Despite the money and time spent annually on changing and maintaining our hairstyles, hair is not usually something we become sentimental about, especially someone else's hair.

But more than a century ago, carrying a lock of hair from your friend, betrothed or dearly departed was in vogue.

Delicate curls captured inside personal items such as fob watches or brooches were carried personally and signified a strike against the hard, cold face of the industrial era.

Tracing back to the 12th century but reaching a height in popularity during the Victorian era of 1837-1901, "hair work", as this practice was known, celebrated love and remembrance.

The Portrait of Lady Martha Elizabeth Douglas in the Douglas Family Collection at Whangārei Museum. Photo/Supplied
The Portrait of Lady Martha Elizabeth Douglas in the Douglas Family Collection at Whangārei Museum. Photo/Supplied

While seeming a bit morbid or even just gross to our modern sensibilities, carrying hair in the late 19th century has resonances with our practices today; although now in the form of coloured Polaroids of friends or even recent digital apps that record a loved one's heartbeat.

Contrary to common thinking, hair work was not reserved for mourning wives or doting sisters but was worn by everyone, to such demand that several books were published during the era on the art of hair work.

One prime example of a very popular style of hair work is contained in a stunning glass and gold locket in the Douglas Family Collection at Whangārei Museum (1994.112.2).

The necklace features a heavy diamond shaped, double-sided glass pendent with gold corners.

These gold triangles have been worked in an Etruscan filigree and granulation style, meaning that thin lengths of wire have been twisted together and combined with gold drops to form the decorative pattern.

The reverse side of the Douglas family locket . Photo/Supplied
The reverse side of the Douglas family locket . Photo/Supplied

Granulation is thought to be a 5000-year-old method, originating in Sumer, Mesopotamia, and involves soldering small drops of precious metal on to a surface.
The necklace chain is very long, about 161cm, set with pearls.

Use over the necklace's life is evident where repairs to the chain have been made and pearls have likely been removed.

Hallmarks on the chain indicate that at least that component was crafted in France around 1838, while the signature of JS Harvey suggests that the miniature oil painting was produced in Edinburgh or that J Harvey travelled from his base there.


On one side is a fine, although relatively simple, piece of hair art, with blonde hair laid in a partial Prince of Wales Feather, secured with a pearl band and accented with gold wire rope in the shape of a bow and sheaves of wheat.

A close up of the locket's reverse side showing intricate hair work. Photo/Supplied
A close up of the locket's reverse side showing intricate hair work. Photo/Supplied

A common design mimicked in hair art, the Prince of Wales Feather includes three ostrich feathers spraying from a gold coronet and ribbon.

This badge has been used in the Prince of Wales' coat of arms since 1900 but traces back through several British monarchs to Edward, the Black Prince of the 14th century.

To coax hair into this shape it was firstly cleaned with borax and soda and then scraped of oils and dirt. Next, the hair was curled with a small iron heated by a candle or spirit lamp, set with gum and dried under a weight.

Natural materials such as pearls or feathers were often included and every material and motif used was imbued with symbolism.

To the reverse, the Douglas locket also showcases a miniature oil painting of a toddler, dressed in a fine white dress and cap, clutching a pink rose.


It is likely that this toddler was related to the owner Lady Martha Elizabeth Douglas (nee Rouse, 1811-1899), possibly a sibling or a child.

A fine portrait of Martha inside a velvet and leather case was also donated with the Douglas Collection (1964.6.11).

In 1835 Martha married Sir Robert Andrews Mackenzie Douglas, 2nd Baronet of Glenbervie, Kincardine County, Scotland. She was also his sister-in-law, as her sister Ann Rouse had married Alexander Douglas, the previous year.

Robert started his military career following his father (Sir Kenneth Douglas, 1st Baronet of Glenbervie) in the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot active in the Napoleonic Wars, but served most of it in Mauritius with the 12th Regiment.

Martha and Robert's sons Robert and Kenneth settled in New Zealand in the 1860s after the entail to Glenbervie, Scotland, was broken and the land sold.

Robert the younger (3rd Baronet of Glenbervie), and his wife Eleanor L. Lifferton settled down on their new estate near Whangārei, to which they gave a name now familiar to us - 'Glenbervie' - after Robert's Scottish home.


Looking at the possible manufacture date of 1838 for the Douglas locket, then it is possible that the portrait is of Martha and Robert's first child, Robert, born in 1837, as his other siblings, Elizabeth and Kenneth were not born until the 1840s.

This remains a mystery which hopefully contact with the Douglas descendants will solve.

The Douglas locket and portrait of Lady Martha Douglas are on display in the 'Art from the Archives' exhibition at Kiwi North until May 12.

■ Georgia Kerby is exhibitions curator , Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.