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.

The first inscription entitled simply ‘Goethe’s Haar’ (Goethe’s hair) reads as follows: ‘Diese Locke(n) wurden ihm 2ten März 1823 in den Tagen seiner Genesung von der Krankheit abgeschnitten’. (‘This lock was cut from him on the 2nd March 1823 in the days of his convalescence from illness’). The note is factual and authoritative – written with flourishes in a nineteenth century hand. The second inscription however makes it clear that the writer of the first inscription is Johannes Daniel Falk (1768-1826), who is described in the inscription as ‘the Satirist and friend of Goethe’.

Goethe’s illness is well authenticated in several scholarly works which provide day-by-day accounts of all of Goethe’s activities on any particular day. According to one of these accounts Goethe was recovering from a mild heart attack after having been taken ill on Monday, 17th February 1823. The entry for the day records that on this day the doctor no longer felt the need to publish details of Goethe’s illness on a bulletin board on the door of his house on the Frauenplan in Weimar. The same account also tells us that Goethe was able for the first time after an interval due to his illness to receive guests around the large table. What these accounts do not attest is the presence of Johannes Daniel Falk at Goethe’s house on that day.

However, Johannes Daniel Falk was definitely living in Weimar at this time. Falk, originally from Danzig, had come to Weimar in 1797 and although he had started out as a figure moving in the literary circles of Weimar his life had entered a very different stage during the Napoleonic wars where his knowledge of French had enabled him to intercede on behalf of the local inhabitants of the principality during the French occupation. In the final phase of his life his field of activity changed once again and he did good works looking after orphans who had become homeless during the war and became interested in education – or to be more precise social pedagogy. It has to be said that the friendship between Goethe and Falk did not always run smoothly, but there seems to have been genuine affection and admiration on both sides. Falk would die before Goethe in 1826 and Goethe encouraged Heinrich Doring to write his biography.

It is therefore quite plausible that on 2nd March 1823 Goethe may have decided after having got over his illness to celebrate, perhaps by entertaining visitors. He would no doubt want to look his best and would have wanted to have his hair cut. It would have been a joyous moment – a time for a new beginning. Falk – entering into the joyousness and light-heartedness of the occasion – may well have asked him for one of the clippings or even surreptitiously removed a lock that he may have found on the floor.

The second inscription runs as follows: : Given me by my Aunt, Mrs Gabriele Saaltzen, of Weimar, the only surviving child of my Father’s Uncle, Johannes Daniel Falk, the Satirist and Friend of Goethe. Given me at Catsclough, Cheshire on Fri Aug. 19. 1881. H. John Falk.

Once again all of this is borne out by the facts. Johannes Daniel Falk had ten children, only two of whom survived. Falk married Caroline Rosenfeld in 1797 so Gabriele might have been a young girl or a young woman by the time that these objects came into her possession. Perhaps it was Gabriele who executed the sketch for the small portrait and put the various items into the gilded frame – perhaps she would have done this after Goethe’s death in 1832. As Professor Henrike Laehnemann has pointed out, the presence of the violet is significant. An educated young woman in Weimar in the 1820s and 1830s would have been familiar with Goethe’s poem Das Veilchen, written in 1773 and set to music by various composers including Mozart. The poem would seem to accord well with the Romantic sensibility of the time – a sensibility for which Goethe himself in his poetry would have done much to prepare the way. In the poem a violet dies happy despite, or even because of, being carelessly trampled by the shepherdess he adores. Even in such pain and in the face of such lack of concern – even in death – love flourishes. Of course, the idea of creating a shrine to a great poet has romantic parallels elsewhere.

As with any relic, the status of the lock of Goethe’s hair stands or falls by its authenticity and by being able to establish its provenance. It has to be said that the provenance of this particular item seems reliable. Gabriele Saaltzen – Johannes Daniel Falk’s daughter — gives the lock to H. John Falk in Catsclough on Friday August 19th 1881. In New College, Oxford there is an entry in the matriculation registry for one Herman John Falk, born in Gateacre in Liverpool in on March 18th 1855. He would therefore have been 26 when he met his aunt in Catsclough and his aunt would have been an elderly woman. He graduated with a Third in Jurisprudence in 1876. On 4th June 1953 O.T Falk (CBE, 55 High Street, Oxford) writes to the librarian of the Taylor Institution Library offering the lock of hair to the Taylorian, saying that he thinks his father (Herman John Falk) would have approved of the lock being given to the Taylorian and mentioning that he had been at New College eighty years previously. Thus the story turns full circle and the lock of hair comes to the Taylorian in Oxford from Weimar via Liverpool.

Perhaps Goethe too would have approved of the subsequent career of that lock of hair which seems to bring us closer not only to Goethe but to his everyday life and his circle of friends, and also makes us aware of how his work – and the sensibility it nourished — influenced the lives of other notable artists and writers (Mozart, Johannes Daniel Falk) as well as touching the lives of ordinary people including the daughter of Johannes Daniel Falk, a successful Oxford-educated barrister, his son and ourselves.

Read more about Goethe’s hair on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog.

Date: 1823

Creator: Johannes Daniel Falk

Subject: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Media rights: The lock of Goethes hair kept at the Taylor Institution Library. Image Emilia Henderson @minuscule_eth, Taylor Institution Library trainee 2015-16. Image publicly available from the website above, and from the Taylor Institution Library.

Object type: lock of hair

Format: framed in an oval gilded frame accompanied by two notes (1823 and 1881)

Publisher: presented by O.T. Falk to the Taylor Institution Library in June 1953

Related objects: A Lock of Goethe’s Hair (poem),  Byron’s Hair

Collection record: MS.8º.G.26