History of the British Museum and its collections, £6.00
Diameter: 2.000 cm
Weight: 58.000 g
Soden Smith Collection
M&ME Dalton ring cat. 1663
Room 46: Europe 1400-1800
Gold mourning ring with a painted eye
England, after AD 1794
A mourning ring for Mary Dean
Jewellery, chiefly rings and lockets, is sometimes worn in memory of a deceased person during a set period of mourning. The practice of bequeathing a ring for remembrance was known from the Middle Ages. By the late eighteenth century, the decoration usually followed the neo-classical imagery found on tomb monuments and gravestones, such as burial urns, weeping willows, mourning figures, and angels of death. Rings had become much larger at this time, enabling entire scenes to be depicted as well as miniature portraits.
Here, sentimentality is combined with a rather gruesome fashion, a 'painted eye'. It was thought that the 'eye' of the person depicted was always looking at the wearer of the ring, and subsequently these 'painted eye' rings were used as keepsakes or souvenirs, as well as items of mourning. The eye was generally cut from a painted portrait; in this instance the portrait must have been painted in Mary Dean's youth.
The back is engraved with the inscription 'Mary Dean Obt 27 Augt 1794 Aet 73' ('Mary Dean died 27 August 1794 aged 73'). The customary form of a memorial inscription uses the Latin obit for 'died' and aetat for 'aged', is here abbreviated to obt and aet. The inscriptions are almost always dated and so mourning rings can often help us to date other kinds of rings decorated in a similar style.
J. Litten, The art of death (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1998)
C. Oman, British rings 800-1914 (London, Batsford, 1974)
O.M. Dalton, Catalogue of the finger rings, (London, British Museum, 1912)
S. Bury, An introduction to sentimental (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985)