Considering the Cultural Connotations of Pearls

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Ball and Chain, 2016© Maisie Broadhead, courtesy of Sarah Myerscough Gallery

Photographer Maisie Broadhead's new London exhibition critiques the historical symbolism of the precious gemstone

A jewellery designer-turned-photographer making images about jewellery, it follows that Maisie Broadhead is fascinated by historical objects – particularly portraits in which kings and queens stand dripping with jewels. Where most see only swathes of rich velvet and diamond-clad hands, however, Broadhead is attuned to the nuances of the pieces on proud display, be they glittering ruby chokers or gleaming pale pearls, as is the case in her most recent body of work.

The aptly named Pearls takes portraits of young aristocratic women as its starting point. “It all came about from some research I was doing for an installation at the Royal Pavilion,” Broadhead explains. “I’ve always liked going around museums and looking at paintings, but for this one I really had to dig deep into the monarchy, because the installation was for a pavilion which was commissioned years and years ago by the George IV.” The young and sickly monarch whose favourite pastimes included drinking, gambling and racing lived an opulent lifestyle, which meant Broadhead’s research was especially interesting. “When I was looking around for research on that I came across lots of paintings of historical figures. Obviously the male portraits said a lot about the men’s status – they’re either kings or princes, so it was really just a celebration of masculinity, but the female portraits, certainly the portraits of the young ladies, were actually often kind of adverts.”

These portraits were generally commissioned to depict young and high-class women to their advantage, with a view to forming political alliances between families through marriage, and as such they were laden with minute deceptions and heavily symbolic props – of which pearls were a key component. “I love the social aspect of jewellery, the meanings and symbols, and I think it’s so interesting the way that pearls are used to suggest so much more in these pictures. They’re all strategically placed on the bosom and the neck, highlighting the best angles and elements – sort of symbolic of the properties of pearls, purity and virginity.”

Broadhead’s painting-like portraits of women in historical dress, weighed down with heavy pearls, are augmented with a clever trompe l’oeil – the necklaces roll through the frames and fall onto the floor, bringing the photographs into the physical space. “I had all these frames made by a really fantastic framer who faked them all basically, in a really old school way,” she explains – he drilled holes through the casing to allow for the pearls to be concealed. Her subjects themselves, meanwhile, are cast from her friends and family. “My first point of call is always people I know. I feel much more comfortable talking to them, you know, and often you can sense whether somebody isn’t feeling comfortable in front of the camera. I still find that the actual making process is so much fun.”

Maisie Broadhead: Pearls runs from June 10 – 30, 2016, at Sarah Myerscough Gallery, London.