LUSTRE FOR LIFE
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
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
‘IT IS NOT A PERFECT PEARL, BUT IT IS THE ONLY ONE I HAVE. I SEND IT IN MEMORY OF A PEARL BEYOND ALL PRICE ALREADY GIVEN, MY ONLY SON’
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]cross.org.uk.
NOËL, COUNTESS OF ROTHES GAVE A PEARL FROM THE STRING SHE SAVED WHILE FLEEING THE SINKING TITANIC