Some treasures have value far beyond their story or the apparently sentimental reasons for keeping them. Some treasures are worth a lot of money – jewels, for example – and some are valuable because of the person who owned them. This treasure is a valuable cameo locket, made even more so by the fact it belonged to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The story of how it came to be in Canada, and finally at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, adds yet another layer of value.
A cameo is a tiny carving, often in a white semiprecious stone, glued to another surface of a contrasting colour. Many cameo carvers went on to become sculptors, having learned their skills in the jewellery trade. In this case the cameo is a full-length picture of a woman carved in white onyx. She is glued to a lovely piece of blood red jasper – a semiprecious mineral – which is in turn installed on the face of a gold locket. The locket opens, revealing two tiny head-and-shoulders photos of girls in century-old party dresses.
The locket was owned by Queen Victoria and given to one of her maids-in-waiting, Mrs. Mary Downing Williams. Mrs. Williams received several gifts from Her Majesty, and had many adventures even before coming to Canada. For example, at Queen Victoria's request, she accompanied the Empress Eugenie of France to South Africa around 1900, a journey not undertaken lightly by two women in those days. The Empress went to retrieve the body of her son, killed during the Boer War. After that adventure, Mrs. Williams and her husband came to Canada as homesteaders in south-eastern British Columbia. Eventually they moved to prairie North Dakota. Life was terribly difficult, and Mrs. Williams even cut off and sold her beautiful long hair. But she never sold the locket that Queen Victoria had given her. The friend who inherited it thought it should come back to Canada, and donated it to the Museum.
Text: Phil Tilney