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Cameos - Part I: 18th Century

Cameos were highly prized in Georgian and Victorian-era Europe. Having been a valuable and fashionable part of ancient Roman society, the neoclassical movement seized upon these fine pieces of antiquity, reimagining them in the context of Georgian and Victorian jewelry. In this week's blog, we look specifically at the rise of cameos in 18th-century European jewelry.

An 18th-century clasp with an emerald cameo depicting the head of Medusa, mounted in an enameled gold clasp representing four interlaced serpents with three diamonds set into each of their heads.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

What is a Cameo?

Cameos are, in essence, relief carvings - many of which are considered to be highly skilled miniature sculptures or works of art. The technique of relief carving creates a layered effect, where figures and scenes seem to project outward from a background layer (often a layer of another color in the stone). In the 18th century, cameos were most often carved into hardstone or gemstone (like onyx, agate, amethyst, etc.), or glass. Shell cameos were more popular later on, in the 19th century.

A sardonyx neoclassical cameo in two strata, set in a gold ring, depicting a bust of Minerva, Italy, c.1780. Minerva, Goddess of war, known as Pallas Athena in Greek mythology, was one of the major deities, the daughter of Jupiter. She fights for just causes - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An oval moss agate cameo of two strata, set in a gold ring, depicting the head of a camel, Italy, possibly 1670-1720. Cameos were prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power, sometimes as objects for private devotion or enjoyment. The subject of this cameo is probably linked to a family crest or motif

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

18th-century onyx cameo of four masks conjoined; to right and left, a female and bearded male head; above, ram's head; below, second bearded male; all set in a gold ring

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A late 18th/early 19th-century onyx cameo brooch, an early work by Morelli, later owned by Caroline Bonaparte, younger sister of Napoleon I - Via Bonhams

A Brief History of Cameos

Based on prehistoric 'petroglyphs' (rock carvings documenting important iconography) cameos first really became popular in fashion and household items during the reign of Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC). Ancient Roman cameos often sported images of mythological heroes and events, and important religious figures. They were also apparently sometimes worn by Hellenistic-era women to display a willingness to engage in 'lovemaking'.

One of the most famous stone cameos from Ancient Rome is this, the 'Gemma Claudia', a cameo in five layers made for the Emperor Claudius, thought to depict Emperor Claudius and his niece Agrippina on the left, whom he married, and her parents Germanicus and Agrippina on the right

©Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in classical art forms and many people became very interested in cameos. Pope Paul II (1417-1471) was known to be an avid collector of cameos depicting religious subjects, so avid in fact that it may have killed him - it's said that the many cameo rings he wore on his fingers 'kept his hands so cold that he caught the chill that meant his death'. The Pope’s prestigious collection was acquired by the Medici family after his death.

An onyx cameo depicting entry into the Ark: Noah extends his hand towards an angel; before him are five pairs of animals: lions, horses, goats, sheep and dogs; behind is the Ark, in which can be seen the head of an ox; a dove flies down before the gable, upon which is a cock; on the right corner stands a long-legged water-bird; above are an eagle(?) and other birds; on the right of the Ark stand Shem, Ham, and Japhet, behind whom are their wives with the wife of Noah. Italian, late 15th century, by Domenico dei Cammei

© The Trustees of the British Museum - the piece is associated with Lorenzo de' Medici

Cameos from the Medici Gem Collection, all ancient in 16th & 17th-century mounts - Left: sardonyx Hermaphroditus cameo from 1st century B.C. with gold, enamel, garnet, and emerald frame. Middle: sardonyx cameo bust of a bacchant or Dionysus from 1st century B.C. in a gold mount. Right: chalcedony cameo of Hercules holding a female figure's from 1st century B.C. framed in gold, silver, enamel, diamonds, and rubies (or garnets). - National Archeological Museum of Florence - via artfixdaily

By the 18th century, upper-class men and women were collecting impressive cameos and displaying them in their jewelry and on their clothing to signify their wealth, social status, and historical and cultural interests. George III's reign (1760-1820) saw a rise in neoclassical designs and a resurgence in the popularity of cameos. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, and Marie Antionette, Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, both also took an interest in cameos.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1758 - Via Flikr & Wikimedia Commons

An 18th-century antique cameo and ruby bracelet most likely sold to Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste Mellerio in 1780. Set with seven cameos featuring Roman emperors, the bracelet bears witness to two features the queen particularly appreciated in jewelry: rubies and cameos - Via Sotheby's

A gold French bracelet set with a shell cameo and four pearls, c.1780 - via antiquejewel.com

Seed pearl bracelet with a cameo pendant, English, c.1780-1789 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

18th-Century Cameo Jewelry

In a few rare cases, the cameos used in some pieces of 18th-century jewelry were actually ancient Roman examples, some of which were imported directly from the recently discovered archeological sites of Herculaneum (first excavated in the early 1700s and then majorly under the patronage of Charles III of Spain from 1738 onwards) and Pompeii (excavated later in the 18th century).

An 18th-century ring, set with a 3rd-2nd century BC Hellenistic onyx cameo of Ariadne, consort of Dionysos. She wears a wreath of ivy leaves and berries. Her hair is gathered in a roll at the back and ringlets cascade down her neck with a stray lock before the neck.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

This gold ring with an oval bezel holds a 1st century BC Roman layered agate cameo of a male head in a 'Roman' setting, mounted in an 18th-century ring, Western Europe, c.1725-1775

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Medieval hardstone cameo, probably from Southern Italy or Sicily, c.1260-1280, in a silver pin c.1800. Medieval cameos are very rare; the few medieval carvers active in the 15th-century were copying ancient Roman gems, with various degree of success. For similar examples see Hohenstaufen gems.

From Peter Szuhay

It was more often the case that carvers and craftsmen, inspired by the archeological finds, made cameos from scratch with the stories and figures of antiquity in mind, or with famous figures, paintings, sculptures, portraits, or biblical scenes as inspiration. Early Grand Tour-goers made a habit of bringing back cameos from the workshops of Italy and beyond. Because of the historical and cultural content of many of the carvings, cameos were considered 'intellectual', and were a very respectable form of jewelry to wear. By the mid-18th century, carvers started signing their cameos, to distinguish them as modern, highly-skilled works of art that were different from the antique ones being sold by dealers.

A 16th-century oyster shell cameo, possibly German, with a slate backing, depicting Judith with a sword, in profile to the right, holding up the severed head of Holofernes. The 18th-century silver scrollwork frame is set with alternating foiled almandine garnets and amethysts in closed settings

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

A late 18th-century cameo and paste buckle, the oval shell cameo depicting the education of Cupid, within a border of geometric design, to a further border set with foiled red and colorless cushion-shaped pastes in closed-back settings - Via Bonhams

18th-century enameled gold and cameo brooch of Hermes and Cupid, c.1790 - From Peter Szuhay

Left: A French shell cameo of Venus in a chariot amid clouds near two doves billing, c.1750. Middle: An English onyx layered agate cameo depicting Achilles mourning for Patroclus, possibly by Edward Burch, c. 1775-1810. Right: An Italian layered agate cameo depicting Hercules carrying the Cretan bull, c.1740-70

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: An 18th-century onyx and carnelian-backed cameo depicting the winged figure of Victory holding a palm leaf in her left hand and a laurel wreath in her right. Middle: A 16th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century mount depicting Medusa with wings and snakes in her hair. Right: An 18th-century onyx cameo of Dionysus, the god of wine, dancing. The figure is derived from a Roman gem, but the elongated neoclassical style and the paint on the reverse to darken the ground indicates its 18th-century date.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Left: A 16th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century mount, depicting Amphitrite, a sea goddess, and a cupid riding on dolphins in a wavy sea. The scene is derived from Roman reliefs and was very popular in Renaissance Italy. Middle: A 17th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century ring depicting jugate busts of Omphale (Queen of the Kingdom of Lydia), and her husband, the warrior and hero Hercules. Omphale wears the lion skin over her head and shoulders. Right: An 16th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century mount of Mars and Venus, beneath a tree, probably based on a bronze medal

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Left: 18th-century Italian onyx cameo depicting Cupid and Psyche; Psyche with her arm about Cupid's neck, in a gold ring, engraved by Alessandro Cades. Right: 18th-century Italian onyx cameo depicting Diomedes holding the Palladium in his left and sword in right, the head and arm of a prostrate watchman at his feet; in a gold ring, engraved by Giuseppe Girometti - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Left: A late 16th-century agate cameo in an 18th-century mount depicting a young woman wearing a tunic, in high relief, her wavy hair swept back beneath a wreath of leaves and fruit. This beauty may be Proserpine, a Roman goddess of seasonal resurrection, following an image based on Roman prototypes. Right: A 16th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century mount depicting a woman in scanty drapery with an elaborate hairstyle and a snake over her left shoulder - the snake suggests she is Cleopatra

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Late 18th-century gold brooch set with a sardonyx cameo of the head of a Bacchante in profile, engraved with Greek characters, made by Antonio Pazzaglia - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Left: Large, three-layered cameo of Apollo, probably Italian, c.1790-1800, in the original gold frame. Right: Onyx three-layered cameo of Diana, probably Italian, c.1790-1800, in original setting.

Both from Peter Szuhay

Agate cameo stickpin of Apollo in a high-carat gold setting, c.1780 - likely a Grand Tour souvenir

From Peter Szuhay

18th-century amethyst cameo of the bust of Niobe looking to the right, in a gold ring with a ridged hoop

© The Trustees of the British Museum

16th-century shell cameo of three jugate busts in an 18-century gold frame

From Peter Szuhay

A gold ring with an oval bezel holding a layered agate triplet cameo of Theseus and the slain Minotaur in a 'Roman setting', signed with greek initials 'IP' for Giovanni (Johann Anton) Pichler (1734-1791) with forked and foliated shoulders, Italy, c.1760. The cameo is based on a Greek gem by Philemon in the former Imperial collections in Vienna, which was well known in the 18th century. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An Italian onyx cameo ring showing the seated figures of Pan and a satyr blowing a horn, c.16thC-18thC

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A 16th-century onyx cameo in an 18th-century mount of a screaming Fury, a wing in her curly hair. The figure is after the ‘terrible’ heads of the Italian Renaissance and is based on a drawing by Michelangelo, titled Anima Dannata - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

16th-century onyx cameos of the popularly depicted Bacchic mask with vine-wreath and grapes in hair; mounted in a gold ring, each with six small projections on the bezel and gadrooning on the back

© The Trustees of the British Museum (1 | 2 | 3)

A late 16th-century sardonyx cameo depicting the Fall: the Tree of Knowledge with the serpent in the center, Adam and Eve in front. Eve is giving the apple to Adam; a pair of mating dogs is between them, and they are flanked by further animals and two trees. The cameo is set in an 18th-century mount and openwork frame set with rose-cut diamonds in silver, Burmese rubies, emeralds (with colorless glass, green paste, and almandine garnet replacements) in closed foliate settings Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

This is an 18th-century Italian cameo made of a glass paste in a gold oval frame, representing 'Joseph and his brethren'. The cameo is identical to a piece in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, said to be from the 13th or 14th century - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A late 16th-century cowrie shell cameo of a Roman emperor, possibly Vespasian (AD 9-79), with slate backing. The figure has a fillet in his hair and a braided border runs along the neckline. The cameo is set in an early 18th-century openwork mount of silver-gilt with foiled gemstones (emerald, amethyst, ruby, sapphire, almandine garnet, green paste, hessonite garnet, and topaz). The cameo probably belonged to a series of Twelve Caesars, a frequent subject for cameos of the 16th century.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

A 16th-century sardonyx cameo in an 18th-century frame with a laureate bust of a curly-haired, bearded Roman emperor wearing a cuirass and a mantle fastened over his left shoulder with a round clasp. He may be Septimius Severus (AD 146-211). The openwork scroll frame is set with four very pale rubies and three emeralds in closed gold settings and two rose-cut diamonds in silver settings

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Left: An 18th-century ring with a 17th-century sardonyx cameo of a Roman emperor, probably Septimius Severus (AD 146-211), based on Roman coins or medals. Middle: A 16th-century Saxon onyx cameo of the Roman general Sextus Pompeius Magnus, mounted in an 18th-century setting. Right: An 18th-century onyx cameo ring of triple jugate heads in profile to the left: a laureate Roman emperor in front with two female heads behind, possibly Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), with Livia (58 BC-AD 29), and another.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

18th-century onyx cameo of the head of Socrates looking to the left, set in a gold ring

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A 16th-century sardonyx cameo of a bust of Queen Elizabeth I, in an 18th-century mount. The sheer number of Tudor portrait cameos representing Elizabeth I suggest that there was a special court workshop for creating them. The cameos were principally used as presents to foreign monarchs or loyal servants. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

An 18th-century onyx cameo of a laureate bust of George II (1683-1760) set in an 18th-century ring with fluted shank and closed bezel. He wears a classical cuirass with a lion’s mask epaulette and a mantle.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

18th-century agate cameo ring depicting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, surrounded in the roccoco splendour of 46 rose-cut diamonds and eight rubies in the crow. French, c.1774 - via antiquejewel.com

This English 18th-century bloodstone cameo with glass paste reliefs represents George III (1760-1820) on one side and Queen Charlotte on the reverse, his Queen Consort ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An 18th-century oval bloodstone brooch mounted with a tassie cameo of Queen Charlotte within a gold ouroboros border, by John Kirk - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Reinventing the Cameo

In the late 18th century, carvers realized that they could use Plaster of Paris molds to perfectly copy and recreate antique cameos and collections in other materials. The Scottish gem engraver James Tassie began doing this, creating elaborate glass paste cameo copies and copies in red sulfur, while the English potter, entrepreneur, and abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood made cameos in his own distinctive jasperware ceramics - often featuring figures in white against a bright powder-blue background.

Left: A cameo brooch by James Tassie depicting Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon (1743 - 1827), Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland - Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Middle & Right: two 18th-century James Tassie portrait medallions - The Met (1 | 2)

Left: 99 cameos in a wooden tray. From a collection of casts from gems by James Tassie, in late 18th century England. Middle: an oval red sulfur Tassie cameo of a female figure (Venus/Aphrodite) holding a large piece of fabric behind her, seated on a large ram riding above water, Pandemos a small putti to the left. Right: an oval red sulfur Tassie cameo of three full-length nude figures wrestling with snakes; Lacoon/Laokoon and his sons. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Left: A Roman layered onyx cameo, 50–25 B.C, depicting the wedding of Cupid and Psyche. Inscribed in Greek: 'made by Tryphon'. Right: A black & white photo of a jasperware Wedgwood & Bentley copy in white relief on a blue ground - Both: ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Left: A Wedgwood factory blue and white jasperware cameo mimicking the effect of a classical carved cameo shell. The cameo depicts a muse playing the lyre on a pedestal, a shield with a profile portrait, and a winged youth (the genius?) leaning on a long, straight trumpet, c.1780-1800. Middle & Right: - A neoclassical ring set with a Wedgwood factory blue and white jasperware medallion showing a seated youth and a standing girl, with forked shoulders, with a central leaf motif

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Wedgwood belt clasp with a jasperware cameo of a woman making a sacrifice. These cameos showing sacrificing priestesses were designed by Lady Templetown and Miss Crew for Josiah Wedgwood's factory. Mounted in cut steel frames with Matthew Boulton's faceted steel studs, c.1780-1800

Via art.thewalters.org

Wedgwood factory cameo pieces in deep blue and white jasperware, c.1780-1795 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A chatelaine set with a blue jasperware and white relief cameo of a seated woman mourning beside a torso and helm. Also set with jasperware beads, cut-steel beads, and pendants, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd., Etruria, c.1780-1800 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A steel dress sword with a leather scabbard. Hilt decorated with cut steel beads (Boulton) and blue jasper medallions (Wedgwood) - Via National Museums Liverpool and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Keep your eyes peeled for Part II, where we will be looking at 19th-century cameos...

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