Jewellery in the age of Victoria: a social and cultural history
Project leader: Judy Rudoe
Department: Prehistory and Europe
Project start: 2007
End date: 2009
The aim of this project is to rewrite the history of jewellery in the age of Victoria (who reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901) by bringing a fresh approach to the subject. This will be not the traditional collectors’ or museum category approach based on chronological surveys or individual jewellers, but one oriented towards the social aspects of owning, wearing and displaying jewellery.
New information about the nature of the market, the production of jewellery and the materials of jewellery will provide the factual underpinnings. A large component will be the attitudes of owners to their jewellery and the symbolic weight that it was expected to carry. Throughout, links with other disciplines will provide the specialist and non-specialist alike with the necessary information to understand how jewellery permeated all walks of life in the nineteenth century.
To produce a book entitled Jewellery in the Age of Victoria: a Social and Cultural History, written jointly with Charlotte Gere, an independent specialist in nineteenth century art and design, and published by British Museum Press. In distilling nearly three decades of research, the book will demonstrate that the significance of jewellery went far beyond mere personal ornament. It will examine the interface between jewellery and for example, politics, national identity or literature. The ‘age of Victoria’ is taken in its widest sense to encompass jewellery of the period made throughout Europe and America, displayed at international exhibitions and distributed beyond its country of origin through foreign trade, illustrated publications and a burgeoning tourist industry.
The argument will focus on the way in which jewellery, more than any other branch of the applied arts, reflected the pre-occupations and aspirations of its owners. A key objective is to reveal the messages contained in jewellery which are lost to us today, but would have been immediately intelligible to the giver or receiver in the nineteenth century. The owners whose words and portraits bring the subject to life range from Queen Victoria and her family to writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The material will be organised under a series of broad headings, each of which takes as its starting point ideas, events or developments central to Victorian discourse.