Earlier this year I visited a fascinating exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Treasured Possessions was a history of items that our forebears – rich and poor – kept in their homes or close to their bodies. Put more simply, it was a history of ‘stuff’, and it was brilliantly done. From tableware to portable toothpicks, chatelaines to silken shoes, it offered a deeply personal insight into European social history from the Renaissance era to the Enlightenment.
The beauty of this exhibition was its small scale. It’s easy to switch off when confronted with cabinet after cabinet of coins or combs or decorated fans. These carefully-chosen objects, many brought up from the Fitzwilliam reserves, took on a significance and power that couldn’t fail to send the imagination firing in all directions. Each one felt precious, as if the exhibition space harboured a hundred untold stories.
Particularly poignant were the mourning rings – pieces of jewellery worn to commemorate a dead loved one. Mourning jewellery became popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Samuel Pepys allocated £100 in his will for the purchase of one hundred and twenty eight rings to be distributed at his funeral. Such extravagance must have rendered Pepys’ gesture almost insincere – a display of status and wealth rather than a truly intimate gesture. The rings on display at the Fitzwilliam, however, were undeniably personal. One contained locks of two children’s hair, siblings who had died aged five and eleven. Another was so tiny it must have been made for a child.
But I was especially drawn to the small, square-bezel gold ring depicting a painted blue eye. There was something uncanny, almost macabre about the eye; its gaze all-seeing, beautiful, and strangely alive. Made in England and dated around 1790, the ring would have been worn, the exhibition curators suggest, by a grieving lover to offer comfort during the mourning period.
I asked the curators for more details. Who was the owner of the ring? Even more intriguing: who was the owner of the eye? Initially it was disappointing to hear that the ring’s origins were a mystery. But then I began to feel pleased; a blank slate can be a gift for a writer, inspiring those inevitable ‘What ifs?’. What if the ring had been bequeathed not as a sentimental or a loving gesture, but as a warning? I am watching you. Perhaps the dead woman’s lover had been unfaithful or unkind. He would not escape her judgement, even though she was in her grave. The gothic possibilities seemed endless.
Museum exhibits have long inspired poets, short-story writers and novelists. Indeed, I discovered while researching this article that Treasured Possessions closed with a literary event in which Carol Ann Duffy, Sarah Dunant and Ali Smith gave their responses to some of the exhibits (writing respectively about a stitched sampler, a floor tile and a spoon).
Whether I’ll ever write my Georgian ghost story I cannot say. But a picture of the painted eye ring now looks down from the pinboard above my desk. There’s no doubt she’s watching me…
Juliet West is the author of Before the Fall, a devastating tale of love and betrayal set in London’s East End during the First World war.