What do Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and the Supreme Court President Lady Hale all have in common?
They are all female powerhouses whose brooch game was bang on trend.
Following the Supreme Court announcement that Boris Johnson's proroguing of Parliament was unlawful, Lady Hale's glittering spider brooch quickly become a viral sensation.
Perhaps a metaphor for the tangled political web we currently find ourselves in, her decision to wear a brooch points to the practice of powerful individuals wearing coded jewellery in historical portraiture. For centuries, brooches and pins were used to communicate class status, religion, marital status, or even hidden desires. Artists deliberately used jewellery to ascribe particular attributes to their sitters, to convey a sense of personality and identity.
In celebration of what might be to some an unexpected comeback for jewellery, let's explore the brooch's inclusion in art history.
Though today we regard the brooch as a largely decorative device, brooches were originally used to fix garments and items of clothing together. Ornamental pins such as these date back to the Bronze Age. They made a particularly large impact in the Roman era, when pins were used to fasten together cloaks and tunics.
Ancient brooches, amulets and talismans were designed with motifs of animals and coiling snakes. Constructed with metals such as silver, gold and bronze, they were often inlaid with precious gemstones like sapphires, emeralds and amber.
This sculptural work by Chris Wilson found in Northern Ireland was created to resemble the ancient form of the 'penannular brooch', a sweeping arc bearing a distinctive pattern connecting to what is often today called 'Celtic' history. The penannular brooch was commonly worn in the era of the O'Neill dynasty. A status symbol worn by both men and women, and particularly the clergy, it was also used by the Vikings.
In the Viking Age (c.AD 793–1066), both men and women wore intricately designed brooches. For example, in this painting by Robert Gibb, the soldier's garments are held together with a striking oval brooch, similar in style to the tenth-century ones found in the British Museum. Presumably Gibb had visited the Museum's collection to paint an authentic Viking costume.
The brooch is often featured in Byzantine and early Christian art. Christ and the Virgin Mary are typically depicted wearing garments pinned together with an ornate brooch.
Equally, by the tenth century, elaborately carved cameos depicting the Virgin and Child were often worn by individuals as a way to demonstrate their faith.
In England, possibly the first female monarch to turn the brooch into a trendy fashion statement was Elizabeth I (1533–1603).
The Virgin Queen wore an intricate brooch for most courtly occasions. In fact, her sumptuously ornate dresses tended to look like hundreds of brooches stitched together. Embroidered by hand with many different coloured threads, the dresses were laced with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other precious jewels. On top of this, she would wear even more jewellery – brooches, rings, necklaces and earrings.
Throughout the course of her reign, her wardrobe became increasingly opulent and flamboyant. Her courtiers were encouraged to emulate her style. However no one was allowed to rival the Queen's outfit or outshine her. Elizabeth I fashioned an image for herself, one that communicated and legitimised her power.
The Grand Tour
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brooches were part of the fashion paraphernalia that signified an individual had voyaged across Europe on their Grand Tour. A sign of sartorial sophistication, brooches could be purchased in the tourist towns of Italy – Venice, Rome and Florence.
In this portrait of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), he wears an oriental-style Albanian costume with a brooch. He had purchased this costume while travelling in the Mediterranean and Ottoman Empire in 1809.
During the Neoclassical era, brooches typically took inspiration from classical antiquity and showed Roman ruins or pictorial scenes.
During the Georgian era, the brooch experienced a surge in popularity.
In a famous tale, the Prince of Wales (who later became George IV) sent Maria Anne Fitzherbert a love letter containing a pearl-lined, miniature brooch containing a painting of his eye. Two diamond stones appear beneath the eye, as if they are tears. A symbol of his devotion to her, the painted brooch bolstered the prince's fervent marriage proposals to Fitzherbert, who alas, wouldn't accept him because she was Catholic.
George's romantic token inspired the trend of eye miniatures, also known as 'lovers' eyes'. They were usually exchanged as gifts between lovers, painted on ivory and set inside a gemstone brooch. These would be pinned close to the heart, or tucked away in pockets.
During the nineteenth century, women typically wore cameo brooches, which originated in the third century BC but became popular again during the reign of Queen Victoria. Cameo brooches were comprised of hard stone, glass, coral or shell carved in a raised relief. They typically show a face in profile or a mythical scene.
In this portrait of Jane Holloway, the sitter wears a large brooch showing a mythological subject matter, most likely Cupid.
Like her ancestor Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria also popularised jewellery during her reign, in particular, decorative pins and the brooch. In formal portraiture, she was usually depicted adorned in jewellery, including diamond necklaces and a bejewelled crown.
Brooches were often worn during times of bereavement. They functioned as symbols to commemorate loved ones who had passed away. Mourning brooches date back centuries, though they gained widespread popularity by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This may have been due to the popular portrayal of Queen Victoria as a widow, following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
During the Victorian era, women started to wear love brooches. Often these brooches featured painted depictions of their spouses or romantic partners. These were commonly used up until the First World War, when departing soldiers would gift them to their loved ones before going to war.
Brooches were also adorned with crescent moons and stars, embellished with rhinestones, opals and pearls. Particular images, such as butterflies, animals, birds or flowers were laden with symbolism, usually connected to themes such as love, the soul, or fidelity.
High-powered women continue to wear brooches, often as a witty and sometimes rebellious fashion statement that gives more character to portraiture.
Here, Labour MP Baroness White of Rhymney (1909–1999) can be seen wearing a brooch in this portrait by Jane Toler.
Since the mid-1990s, Madeleine K. Albright, who served under Bill Clinton as the first US female Secretary of State, has been wearing ostentatious and coded brooches. In 2009, she even published a book titled Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat's Jewel Box. As Albright explains, her choice of jewellery is an asset – allowing her to illustrate or hint towards her views and opinions.
In 2018, our current Queen, Elizabeth II, made headlines when she wore a floral brooch to welcome US President Donald Trump. The brooch had been gifted to the Queen by Barack and Michelle Obama during their 2011 state visit. Was this, as some commentators suggested, a subtle indication of the Queen's feelings towards the visiting leader? We can but speculate...
There's no denying that jewellery, and in particular brooches, have always been inextricably linked to representations of power. Not only a status symbol, brooches have been adopted by rebellious women as a means to communicate what cannot be so directly vocalised.
Though brooches may be pinned to the past, they are certainly making a comeback in the present.
Lydia Figes, Content Creator at Art UK