by Barbara Steinberg
Many women practice their art secretly. Emily Dickinson had fewer than 12 poems published in her lifetime until her sister Lavinia discovered 1800 of them in a locked chest after she died. Jane Austen was first published anonymously.
Collecting is also an art. To do it well, you must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the culture, history, and, if signed, the artists who made objects of significance. Only then are you able to pick the best things, which are historically correct.
I know women comb collectors whose life commitment was total, scholarship voluminous, but who never published, photographed or catalogued their work. I do not feel alone in saying I’d like to change that. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to present a few pieces from The Frances Wright Collection.
Victorian England was sublimely influenced by foreign cultures. For example, the French conquest of Algeria between 1830 and 1847 sparked an interest in the Islamic art of North Africa. The Algerian knot, looped chains, tassels, and pendants started to appear in hair combs. Called the Peigne d’Alger, the style is also known as Victorian Algerian.
Frances has two extraordinary examples.
This comb has three metal flowers on the tiara, which are decorated with black beads. Three black-beaded pendants of different lengths hang beneath the middle flower. Dangling from the outer flowers are two tassels and two other pendants. The final pendant hangs from the middle tassel. The entire decoration is hinged to a horn comb.
Her second Peigne d’Alger has an open metal frame, which holds 5 faux pearls with a smaller one attached underneath. The three middle pearls are surrounded by tassels and circles of seed pearls. Connecting chains and pendants of individual pearls hang from the 5 pearls in the frame. What makes this balance is how the different sizes of pearls are mixed. This decoration is also attached to a horn comb.
In France, Napoleon’s first queen, Josephine, was a jewelry innovator. Her style of back comb, which can also be worn as a tiara, is called a Peigne Josephine. It has a brass comb upon which multi-galleried decorations are attached. Coral was a favorite jewel, as were seed pearls.
Frances’s Peigne Josephine has 5 galleries: a line of seed pearls, metal mounted with seed pearls, another row of seed pearls, metal in a leaf pattern, and on top spirals of seed pearls. The pearls are wound on very thin wire, so the condition and is remarkable.
This comb is an Art Deco extravaganza. It is a celluloid comb made at the comb factories in Oyonnax, c. 1920. A small geometric pattern builds to diamond-shaped purple rhinestones to flowers to purple and orange arches at the top. Unbelievably, it is unsigned.
I had never seen Chinese embroidered flower carvings inside an owl before Frances’s ivory hair pin. It is beautifully carved in the Cantonese tradition. The owl even stares back at you. c. 1890, made for export.
This is a Huasheng (花胜), or floral hair ornament. It is worn in a chignon above the middle of the forehead. A lotus flower is the central subject. Stories about Huasheng go back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE). The Book of Han, Vol 2, includes a biography of the Chinese poet Sima Xiangru, who wrote, “She lives in a cave, wearing Huasheng in her snow-white hair.” On Hunan Day, women give Huasheng as gifts, as scholars climb to elevations to compose poems. This kingfisher comb was made in the 19th Century, Qing Dynasty.
Saving the Hermitage-level piece for last, this is a Romanov comb. It is tortoiseshell, with a gold, silver, and pearl heading and the mark of one of Faberge’s most famous designers. The original box, below, has a ruby on it. Compared to the Russian crown jewels, this comb is intimate. I imagine one of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters wearing it to tea. The octagonal shagreen box has acanthus-leaf scrolling. In the middle is the Romanov crest with a ruby in the center.
Photographs by Terry Wright.