Anchor of Hope

 The anchor is the traditional Christian symbol of hope.  There are several different fairly common cameo compositions featuring an anchor and presumably worn as an expression of hope, whether a general faith that all will be well through divine will, or a more specific wish for the welfare of someone away at sea.

Below are (l. – r.) a Wedgwood trial medallion from 1770, a wax impression of an “unpublished” Tassie gem from Oxford University’s Beazley Archive and a more modern Wedgwood version of the same subject.  The Wedgwood Museum titles the medallion “Hope & Anchor”; the Archive identifies the Tassie as Tyche, goddess of luck/fortune.  However, the Archive’s “unpublished” items seem not to have yet received serious scholarly attention and many are clearly mislabeled.  The one attribute specific to Tyche is her crenellated "mural' crown.  It is difficult to be certain, but the Tassie figure does not appear to wear such a headdress.  While there is evidently confusion about this in the numismatic world as well, Tyche, who steers us this way and that, is indicated by a rudder, which on some ancient coins bears a resemblance to an anchor.

When Josiah Wedgwood first began experimenting with making cameos in his jasper ware, James Tassie supplied many of the impressions from which the molds were made.  Reproductions of classic engraved gems as well as intaglios copying famous art works became all the rage in the 18th century; there was much competition for the market.  The two men evenually became competitors, and Wegwood had to turn more to hiring artists to create original works inpired by the classical artists.  John Flaxman is the best known of the Wedgwood modelers.

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A more ethereal image has an angel instead of a mortal woman, hand(s) over the heart.  She too is Hope, perhaps praying for someone whose soul is already departed.  The anchor is no longer upright; it has fallen.  John Gibson designed the figure on the right as a monument to Edward and Margaret Roscoe.



AnchorIntaglioBThe figure in the intaglio to the right, holding an anchor upright with her right hand, embodies not only Hope, but also Consolation to the bereaved, reminding them, with her upraised finger, that the departed is now in a better state.  A similar figure can be seen in a larger scene by the English gem engraver William Brown, as impression #8065 in the James Tassie collection of the Beazley Archive at Oxford University.

The most common hope cameos feature a pretty woman, classically styled, with an anchor in front of or behind her, or hooked over her shoulder, where it can be difficult to recognize.

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The first cameo is unusual in having an anchor as the sole symbolic element.  The others are typical presentations of this subject.  On her brow is what may easily be mistaken for a flower or a starfish, but is actually a star.  This is Polaris, the North Star, the star sailors navigate by.  The image expresses hope for the safe return of someone at sea.

AnchorDIt can be imagined that these cameos were given as sweetheart gifts, as this anchor pin, with hearts as the flukes at the ends of the arms, surely was.  Such a cameo would have signaled that the woman wearing it was doing what was expected of her by keeping her man in her thoughts, remaining loyal and, presumably, faithful.  Perhaps it also served to send the message that although the woman was unescorted, in public places or at social events, she did have a man in her life, so should not be an object of pity, nor the target of amorous advances.


The meaning of these cameos is fully laid out in this very unusual piece, which may have drawn inspiration from another of the Beazley Archive's unpublished Tassie gems, again identified as Tyche.  Unfortunately the quality of the photograph is not high enough to know with certainty whether this lady wears the mural crown or this is merely a lighting effect.



There are also cameos that have no anchor, but with a lady who wears a star on her brow.  These would be difficult to interpret if not for the many that do include an anchor.  It is possible the figure with clouds below her was meant to be Aurora/Eos, the Dawn, with the morning star on her brow.


Variants do turn up, with equally clear meaning.  The woman wearing a turban is garbed as a sibyl, but Tassie impressions of this same figure are identified in the Index as Hope.  Understandably, the figure with one hand on the shank of her anchor is sometimes identified as Britannia.  However, despite Britain's naval supremacy, Britannia is conventionally shown with the attributes of a warrior.  She is also sometimes accompanied by a lion.

The red wax Tassie impression from the Beazley Archive is again identified as Tyche.  In this case there is the suggestion of a mural crown, although the posture of the figure seems more that of someone submitting to fortune rather than controlling it.  Perhaps the meaning is that the sea is an even more powerful actor in the fate of men than Fortune is.  Her bowed head makes her look less hopeful than her sisters to her left.


The cameo figure below was identified by the seller as St. Philomena.  An anchor, which was engraved on her tomb, is indeed one of this obscure saint's symbols.  Strongly arguing against this interpretation is the lack of  a halo.  Clearly modeled on the 19th century painting shown next to her, a creative appropriation of a famous image, Raphael's Triumph of Galatea, it seems more likely this is again an expression of hope, in this case perhaps for the survival of the shipwrecked.  The carver has placed her on what appear to be broken planks rather than on the rocks of the painting..