The Mysterious Pendant

This week’s post is a little different. I am going to share a story from a friend, a wee story of mystery and intrigue via the discovery of a family pendant.

Image: Stanhope necklace pendant, thought to be made c. 1870s
Photo credit: L Morrison

“A woman used to live inside that pendant”

Being told this at age 7 by your grandmother, while searching through a jewellery box, is sure to bring you nightmares, and the young Leanne thought about it a great deal.

When her grandmother passed away, Leanne’s aunt wore the ball pendant on a chain every day for several years. A few years after the discovery, Leanne was told that if you held the piece of jewellery up to the light and looked through its microscopic hole you used to be able to see a woman.

So technically someone did live inside this pendant, in the form of a microscopic photograph of a woman.

The intriguing item she found, while combing through her grandmother’s jewellery box, was that of a Victorian Stanhope ball pendant. Stanhopes were a type of optical viewer invented by French photographer René Dagron in 1857. He modified the original Stanhope lens (invented by Charles, the Third Earl of Stanhope) by allowing a microscopic photograph to be viewed within – the bijoux photo-microscopiques (microscopic photo-jewellery).

But who was the woman in the miniature photograph? And where did this stanhope come from?

Fast forward 15 years from the time of discovery, the pendant was brought up in a conversation with Leanne’s mum. Whatever happened to it? It turns out her aunt had given it to her mum for safe keeping; Leanne now had the mysterious treasure from her childhood in her hands, ready for some in depth research.

Learning of the origins of a Victorian stanhope, Leanne wanted to discover who the woman was, and how the pendant came to be in her family.

Stanhopes were eventually mass produced for selling as souvenirs, with photos of tourist attractions or images of religious materials inside. Some were even made with tiny photos of naked women.

Not so common, though, were their use as a form of memento mori, like what Leanne had in her hands.

Image: Stanhope necklace pendant inscription
Photo credit: L Morrison

On the outside of the ball pendant reads an inscription – ‘Rosa Douglas, died 16th Jan 1871, aged 32’. Through further investigation with the help of genealogist Anna MacRae MacDonald, more was discovered.

Rosa Douglas was in fact the younger sister of famous Scottish painter, and former President of the Royal Scottish Academy, William Fettes Douglas.

Born in Edinburgh in 1822, William Fettes Douglas was well known as an antiquarian and collector, with his interests in these areas influencing his paintings: themes of alchemy, magic, and astrology. His painting The Spell is kept in the collections of National Galleries Scotland, and The Alchemist (image below) currently sits at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Through research, it is likely to have been William himself that commissioned the Stanhope pendant to be made in memory of his sister Rosa after her death.

Image: The Alchemist by William Fettes Douglas
Photo credit: Victoria & Albert Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Rosa succumbed to both nephritis and peritonitis, dying at the young age of 32, at their family home on Dublin Street, Edinburgh, with William registering her death himself.

Image: Registration of Rosa Douglas’ death, 1871 (signed by William Fettes Douglas)
Photo credit: Statutory registers: Deaths. Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, generated 20 July 2019

The microscopic photo of Rosa herself was now indistinguishable. Was it too faded after almost 150 years, or possibly it had been dislodged from its tiny glass cylinder within the ball pendant like Leanne’s grandmother had thought?

The pendant was given a delicate clean by a jeweller, reluctantly due to age, but delicately to keep its condition. Holding it up to the light of a window, there she was, Rosa Douglas.

Image: Tiny image of Rosa Douglas, within the Stanhope necklace pendant
Photo credit: L Morrison

Only one mystery remains – how did it come to be with Leanne’s family? Her family tree has no mentions of Douglas’.

Years before, her great-grandmother worked in the household of Sir Ochterlony, and one day Leanne came across the name Somerville Barclay Grahame, the wife of Sir David Ochterlony.

Recognising the name Grahame, it turns out that Somerville’s father was that of a Barron Grahame of Morphie, who was also on Rosa’s family tree; Somerville’s sister Marion married William Fettes Douglas in 1880.

Although it is not fully understood how the pendant came into the possession of Leanne’s grandmother, the link clearly comes from her great-grandmother’s work at the house of Ochterlony. When William Fettes Douglas’ died in 1891, his extensive collection of paintings and antiques were auctioned off, but his personal possessions passed to his wife Marion. Then after Marion’s death in 1917, it reached Leanne’s grandmother in some way.

With all the research and connections found, Leanne decided to visit Rosa’s grave in Dean Cemetery last year, where she shares the same stone with her brother, William Fettes Douglas.

Image: Grave of Rosa Douglas, Dean Cemetery
Photo credit: L Morrison

Splitting sunflowers between Rosa’s grave and her great granny’s (who passed the Stanhope ball down through the family) back home in West Lothian, with her mum and auntie by her side, ended a great adventure of discovery, albeit with some unanswered questions.

As with many women in the past, Rosa’s story may not be as easily found as her male siblings, and there is still some mystery surrounding its past movements, but this little piece of Victorian jewellery is a perfect reminder that her memory does live on somewhere, as if Rosa Douglas does in fact live inside the pendant.

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