I once read some touching words etched into a gravestone. The words simply said,
‘Death leaves a heartache no-one can heal,
Love leaves a memory no-one can steal.’
I thought this sentiment was so true!
As a collector of old photographs, letters and other bits and pieces I suppose in some ways I am always aware of the ‘shadow’ of death that surrounds them. The reason I come to own the items that I do is because the people they once belonged to are no longer in this world. Their letters and their photographs are just physical things left behind, merely offering a glimpse at the memories these people took with them when they died.
It could perhaps be rather depressing to focus on that aspect of these little fragments of lives that find themselves lost once their rightful owner is no longer around to hold them close.
However, over time I have grown to view these items rather differently.
To me, the photographs, the diaries, the birthday cards… they all show a life that was lived, however quietly, however small. Most importantly, they suggest love, friendship and happy memories. Most people would not keep hold of a photograph of someone that they didn’t like! Throughout the years, people keep the photographs of the people they love. They want to remember their faces, they want to keep a memory alive. A similar thing can be said about old letters. The letters that survive are likely to be letters that relate to happy memories or that speak of love. When we keep something, it is almost always because it holds happy memories and most importantly, that it brings comfort.
So rather than being gloomy or sad, I see these pieces of the past – the photographs and possessions of those who have passed away – as a beautiful commemoration of their lives.
For this blog post, I really wanted to share with you the beautiful collections of one of my friends, Kirsty.
Kirsty has some absolutely stunning antique finds that really do fit with the notion of commemerating the lives of those who have passed over a hundred or so years ago. It was this notion that led Kirsty to curate the most beautiful Victorian collection of memories left behind upon death; to let once treasured keepsakes live on. Kirsty collects what is termed ‘Victorian mourning’ jewellery, ephemera and artwork.
Our Victorian ancestors arguably kept hold of more mementoes of life than we do today. In particular, it was death itself that motivated people over 120 years ago to create lasting keepsakes of their loved ones.
Upon the death of a loved one, many Victorians had the hair of the deceased woven into a beautiful brooch or locket. This was seen as a way of keeping something physical of a loved one close, something real and earthly after the person had gone.
(Above – a beautiful Victorian mourning brooch containing plaited hair, part of Kirsty’s collection)
As hair does not degrade over time it seemed the perfect thing to keep. Consequently, the hair of loved ones was used in a number of keepsake items. It became fashionable to have your deceased loved one’s hair woven into a unique work of art. These pieces of art and jewellery – often referred to as ‘mourning jewellery’ are incredibly beautiful and while inspired in part through grief, they are also inspired through love and the desire of keeping a loved one close. So what inspired Kirsty’s interest in these antique pieces? Kirsty says,
“I had never heard of ‘mourning’ items until I came across this little frame in an Etsy shop. At first the idea of 3 little girls’ hair from 1853 slightly creeped me out, but at the same time I was compelled to know more. I began researching Victorian mourning items, in which hair seemed to be a very popular way of remembering the deceased. How beautiful to keep something so precious of a loved one, a piece of them that will never die. After reading some more, and beginning to wonder about these three little girls, I decided to purchase the frame. This is where my obsession with Victorian Mourning items began.”
(Above – the piece that sparked off Kirsty’s beautiful collection)
Another thing that the Victorians did was to take photographs of the funereal flowers and wreaths. Often there are photographs that feature a photograph of the deceased surrounded by the funeral flowers. It may seem strange nowadays, but it was a way in which our ancestors could commemerate the death of a loved one in an age where photography was still a relatively novel medium. Here is a beautiful example from Kirsty’s collection:
“This little boy was called Ray Leggitt . His name was hand written on the front of his cabinet card and also on his beautiful yet heartbreaking memorial photo. The cabinet card on the left is the actual photograph that was placed on top of his grave flowers.”
I can’t imagine the pain felt by the parents of this little boy over 120 years ago. A pain that they carried for the rest of their lives I’m certain. But it is likely that these two photographs are the only physical memory that the parents had of their son. Photography was expensive so it was only the rich who had lots of photos of their loved ones. In actual fact, Kirsty discovered that this little boy was six years old when he passed away, clearly the photograph of him as a baby was the only photograph of their son that his parents had. I’m sure they looked at this photo many times over the years, their hearts filled with grief but also love for their son.
Here is another beautiful Victorian mourning brooch from Kirsty’s collection, alongside a little lock of the same girl’s hair:
For myself, I find these photos both heartbreaking yet beautiful at the same time.
I am reminded again of the quote with which I opened this blog post.
‘Death leaves a heartache no-one can heal,
Love makes a memory no-one can steal’.
I find Kirsty’s collection beautifully touching as it really does illustrate these words so perfectly.
What I have come to see is that these mourning items can perhaps be viewed not simply as an expression of grief and loss, but as an expression of love and a strong desire to keep a memory alive forever.
Thank you for reading x
You can view more of Kirsty’s beautiful collection on Instagram – @thepalestcomplexion.
Thank you Kirsty for sharing your photographs.
Do you have a vintage/antique collection you would like to share, or an old item with a story to tell? If so, then please get in touch by leaving a comment below.
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