Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mastery of Design: Queen Mary’s Patch Box, 1694

Queen Mary II
From the Sixteenth Century, well into the Nineteenth Century, ladies (and later gentleman) wore “patches” on their faces for the purposes of heightening the beauty of their complexion. Of course, that’s what they claimed. However, the real reason for wearing gummed pieces of black crepe on the face—in the affectation of a beauty mark or mole—was, in fact, to cover scars, blemishes and craters left from smallpox. While patches mostly took the form of a round spot, they sometimes were cut into elaborate designs ranging from stars to intricately-cut silhouettes of carriages and horses. The fashion became so out of control that some were wearing many patches at once—presumably to make themselves more beautiful, but realistically, trying to hide an increasing number of skin problems. Critics of the practice considered it grotesque. The response to their disgust was often the argument that Venus herself had a spot on her face.

Patches were, quite fashionably, reused and stored in boxes on a lady’s vanity. Patch Boxes, as they were called, were often crafted by jewelers who indulged in the use of the finest stones and metals. Queen Mary II(1662-1694), the Queen Regnant who ruled alongside King William III, began wearing patches in the last year of her life despite a statement made by the Bishop of Gloucester that the queen, “Did not entertain such childish vanities as spotted faces.” And, perhaps, she normally wouldn’t have. However, during her thirty-second year of life, she mysteriously began adding patches to her daily routine. As it turns out, she’d contracted smallpox which had left her face scarred and in need of covering…oh, yes, and also killed her.

Patch Box
Presented to Queen Mary II in 1694
Gold, Enamel and Diamonds
The Royal Collection
Of course, when the Queen started wearing patches, she needed a proper patch box. Given Mary II’s great passion for jewelry, a very fine box was supplied to her by a now unknown German jeweler. This patch box, presented to the Queen just before her death in 1694 was made of gold which was finely enameled with her cipher and encrusted with diamonds. What a pity that she didn’t get to enjoy it.

Upon her death, this item, along with much of her jewelry, was bequeathed to friends and family and fell out of possession of The Royal Collection. In 1963, it reappeared at an auction at Christie’s in London where Queen Elizabeth II purchased it and brought it back into the Royal Family.

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