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The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Lockets

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He wasn’t even two years old; a tiny thing, really, hardly even a person. Alfred was the ninth son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, their fourteenth child. But his numerous siblings didn’t make Alfred any less beloved. Portraits of the boy show him as rosy-cheeked and handsome, with light eyes, a pronounced Cupid’s bow, and soft folds of neck fat. His royal parents loved him dearly, and when he died on the 20th of August, 1782, Queen Charlotte was said to have “cried vastly.” The king, too, was bereft. Later, when he went mad, he reportedly held conversations with his lost little boy and his brother, Octavius, who’d also died as a child.

Often, upon losing a family member, 18th-century mourners would send the dead to their graves only after giving them one last haircut. They would harvest their locks to create elaborate weavings. Sometimes, the hair would be fashioned into floral wreaths. Sometimes, it would be made into jewelry. Frequently, the hair was plaited and pressed into lockets, which were then worn close to the heart. Prince Alfred didn’t have enough hair on his small blonde head for weaving, but a tress did make it into a locket — a single soft curl. It sits behind glass, in a gold and enamel frame that displays the dates of his birth and death. The other side of the locket, a delicate piece of jewelry shaped like an urn, is decorated with seed pearls and amethysts. It is now part of the Royal Collection Trust. “Due to his age, there was no official mourning period for Alfred,” notes scholar and collector Hayden Peters at The Art of Mourning. “But his death came at a time of the mourning industry being a necessary part of fashion and a self-sustaining one in its own right.”

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Illustration by Jacob Stead

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The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Lockets

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