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Mary, Marchioness of Downshire: A Life in Miniature

Date: 07 June 2024

Author: Emma Lawthers

It is often said that parents need eyes on the back of their head but Mary, Marchioness of Downshire, had them on her wrist – seven of them to be precise. In June 1813 she was presented with a magnificent bracelet by her children, made up of miniature portraits of their eyes. While this object is now sadly lost, we have the journals of her daughters, Charlotte and Mary, to thank for our knowledge of it, and examples of other eye miniatures so that we can imagine its splendour.

Here, Research and Interpretation Producer Emma Lawthers takes a brief glimpse into the lives of Mary and the Hill family of Hillsborough Castle, as seen through the lens of this unique object.

Miniature painting of an eye in detail, enclosed in an oval gold frame, decorated with small pearls.

Image: An example of an eye miniature set in jewellery, early 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Mary, Marchioness of Downshire

Mary was born into the wealthy Sandys family in 1764, who were based in Ombersley Court in Worcestershire, and became an heiress of considerable fortune after her brothers died in infancy. No doubt her fortune played a part in attracting the affections of Lord Arthur Hill, heir to the Downshire estate in Ireland, which included looking after the family seat at Hillsborough Castle, but she was also a charming and well-educated lady who thrived in London’s high society.

She married Arthur in 1786 and seems to have enjoyed a happy marriage; the couple became Marquess and Marchioness of Downshire six years later.  Sadly, this happiness was short-lived.

Black and white portrait of a woman seated with herright arms resting on armrest, holding small dog. She is wearing frilled cap and dress with frilled neckline.

Image: Portrait of Mary, Marchioness of Downshire, c.1835-1854. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Arthur died aged just 48, leaving Mary a heavily-pregnant widow. The couple had seven children together and Mary gave birth to their last child, George, a couple of months after her husband’s death. Her eldest son, Downshire, was only 12 years old at the time, so she became head of the family until he came of age, including looking after the family’s estates.

For this, Mary received not only respect but a great deal of affection from her children, who enjoyed a close relationship with her. Even after her son Downshire came of age, she enlisted the help of her two daughters, Charlotte and Mary who took it in turns to act as her ‘lady-in-waiting’ to help her manage the significant lands she owned in her name.

Mary thrives in Regency London

By 1813, Mary was spending most of her time at Downshire House in London, where she had become a popular society matriarch and a confidante of several royal dukes, including George, the Prince Regent (the future George IV). Fans of novelist Georgette Heyer may recognise Mary’s name, as she occasionally pops up in her books about the Regency. 

Despite Mary’s success in London, we should not assume that she did not think of the family seat in Ireland, or her children. Her eldest son, Downshire, was spending most of his time in Ireland, her second son, Arthur, was fighting in the Peninsular War and two of her younger sons, Marcus and Augustus, were living in the countryside with their tutor.  It is perhaps for this reason that Mary commissioned a bracelet to be made up of portraits of her children’s eyes.

In the eye of the beholder

In the eye of the beholder Sentimental jewellery had become somewhat of a craze in the late 18th century, allegedly sparked by the Prince Regent who sent a miniature portrait of his eye to his lover, Maria Fitzherbert.

Miniature eye portraits were set into all manner of richly bejewelled items from snuff boxes to lapel pins. Often known as ‘lover’s eyes’, they allowed the subject to remain anonymous to all but the receiver of the gift. They were also popular among family members who could gaze on the eyes of their loved ones even when they were absent.

Gone in the blink of an eye: Mary's jewels are stolen

While eye miniatures held little meaning to other people, when set in gold and jewels they  had significant monetary value. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Downshire House was burgled on 29 March 1813, this bracelet was bundled into a swag bag along with the rest of Mary’s jewellery. Although the thieves were caught soon after and much of their haul (totalling almost £2 million in today’s money) was recovered, the bracelet was never found.

The trial at the Old Bailey took its toll on Mary: after a lengthy day at court, she had to be given a composing draft by her doctor, a medicinal drink commonly used to ease anxiety.

“[Mama] came home between Seven & eight, very cold & very much fatigued… Mr Stewart came at 10 to tell us the verdict which Mama did not wait to hear… [she] fainted from exhaustion having been 12 hours without eating.”

Charlotte and Mary in their journal about the trial, 5 June 1813

The eyes have it: The Replacement Bracelet 

Charlotte and Mary wrote in their journal that ‘all’ the siblings resolved to surprise their mother with a replacement bracelet to cheer her after the stress of the burglary.  

Charlotte Jones, official miniature painter to Princess Charlotte of Wales, was commissioned to create a replacement for Mary’s beloved bracelet.


A flexible, silver-gilt bracelet from which hang nine gold, enamel and diamond-set lockets; five are heart shaped, three circular and one oval. Six contain hair, two are empty and the last contains miniature of a left eye, blue, female, with light brown curls around it.

Image: A bracelet by Charlotte Jones featuring an eye miniature of her royal patron, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Six of the lockets contain hair. Royal Collection Trust / © 2024 His Majesty King Charles III.

This miniature, held in the Royal Collection Trust, is set in a bracelet that likely would have looked similar to one commissioned by the Hill children.

The person in the miniature has been identified as Princess Charlotte of Wales (George IV's daughter). Both Princess Charlotte and the Hill family's miniatures were painted by Charlotte Jones. 

Portrait, full length, of a young man posing and facing the viewer against a cloudy sky and dark green pasture. He holds a sword in one hand and a feathered hat the other.

Image: The portrait of Lord Arthur Hill that hangs in the State Dining Room of Hillsborough Castle. On Loan from the Northern Ireland Office to Hillsborough Castle / © Northern Ireland Office.

The covert operation to surprise their mother was carried out by Charlotte and Mary. Arthur was in Spain at the time, so they had an unfinished portrait of Arthur delivered from another artist’s studio to Miss Jones so that she could copy his eye from the painting. This may well have been the portrait of Lord Arthur Hill that hangs in the State Dining Room at Hillsborough Castle today. 

The girls asked Marcus and Augustus’ tutor to return their brothers to the London house without telling their mother. When the brothers arrived, they took great care to hide from their mother all day, wishing to surprise her the following morning. 

On Saturday 12 June, the children got up early. Charlotte put the bracelet upon her arm ‘in the name of all the family’ and they gathered to present it to their mother. 

“The bracelet arrived at ½ past Nine. Went all up to Mama. Charlotte put it upon her Arm in the name of all the Family, & we introduced brothers (Marcus and Augustus) to her. She was very much delighted.”

Charlotte and Mary, in their journal, 12 June 1813

The family spent the rest of the day together, driving in their carriage to the King’s Road, reading letters from their brother Arthur. As a treat the younger boys were even allowed to join their elder siblings after dinner to eat dessert.  

Where are the bracelets today?

Sadly, we do not know what became of either bracelet, the stolen one or its replacement, but it is entirely possible that they are on display in a museum. Lover’s eye jewellery can be found in museum display cases across the world but due to the very anonymity of the eye, the identity of the person behind it has too often been lost. 

Emma Lawthers 
Research and Interpretation Producer
Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

Sources and Further Reading

Diary extracts taken from the Journal of Two Goseys (available on The Sandys Story website) by Ladies Charlotte and Mary Hill, edited by Martin Davis.

For more on eye miniatures, see Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late 18th Century Eye Miniatures by Hanneke Grootenboer.  

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