Wednesday, September 23, 2015

19th Century Motif: Grape Clusters

Picture this: You're sitting on the back porch on a hazy summer night. The cicadas hum in the distance. A bowl of fruit is taken from the fridge; plump, juicy grapes glisten in the cool metal. Your fingers snap off a crisp bunch nestled in the pile of bounty...

I highly suggest eating grapes while reading this post; what better way to experience a 19th century motif? (No I did not have snakes or skulls in previous posts) Grapes are not only delicious little snacks! They show up time and again in paintings, jewelry, and decoration for thousands of years. In terms of my own research I should have done this blog post sooner. Back to school-->back to work!

Historical Background
One really cool human being decided to cultivate grapes 6,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East. I'm not going to guess (WINE) why it became so popular, but it spread quickly to other parts of the world, making its juicy mark on many a society. We will skip to the Greeks and Romans, the ever-popular ancestors of our 19th century ancestors.

The grape motif shows up in the incredibly fun Greek god Dionysus (Roman Bacchus). This guy loved to party. Child of Zesus' thigh (or Persephone, depending on your reading), Dionysus represented the drunken glory that ruled the Greek world. His conquests include, but are not limited to, Aphrodite and Circe. When a man has more children than you can count on your fingers and toes, it is no surprise that he represents "bountiful harvest."

It's no wonder that this mythical being shows up many times in literature of the 19th century. At times he gives drunken delight; on more than one occasion he represents messy debauchery. There are more references to him than I have time for in this post! Here's just a few...

Pickniking in the Pinewood, November 1859
Anne gathered the most brilliant of the scattered autumn leaves, and wove garlands for each, so that the gentlemen looked like sylvan deities and the girls like nymphs, and all like attendants upon Bacchus, as they loaded themselves with the "purple clusters" as the lawful spoils of their discovery.

Frank Leslie's Weekly, April 1865
THE Purim balls, by their able management, both financially and otherwise, have become one of the fashionable institutions of the metropolis, for not only are the number of the tickets limited, but the greatest care is exercised as to the persons who receive them...The balustrade around the amphitheatre was decorated with garlands of banded flowers, the family circle gallery was covered with festoons of cloth, in all the colors of the rainbow, while under the dress circle were hung caricatures and other funny pictures painted on cloth.Among these were a Procession of Fools, Bacchus and Momus, Don Quixote fighting the Windmill, King of Hearts with Lady and Astrologer, Lent riding on a Fish.

So with the Etruscan revival full swing, jewelers such as Castellani began hammering away. Their inspiration pieces reside in museums today, testaments of that bountiful, fruitful time. 

I'm not surprised to find grape clusters in fashion from the time period. Just as today people fashion themselves after the newest meme, our ancestors catered to the whims of science and discovery.

Photographic Evidence
As I have poured through different cdvs and daggeurotypes, I come to the same conclusion; jewelry is hard to see in old photographs. Too bad we can't zoom! Or you know, ask the ladies to come back for another session. Time travel anyone?

Of course a few of these are just guesses, as the clarity is not quite there. Overall I was surprised by how many photos did show up with grape clusters in jewelry. It is telling of the prevalence of the grape cluster as a style trend. As time goes on, I'm sure more photos will appear!

Textual Documentation
Between 1855 and 1865, there are 160 references to grapes in Godey's Lady's Book. Many mention them as decorations, and leave it at that. I had to dig a bit deeper for these..

Godey's Lady's Book 1860

The Christian Recorder, March 9 1861

" Enameled and Coral Sets.
" " Carbuncle Sets.
" " Ruby Sets.
" Gold Cluster Grape Sets.
" " " Jet Sets.
" " " Black Mosaic Sets.

Peterson's 1862

I found many, many ads for the "Gold Cluster Grape Sets." While I did not necessarily find as many references to specific grape cluster jewelry, the grapes show up often in headdresses and bonnets. The magazines especially mentioned crochet patterns too. I am still stumped on references in the German and French magazines, so I'll update this section if I survive the translating!

Surviving Originals
My own collection, mid to late 19th century

It appears that many types of stones were used to create the grape cluster shape. Coral, pearl, amethyst, jet, gold, hair...all of these evoke the delicate, natural look that was so popular during the 19th century. It is clear that grapes appeared frequently in some way in the Victorian lady's jewelry.

Grape cluster earrings were actually the first pair of earrings I ever made. I do not have a picture of that prototype, but it was my starting point for making authentic jewelry. Since then I have evolved in the materials that I use, after more research of course! All of the following jewelry is available in my shop (if it suddenly isn't, feel free to send me an email!) The Victorian Needle. Clicking on the pictures will take you directly to the listing in my shop.

I think it's very important to remember context before donning a pair of earrings. While extremely popular, I doubt a lady would be wearing gold and coral earrings to work over the fire. I picture them to work best with nicer day wear, and definitely with a ball gown. If anyone would like to decorate a headdress with grapes and then add a pair of earrings, I'd love to see it!

And so I conclude my first research post in a very, very long time. It's good to stretch my fingers over the keyboard once again. I have quite a few more posts just waiting to be fleshed out into workable research. Until then...I could use a nap!


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