way.

If making exquisite little worlds at home gave the dollhouse creators and their friends and families pleasure, that is a great thing in itself. If it represents a determination to create something fine when hardly any meaningful activity was allowed, then that is an even greater thing.

The dollhouse exhibit is up through January 15. Related events may be found here.

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Cultural institutions are getting smaller. And more local.

We wrote about a library in a phone booth here and the Little Free Library here. You can see fully realized short films on YouTube and street art just around the corner.

Now folks in Somerville have launched a museum in a doorway. It’s The Mµseum.

From the website: “Judith Klausner (Co-Founder, Curator) is a Somerville MA artist with a love for small, intricate, and overlooked things. She first dreamed up the Mµseum in 2010, as a way to combine her love of  serious miniature art with her passion for making art accessible, and her conviction that New England arts institutions should show the work of New England artists. Three years (and a lot of planning) later, she is delighted to see it become a reality. … Contact Judith at judith@themicromuseum.com.

“Steve Pomeroy (Co-Founder, Engineer) is a programmer and a builder, both by profession and by nature. He’s largely responsible for the engineering behind the Mµseum, from the solar-powered miniature track lighting to the 3D-printed doric columns and laser-cut façade typography. He formally studied computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he discovered a love of communication protocols and formal computer languages. Contact Steve at steve@themicromuseum.com.”

WBUR had a story on the micro museum here.

There is something childlike and innocent about miniature enterprises. Didn’t you always think as a child you could take a few toys and tea cups and bags of flour and new sponges from around the house and set up a table on the street as an authentic store? You thought, Why not? Just do it.

I get a kick out of people just doing it.

Photo: Mara Brod, http://marabrod.com/fineart.html

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