(Museum of London, until 27 April 2014)
All that glisters is not gold in the Museum of London’s dazzling new exhibition: there are also rubies, emeralds, garnets, diamonds, pearls and cameos, amethysts, rock crystal and sapphires. Discovered just over a century ago, during demolition work on a row of 17th-century houses in the City of London, the Cheapside Hoard is a treasure-trove of more than five hundred jewels, which offer an unparalleled glimpse both of Stuart tastes in jewellery and of the goldsmith’s trade in early modern London.
I had the pleasure of visiting this show with the London branch of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, back on 9 November, and I’m thrilled that Jenny thought to combine the exhibition with the annual Dunnett toast. It was the perfect accompaniment to a taste of Lymond’s London.
I don’t know enough about the history of jewellery to go into great detail, but I wanted to flag the exhibition to anyone who might have the opportunity to visit. It’s the first time that the Hoard has been exhibited in its entirety and, although some very expensive and exclusive jewels from the same period have appeared in recent exhibitions (I’m thinking of things like the Pelican Jewel and other Elizabethan gems), the Hoard offers a much broader picture of the type of jewellery that wealthy but non-noble people might have worn. It isn’t a collection of unique pieces, but the stock-in-trade from a jeweller’s shop, probably buried beneath a cellar floor in order to keep it safe during the political upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s. (The exhibition finishes with a short film offering one possible explanation for it having lain there, forgotten, for the next three hundred years.)
As a result there are some older pieces, some unfinished items and a fair number of loose stones or raw materials, all of which were associated with particular beliefs and qualities in the popular mindset: cat’s eyes bring the wearer wealth; amethysts chastity; rubies wit and intelligence; garnets helped to strengthen the heart. And, since this represents the contents of a shop, there are also multiple examples of the same kind of jewellery, each handmade and so differing in minute details, but essentially offering a ready-to-wear option for the discerning 17th-century customer. This is one of the most remarkable aspects: to find yourself faced with a whole case of delicate floral necklaces worked in gold and enamel, or a cabinet of rings, or a vitrine full of amethyst earrings formed in the shape of grape clusters, suspended from invisible threads.
In other exhibitions, a single example of each might capture your attention; but here there’s a veritable smorgasbord of gems. The condition of most of the pieces is absolutely incredible. In one or two places stones have been lost, but for the most part the jewellery must look more or less as it did when new; if nothing else, this emphasises that our London forebears weren’t averse to a bit of bling.
Let’s not forget the more singular exhibits, however. To put the gems in context, the show includes examples of caskets and jewellery boxes, including an exquisite case inlaid with mother-of-pearl and others formed of beaten silver panels. And there are some strikingly unique pieces in the Hoard, perhaps kept to one side for wealthier or more demanding patrons. Look at the tiny salamander brooch, for example, set with emeralds from Colombia: salamanders symbolised the element of fire in the iconography of the time and, as an extension, the resurrection of the body.
Then there is the stunningly intricate pocket-watch set within a case carved from an emerald; or the larger timepiece made of gilded brass, with an enamelled face, which bears a maker’s mark – its creation can therefore be placed in Geneva, in the workshop of the clockmaker Gaultier Ferlite, between 1610 and 1620. It is especially interesting because the numbers on its face are inverted: this is a very rare early example of a watch designed to hang from a pendant and to be consulted upside-down. Then there are so many other beautiful objects: intaglios and cameos, jewelled fan holders which would have held sprays of coloured feathers, and intriguing plaquettes of blue glass which replicated designs from prints by Jacob de Gheyn. This really is an Aladdin’s cave.
The presentation is generally very successful. Even going into the exhibition feels exciting, because – for perfectly understandable reasons – you have to enter through a great iron grille, as if going into a bank vault. The exhibition begins by offering a little more context about the lives of City goldsmiths, including examples of their shop signs, and old maps and paintings which offer a glimpse of what pre-Fire, pre-Blitz London looked like. There is even a full-scale reconstruction of a goldsmith’s workroom, based on a 1576 engraving by Etienne Delaune. And then, with baited breath, you move on to the Hoard itself.
The curators have had the brilliant idea of suspending many items – especially necklaces and earrings – in upright cabinets, so that they can be seen from both sides. They hang at or above eye level, lit with appealing flashes of drama: sometimes the lights are angled so that they catch and pool within the hearts of the gems, unlocking their colours. There are times when this isn’t possible, of course, and the show is so popular that it can be rather a struggle to see the flat cases – you find yourself compelled to join a queue and shuffle along beside them. For the most part, though, it has been handled well. Magnifying glasses are provided in slots throughout the exhibition (if you can lay your hands on one), and the jewels are set in context with contemporary portraits showing how they were actually worn.
This is another splendid addition to the Tudor and Stuart exhibitions of the last year or so, and it’s all the more exciting because it offers a complete picture of a national treasure which is so rarely on view. See it if you can! It’s a must for those who are interested in the history of costume or craftsmanship (as well as the history of London of course). Naturally it’s virtually impossible to go around without mentally building up your own jewellery collection. There was a particularly gorgeous ruby pendant, surrounded by diamonds in a gold setting, which rather appealed to me – as well as a couple of my fellow Dunnetteers.
Some reproductions are offered for sale in the shop, but these were rather beyond my means, so I contented myself with the accompanying book. This is not a catalogue, but a history of goldsmithing in 17th-century London, including discussions of the international gem trade, documentary evidence about patrons and commissions, the significance of different stones, and case studies on items of particular interest within the Hoard (such as the Salamander Jewel and the Ferlite Watch). It goes well beyond the remit of the exhibition itself and, although I’ve only dipped into it so far, what I have seen looks fascinating and well-written.
Fellow Dunnetteers: thank you so much for inviting me along!