“Open carefully – A Lock of thy bright hair”
Holly Booth, Interpretation officer at Keats House gave this lecture on hair work Jewellery: memories, mourning and mementos of Death. Holly, like myself is interested in memory’s place in the museum, which may be why we make such a great team. This lecture was tinged with both sadness and excitement as Holly moves on to a new job this month. It has been a great pleasure working with Holly and I look forward to hearing all about her new role
The following is a mix of notes from Holly’s Lecture and ideas based on my reflections on hair
Keats House has quite a large collection of human hair, much of it is unmounted and kept in envelopes of folded into pieces of paper
“Friends of faces unknown and a land
Unvisited over the sea,
Who tell me how lonely you stand
With a single gold curl in the hand
Held up to be looked at by me”
Only a curl – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This poem shows how powerfully emotive hair can be, and it is for this power that we cut and keep it
But why hair? why do we give it this power?
Hair is able to offer it all, society, ritual and sexuality, it is a sign of fashion, beauty and health
Hair has always been important, Ancient Egyptians often used hair in their offerings, the examples Holly discussed were balls of hair wrapped in fabric and she invited us to ponder on if this fabric would have been old scraps or parts of beloved garments?
In Keats day hair was commonly given as a love token, Keats himself was so moved on seeing a lock of Milton’s hair, who he idolized, he wrote a poem on the experience
“For many years my offerings must be hush’d:
When I do speak I’ll think upon this hour,
Because I feel my forehead hot and flush’d,
Even at the simplest vassal of thy Power, –
A Lock of thy bright hair!
Sudden it came,
And I was startled when I heard thy name
Coupled so unaware –
Yet, at the moment, temperate was my blood:
Methought I had beheld it from the flood”
Now visitors to the house swoon over locks of Keats hair
Some of the first words Keats wrote about Fanny Brawne refer to her hair
“She manages to make her hair look well”
The House also had some of its hair Jewellery on display, these items are now rarely displayed as many are dedicate and faded after long periods of display before the house was redeveloped in 2009, so I felt very lucky to be able to see them
This is lock of Keats hair mounted in a round gilt Emanuel and pearl medallion belonging to Fanny Keats, his sister
This is the lyre Brooch, a lyre strung with strands of Keats hair. It was commissioned by Joseph Severn after Keats death, he intended to give it to Fanny Brawne, but instead kept it and later gave to his daughter. The hair has faded after many years of display
This is a Locket of Miss Chesters hair, who owned the house after Keats time, it is a much more expensive design than the others, suited to the kings reader
Holly also spoke of hair-work as a popular Victorian hobby, a suitable craft for women to do at home. Hair could also be sent off to be made into Jewellery, as contemporary newspaper adverts show. Holly reported of scandals when it was suggested the hair sent off was not the hair sent back
I remember first coming across hair work embroidery during my early museum days in the basement of Wisbech and Fenland Museum. This work fascinated me. while trying to embroider text for this project I am experimenting with hair embroidery techniques. it has a unique flexibility and strength
Looking back to my old artwork, this is not the first time I have used hair, this piece is from a scrapbook made over ten years ago, and yes I clearly had a bit of a Tracey Emin crush. I think the hair is my housemates, we used to all cut each others hair. It could be mine, but it looks a little dark for mine. The blood is mine, as is the machine knitting not sure whats more disgusting
The power of hair came round again in my work for Ayscoughfee Hall Museum developing the “Won’t you come and help?” project, this letter written to the mother of a recently deceased solder in WWI includes a lock of his hair, this letter was used as the base for a character in the final performance.
Even more recently when I investigated the remainder of my grandmothers jewellery I was take by surprise when this locket produced a clump of hair, its shock appearance made me gag. I have no idea whose it was, the colour refects my own blonde locks, perhaps it is my fathers? or my grandmothers? or a friend or lover? that information is now lost, all I have is the hair.
Having suffered with alopecia myself in the last year I have spent more time than most thinking about the meaning of hair. My first thought was am I sick?, I am not, but this is what people expect from hair loss, people see sickness. I cover my head not because I am uncomfortable with my patchy hair but because it makes other people uncomfortable, they see sickness, and you feel unwell.
I miss old hair most when “ dressing up”. Hair is an important part of feeling fashionable or beautiful. When I look around all I see is beautiful healthy hair. When I have more hair and can go hatless the first thing most people say is, oh you have hair! Reinforcing how important it is to have it. My hair continues to fall out, then grow back in waves. No one know why. But then, as I often say, it is only hair.