A cen­tury ago, le­gions of Bri­tish women – from Queen Alexandra to un­known be­reaved moth­ers – do­nated thou­sands of pearls to the Red Cross in a gesture of re­mem­brance for the fallen of World War I. To­day, their gen­eros­ity is be­ing com­mem­o­rated with a new a

Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS — SUMMER 2018 - BY LY­DIA SLATER

A new cam­paign by the Bri­tish Red Cross re­calls the ap­peal a cen­tury ago, when the women of the na­tion do­nated their pearls in me­mory of their lost loved ones

Spher­i­cal, shim­mer­ing and sub­tle, sym­bolic of love, death and res­ur­rec­tion, pearls are the most evoca­tive and fem­i­nine of gems. Them­selves liv­ing or­gan­isms, born from a crea­ture’s suf­fer­ing, they must, it is said, be worn next to the skin to re­tain their lus­tre. In bib­li­cal para­bles, pearls rep­re­sented the Vir­gin Mary’s per­fec­tion and pu­rity, while clas­si­cal be­lief held that they were the teardrops of the gods. Pearls were tra­di­tion­ally worn by a bride on her wed­ding day, and by wid­ows in mourn­ing, and by women through­out his­tory to demon­strate their power and wealth – from Cleopa­tra in­fa­mously dis­solv­ing her largest pearl in vine­gar to im­press Mark Antony, to the Vir­gin Queen, gar­landed and crowned with the gems, to Coco Chanel, who, with typ­i­cal élan, paired costly ropes of nat­u­ral pearls from her lover the Duke of West­min­ster with cos­tume jew­ellery.

Given this rich res­o­nance, it is not sur­pris­ing that when Lady North­cliffe, the dy­namic wife of the press baron Al­fred Harmsworth, de­cided to start a fund-rais­ing cam­paign in the spring of 1918 to sup­port the war ef­fort, she hit on the idea of ask­ing women to do­nate their pearls – or rather, a sin­gle pearl each, sac­ri­ficed from a neck­lace (own­er­ship of a string be­ing de rigueur at the time for any woman with so­cial stand­ing). These do­nated pearls would be re­strung and auc­tioned to raise money for wounded troops.

The Red Cross Pearl Ap­peal, as it be­came known, im­me­di­ately drew Royal sup­port. Queen Alexandra, whose pearl choker, worn to hide a scar on her neck, had be­come her trade­mark, was one of the first donors to the Red Cross Pearl Ap­peal – gra­ciously ig­nor­ing the fact that her late hus­band Ed­ward VII’S long-term mis­tress Alice Kep­pel was on the or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee. In­deed, the list of the Pearl Ap­peal pa­tronesses en­com­passed the whole of Bri­tish smart so­ci­ety, from the Mar­chioness of An­gle­sey to the Duchess of Welling­ton.

Yet what Lady North­cliffe had per­haps not an­tic­i­pated was how the ap­peal would in­spire women from all walks of life, and from around the globe, to do­nate jew­els to hon­our their dead and wounded. A sin­gle pearl was of­fered col­lec­tively by ‘a few ladies in County Gal­way’, an­other sent in by a be­reaved mother from Twick­en­ham. ‘It is not a per­fect pearl, but it is the only one I have,’ wrote Edith Fielden, mov­ingly. ‘I send it in me­mory of a pearl be­yond all price al­ready given, my only son… per­haps one pearl in that great his­toric neck­lace from me may hang side by side with those of greater beauty, even as the moth­ers of only sons stand side by side with those who, richer, could give more.’

‘There was a real fe­male sol­i­dar­ity in the ap­peal,’ says the his­to­rian and au­thor Rachel Trethewey, whose new book, Pearls Be­fore Pop­pies, tells the hith­erto un­told story of the Red Cross pearls and their donors, pro­vid­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing and touch­ing in­sight into women’s experience of the Great War. ‘The pearls were anony­mous, so they were all of equal im­por­tance, whether they’d been given by the Queen or by a house­wife giv­ing her only pearl – the sac­ri­fice was the same, the way the white war graves all look the same. And at the same time, the ap­peal sent a mes­sage that things of beauty still mat­tered, even in this bar­baric time.’

Trethewey hap­pened on the story for­tu­itously, while wan­der­ing around a World War I dis­play dur­ing the Port Eliot lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. ‘There was a pic­ture of the Count­ess of St Ger­mans, and a line about her giv­ing a pearl to the Red Cross,’ she says. ‘I’ve al­ways loved pearls, and it stuck in my mind and wouldn’t let go of me.’

‘It seemed, and seems, a par­tic­u­larly poignant way to im­prove things, to com­man­deer or­na­ments de­signed to deck out a woman on her way to a party, and in­stead to use them for the good of oth­ers,’ agrees Lady Emma Kitch­ener, whose great-great-aunt Frances Parker, sis­ter to Lord Kitch­ener, was an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of the ini­tia­tive. ‘I sup­pose I feel that the whole idea is a mov­ing re­minder of what mat­ters and what does not re­ally mat­ter in life.’ Lord Kitch­ener, the Sec­re­tary of State for War, had been the pop­u­lar face of Bri­tish pa­tri­o­tism, adorn­ing re­cruit­ing posters across the na­tion be­neath the legend: ‘Your Coun­try Needs You’. In 1916, he drowned when his ship, HMS Hamp­shire, hit a Ger­man mine west of the Orkney Is­lands. In his me­mory, his sis­ter do­nated five ru­bies to the ap­peal, to be trans­formed into clasps for the neck­laces, along with three pearls given in me­mory of beloved fam­ily pets.

Lady Vi­o­let As­tor was an­other of the pa­tronesses. Born Vi­o­let El­liot, daugh­ter of the Earl of Minto, she had mar­ried Lord Charles Petty-fitz­mau­rice in 1909. Lord Charles was killed at Ypres in Oc­to­ber 1914, just weeks af­ter the out­break of war, leav­ing his widow with two young chil­dren. ‘Charles’s poor lit­tle wife [is] very brave, but it is not easy,’ wrote her fa­ther-in-law, Lord Lans­downe, to a friend. Two years later, Vi­o­let mar­ried again, to Cap­tain John As­tor, the sec­ond son of Wil­liam Wal­dorf, in a low-key cer­e­mony at Christ Church, Lan­caster Gate. Shortly af­ter­wards, she posed for a for­mal pho­to­graph, clad in a tea dress of ap­pro­pri­ately bridal white, her long string of pearls clasped around her neck. The im­age is a lit­tle


un­set­tling; for although the sit­ter is young, beau­ti­ful and clearly from the high­est ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety, her ex­pres­sion is pro­foundly melan­choly. ‘She of­ten looks rather som­bre,’ agrees her grand­son Philip As­tor, who de­scribes his grand­mother as af­fec­tion­ate and in­tensely fam­ily-minded. ‘We have a won­der­ful por­trait by de Las­zlo, in which she also looks a tri­fle sad. Her ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the war were very shock­ing for her. Hav­ing lost one hus­band, I dare say she was guarded about get­ting mar­ried again, and pos­si­bly los­ing a sec­ond.’ (Vi­o­let As­tor’s fears were well-founded, for Cap­tain As­tor was badly wounded a cou­ple of months be­fore the Ar­mistice and lost a leg, though he re­fused to al­low this dis­abil­ity to pre­vent him from play­ing ten­nis and squash.) The mar­riage proved happy and suc­cess­ful, with three sons born to the cou­ple, but ac­cord­ing to Philip As­tor, the shadow of the Great War never quite de­parted. ‘I think my grand­fa­ther per­haps found it dif­fi­cult that Vi­o­let had been mar­ried be­fore, and she in turn may have found it dif­fi­cult in her new fam­ily to have pho­to­graphs of her first hus­band around.’ In­deed, two years af­ter her sec­ond wed­ding, Vi­o­let wrote to her for­mer mother-in-law, Lady Lans­downe: ‘Just a line of love as it is the fourth an­niver­sary of our great sor­row. Although I have a very new life now, old and won­der­fully happy mem­o­ries are never for­got­ten and the wound is far from healed.’ As­tor be­lieves that the ubiq­ui­tous string of pearls she wore in every por­trait may have been a coded mes­sage, a so­cially ac­cept­able way of ac­knowl­edg­ing her wid­ow­hood – ‘a way to ex­press her grief and con­tin­u­ing love’ – as no doubt was her in­volve­ment in the Pearl Ap­peal.

Other women do­nated pearls as a way of ex­press­ing thanks for the sur­vival of their loved ones, or them­selves – such as Noël, Count­ess of Rothes, who gave a gem from the 300-year-old pearl string that was the only jew­ellery she had man­aged to save while flee­ing the sink­ing Ti­tanic.

By the time the ap­peal closed in Oc­to­ber 1918, al­most 4,000 pearls had been do­nated. They were handed over to a com­mit­tee of jew­ellers who spent weeks grad­ing the gems, then match­ing and string­ing them into 41 neck­laces. These were packed into royal-blue vel­vet cases, adorned with a red cross, and despatched to Christie’s, which, since 1915, had been putting on sales free of charge to raise funds for the Red Cross.

The Pearl Neck­lace Auc­tion took place on 19 De­cem­ber, on the same day that Lon­don held a vic­tory pa­rade for Field Mar­shal Haig and his gen­er­als. It raised £94,044, the equiv­a­lent of £5 mil­lion to­day. All the same, there seems to be a sense of bathos around the sale. The vast ma­jor­ity of lots were knocked down not to in­di­vid­ual women buy­ers, but to pro­fes­sional deal­ers, with Lot 101, the ‘neck­lace of neck­laces’ – a string of 63 matched pearls ‘of the finest Ori­ent’, held to­gether with a rose di­a­mond clasp do­nated by Lady Nor­bury – go­ing for £22,000 to the jeweller Mr Car­ring­ton Smith, who had been on the re­string­ing com­mit­tee. ‘It will be his­toric as the jew­els of Marie An­toinette; it will be an heir­loom more famed than the Hope di­a­mond,’ pre­dicted one ad­mirer of this piece. Yet like the Pearl Ap­peal it­self, the Nor­bury neck­lace was for­got­ten, and its where­abouts are now un­known. Most likely, it has been re­duced to its com­po­nent parts, re­mod­elled and resold…

Nev­er­the­less, a cen­tury af­ter the orig­i­nal ap­peal, the Red Cross Pearls for Life com­mit­tee is at­tempt­ing to track down these neck­laces for a new fund-rais­ing ap­peal. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the public is again be­ing asked to do­nate items of per­sonal jew­ellery, to be auc­tioned for the Bri­tish Red Cross by Christie’s at a grand black-tie gala at the Savoy on 2 July, mod­elled for the oc­ca­sion by young women clad in exquisite Ralph & Russo cou­ture. ‘The world is a dif­fer­ent place, but the hu­man­i­tar­ian aim is ex­actly the same,’ says Dr Genevieve Davies, a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee. ‘The sto­ries be­hind each piece are so mov­ing. We have had some sig­nif­i­cant pieces given pri­vately, but we have also re­ceived a tiny box of mis­matched pearl studs, do­nated by some­one who doesn’t have a huge amount of money – so the spirit is still there.’ The sto­ried jew­ellery houses in­volved in the orig­i­nal ap­peal, from Gar­rard to Tiffany, have now been joined by donors such as Fabergé, whose in­volve­ment with the Red Cross dates back over a cen­tury, as well as mod­ern de­sign­ers in­clud­ing Mon­ica Vi­nader, Cas­san­dra Goad and Carolina Bucci.

But per­haps the most ap­pro­pri­ate do­na­tion has been of­fered by Prag­nell, the May­fair jeweller: a cen­tury-old enam­elled gold and di­a­mond brooch in the form of a dove of peace, its wings out­spread (pic­tured above), car­ry­ing a pen­dant pearl – a fit­ting tribute to the sac­ri­fice of a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. ‘Pearls Be­fore Pop­pies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls’ by Rachel Trethewey (£20, the His­tory Press) is out now. For more in­for­ma­tion on the forth­com­ing gala and the Pearls for Life 2018 ap­peal by the In­ter­na­tional Fundrais­ing Com­mit­tee of the Bri­tish Red Cross, email [email protected]­


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