A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

Contributors: Nick Hearn and Susan Reynolds

Location: Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, UK

Description: The Taylor Institution Library has many treasures – chiefly books — but among the many rare and valuable items in the Rare Books Room one stands out. It is the item recorded in the catalogue with the shelfmark MS.8º.G.26. It is not a book or a manuscript as the shelf-mark would suggest but a lock of hair – supposedly a lock of Goethe’s hair! So it would seem that in the Taylor Institution Library, not only do we have an extensive collection of works by and about the greatest of all German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but in the depths of the library in our Rare Books Room, we have a lock of the great man’s hair! It is most likely the slip of paper with the portrait which has been classified. The little portrait, an oval piece of paper with a simple line drawing of Goethe added later is, however, an understated minimally delineated presence possibly sketched by the same person who put the sprig of hair in that gilded frame.

The star attraction – the main event — is that elongated wispy sprig of hair delicately piercing the backing paper below and itself framing a faded bloom. There are two inscriptions accompanying the lock of hair – one of them, the older one, mentions the time of year – March. It seems likely, as Professor Henrike Laehnemann notes, that the dried flower is a violet, given the time of year mentioned on the accompanying inscription. It is an intriguing ensemble – portrait, violet, lock of hair accompanied rather like some medieval relic by two inscriptions testifying to its authenticity like a secular equivalent of the medieval cedula where the name of a saint was noted and then tied to the relic.

What is the origin of these items? What do they mean? Can it really be true that this is a lock of Goethe’s hair? How did the Taylor Institution Library come by … a lock of Goethe’s hair? Is it authentic? To begin to answer these questions we must look at the inscriptions.

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