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About this collection

Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is this collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.  The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s The Bridesmaid) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles. 

 

Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Samuel Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.

 

The hair collection stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.

 

While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.

 

 

To Robert Batty, M.D., on His Giving Me a Lock of Milton's Hair

By Leigh Hunt

 

It lies before me there, and my own breath

Stirs its thin outer threads, as though beside

The living head I stood in honoured pride,

Talking of lovely things that conquer death.

Perhaps he pressed it once, or underneath

Ran his fine fingers when he leant, blank-eyed,

And saw in fancy Adam and his bride

With their heaped locks, or his own Delphic wreath.

There seems a love in hair, though it be dead.

It is the gentlest, yet the strongest thread

Of our frail plant,--a blossom from the tree

Surviving the proud trunk; as if it said,

Patience and gentleness in power. In me

Behold affectionate eternity.

 

 

Browse Leigh Hunt's Hair Book.

 

 
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