The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced a new upcoming exhibition this week. Entitled A Return to the Grand Tour: Micromosaic Jewels from the Collection of Elizabeth Locke, guests are invited to view in the Works on Paper Gallery April 27th through September 2nd.
Including 92 examples dating from the late 18th and 19th century, the exquisite and intricately crafted works feature subjects such as Renaissance paintings, architecture, animals, and landscapes, many reset as jewelry in designs by Elizabeth Locke. The designs are inspired by ancient goldsmithing techniques revived by artisans in the early 19th century and reflect the sophisticated tastes of elite European travelers for whom the Grand Tour was a rite of passage. Curated by Dr. Susan J. Rawles, VMFA’s Associate Curator of American Painting and Decorative Arts, the exhibition is free to the public.
“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts enjoys particular acclaim for its extraordinary holdings of decorative art,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. “Singular assemblages like the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of Fabergé and the Jerome and Rita Gans Collection of English Silver have positioned VMFA at the forefront of museum holdings in these areas. It therefore seems fitting that we should showcase another leading collection of astonishing craftsmanship: the Elizabeth Locke Collection of Micromosaic Jewels. We are grateful to Elizabeth for sharing these exquisite works and to her and her husband, John Staelin, for his service on VMFA’s Foundation Board of Directors and their enduring commitment to VMFA.”
Micromosaics have their origin in the ancient world, when artisans from Iraq first applied decorative blocks of clay as architectural details on stately buildings. Centuries of technical innovation resulted in further refinements and the establishment of the Vatican Mosaic Studio, where mosaicists began replicating Renaissance paintings in durable tiles of enameled glass.
By the late 18th century, highly intricate small-scale works were being produced. Unlike large-scale mosaics, which could take a decade to produce, micromosaics could be marketed to locals and tourists as gifts and souvenirs of the Grand Tour. For an English traveler to Rome, Venice or Milan, for example, a micromosaic of an Italian Renaissance painting or ancient architectural monument captured the journey in a portable memento. Today, such works serve to recall an era’s fascination with the classics and society’s rarefied travel to the “cradle of western civilization.”
“This exhibition of works from the Locke collection provides a lens on the continuity of the ancient art form of the mosaic into the modern era,” says Rawles. “These artisans catered not only to the Vatican’s needs but also to the transient patronage of primarily British tourists whose curiosity lured them to the Eternal City. For these visitors, furnishings and pictures were crafted with effects that were, according to one contemporary author, ‘so near to painting that it is literally a deception.’” “Moreover,” Rawles continues, “like the Grand Tourists of centuries past, Elizabeth’s appreciation for micromosaics was inspired by travels abroad, and her talent for setting micromosaics as the featured ornament in her jewelry designs continues a tradition begun by her predecessors more than two hundred years ago.”
“As much as I admire the micromosaic boxes and tables, I love the diminutive pieces the most because they can be worn,” says Locke. “I always imagine how pleased a nineteenth-century lady would have been on a gray London day when she looked at her wrist and saw a bracelet depicting the famous sights of Rome that she had visited in a previous summer. They are special pieces and I can’t imagine a better venue to debut them than at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—a world-class institution that has inspired me for many years.”
A Return to the Grand Tour: Micromosaic Jewels from the Collection of Elizabeth Locke will travel to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC, in 2020. Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated 118-page catalogue written by Rawles, featuring an interview with Locke and foreword by esteemed playwright John Guare. The catalogue can be ordered online or by contacting the VMFA shop at 804.340.1525.