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The hair of Queen Marie Antoinette?

In the British Museum, there is a locket containing hair traditionally said to be that of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre.

Donated to the Museum as part of the Hull Grundy Gift (Gere, Charlotte; Rudoe, Judy; Tait, Hugh; Wilson, The Art of the Jeweller, A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum, Vol 1-2, London, BMP, 1984), the locket was formerly held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is not on display. Given the fact that the object is popularly believed to contain her hair, it is interesting that such a locket exists in London, a city which holds other items that claim an undisputed important connection with her, such as the Jean-Henri Riesener corner cupboard – from Marie Antoinette’s private study at Versailles, made by her favourite cabinet-maker – at the Wallace Collection and Madame Tussauds in London, which contains the “gruesome” relics of the French Revolution in what was once Tussauds Baker Street Bazaar, Tussaud having been forced on her release from prison to make death masks of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So, is there anything that might support this hair belonging to her?

The heart-shaped, filigree-set locket with a padlock and matching key on a chain is late 18thC to early 19thC but there is no evidence to support the fact that the hair was presented in this locket, though it is contemporary to the period. The piece of paper in the back of the locket could have been added at any point prior to the date when the locket was given by Lady Napier in 1853.

As the British Museum rightly states, there is nothing that directly supports the slip of paper referring to the hair, as it could have been added later at any time, into a locket which contained the hair of someone else. The provenance which the locket claims, is described in the slip, namely as a “lock of hair of Marie Antoinette Queen of France, given by her to Lady Abercorn, by whom it was given to her sister Lady Julia Lockwood, whose daughter Lady Napier gave it to W.S, 1853”. In other words, even if the lock of hair should belong to Marie Antoinette, there is nothing on the slip of paper to suggest that the hair was given in this locket.


The locket with hair traditionally thought to be that of Marie Antoinette (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Lady Abercorn referred to in the locket, is possibly Catherine Copley, Lady Abercorn, first wife of the Irish peer and politician John Hamilton, 1st Marquess of Abercorn. Catherine Copley, daughter of 1st Baronet Sir Joseph Copley, married the 1st Marquess in 1779. She died on 13 September 1791; a date which is, in fact, important to linking any gravity to the provenance. As the authors of the catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift (Gere, Rudoe, Tait, Wilson, 1984) attest, if the blonde hair in the British Museum locket does indeed relate to Marie Antoinette, then it must date before the misfortunate, midnight flight on Monday 20 June 1791 to Varennes; as the result of which, Marie Antoinette’s hair went white. On the return from Varennes, Marie Antoinette showed her white hair to a shocked Madame Campan, her First Lady of the Bedchamber, in the Tuileries – Campan later wrote in her Memoirs: “En une seule nuit ils étaient devenus blancs comme ceux d’une femme de soixante-dix ans…” [“In a single night, it had turned white as that of a seventy-year old woman”]. (Mémoires de Madame Campan, première femme de chambre de Marie-Antoinette, Le Temps retrouvé, Mercure de France, Paris, 1988, p.272).  Around this time, Marie Antoinette gave a ring to the Princesse de Lamballe containing a lock of white hair, with the poignant inscription: “Blanchis par malheur”. Lady Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette’s biographer, states less dramatically however, that Marie Antoinette’s hair probably had already been going white by this date, (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Pg 420, 2000) but that she of course, would have been able to conceal the whiteness behind the prevalent, elaborate hairdressing which she had further helped to popularise and also importantly, through the use of powder (Fraser, Pg 421). Powder had become one of the key attributes – and aromas – at mid to late eighteenth century Versailles.

Marie Antoinette’s hair is described in her youth as having been “fair” and “thick”. Her celebrated hairdresser Leonard, came personally to Versailles twice a week and left the rest of the haircare to his assistants. The results of all this were the fabulous, high-wired, feather-plumed creations for which the Queen became famous – and infamous, in the despised, public image of her. Some of her hair seems to have already started to fall out by 1776 and the Queen had also experienced the effects of pregnancy at least four times by the time of the flight to Varennes. The Queen’s first Parisian hairdresser Sieur Larsenneur, had come to Vienna at the time of her transformative preparation from Austrian Archduchess for that of French Dauphine, to change her famous high forehead and Habsburg hairline, so well captured in the early portrait of her by Martin van Meytens. The hair of Marie Antoinette was an apparent feature at her trial, a terrible uniformity of white against the paleness of her complexion, compounded by loss of blood. Incarcerated in the Women’s Courtyard at the Conciergerie, Marie Antoinette’s hair would be cropped – but not for the purposes of hairdressing – but in order to prepare her for execution on Wednesday, 16 October 1793. (This rough hair cropping is sadly evident in the engraving done from life of Marie Antoinette being led to the guillotine, by Jacques Louis David). With a makeshift bonnet on top, the “thin white” (Fraser, Pg 524) hair underneath had been cut by large, careless scissors, held by the hands of Charles Henri Sanson. It was a tragic shift from the careful, refined scissors of Leonard, for royal hair which had hitherto been accustomed to the most elaborate of creations.


The back of the locket, with the slip of paper inscribed as to its assumed provenance (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

I wonder why such a lock of hair, if it was indeed Marie Antoinette’s, would have been given by her to Lady Abercorn. Marie Antoinette had been Queen of France since 1774; her most well-known friendship amongst the British aristocracy was surely the one she shared with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, eighteenth months her junior. (Marie Antoinette was referred to as “Mrs Brown” by her mutual friends, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the Duke of Dorset). Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire wrote after the Queen’s death, of Marie Antoinette’s “… answers, her cleverness and greatness of mind”. (Fraser, Pg 541). There appears to be no apparent mention of a Catherine Copley – Lady Abercorn since 1779 – at least that I have been able to track down, no mention of any particular friendship. There could however, be a weak connection through the diplomat and one-time British Ambassador to the Neapolitan court, Sir William Hamilton. Sir William Hamilton was the fourth son of Lady Jane Hamilton, herself the third daughter of James Hamilton, 6th Earl of Abercorn. Lady Jane Hamilton died in Paris in 1753, two years before Marie Antoinette’s birth in Vienna. John Hamilton, 1st Marquess of Abercorn was the 7th Earl of Abercorn’s grandson and his wife was the same Catherine Copley. Sir William Hamilton and Emma Hamilton met Marie Antoinette at the time of the proclamation of the Constitution at the Hotel de Ville, an opportunity that the Queen used to pass on a letter to her sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples. It would have been a strange opportunity to pass on a lock of hair as well – in a locket which was not recorded – but if an Abercorn link could be found to exist between the locket and the Queen, it might be established somehow through the distant, Hamilton connection.

The locket remains an exquisite objet d’art, whosever hair is inside. But if it could be proved beyond the traditional claim that it was the hair of Marie Antoinette, it would surely count among the British Museum’s most poignant pieces.

For Marie Antoinette’s hair somehow also tells her life story – it was diplomatically transformed for Versailles as part of her preparation to become the French Dauphine, styled into fantastic, plumed creations as Queen of France, whitened by sorrow, as she herself said to the Princesse de Lamballe, and finally, sheared off by gigantic scissors before she was guillotined.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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