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Review: The Cheapside Hoard, London’s Lost Jewels

The Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

In June 1912, workmen digging under the former premises of a goldsmith in the City’s once-fashionable shopping thoroughfare of  Cheapside discovered a sensational stash of treasure. It comprised over 500 pieces of precious jewels and stones, mainly from the late 16th to early 17th centuries, but some very much older pieces too. The objects were encrusted in the raw mud and clay. The excited diggers took their haul directly to the antiques dealer GF “Stoney Jack” Lawrence at his shop in Wandsworth. Stoney Jack was known to every navvy, builder and mudlark in London as the man who would know what to do with your find and give you a good deal.

The Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

Stoney Jack

From there the collection found itself split between the Guildhall Museum (1826) and the London Museum (1912), but reunited when those institutions joined together as Museum of London (1976). Amazingly, the Cheapside Hoard as it became known, has never been exhibited in its entirety. Until now.

This new show at the Museum of London displays the hoard in all its glory. All bags to be left in the lockers downstairs, you have to pass security guards and specially-installed thick barred high specification floor-to-ceiling turnstiles before entering the dimly lit exhibition space. Once inside, you encounter dozens of glass cabinets in which curator Hazel Forsyth and her team have lovingly arranged the long-lost treasure. Rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets, costume jewellery, perfume bottles, scientific instruments, watches, hairpieces, combs, lockets, cameos and on and on. I used to drool over this sort of thing as a boy reading pirate comics.

What immediately strikes one is the design and the craftsmanship that went into these items. On display are some contemporary design books, works of art in their own right. But it is the skill that went into the build of this jewellery that is breathtaking (there are large magnifying glasses on hand, for the use of) – these Tudor and Jacobean jewellers must’ve ruined their eyesight over the years.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

Museum of London staff had painstakingly to thread fine wire through each link of these necklaces to make this stunning display.

The oldest piece. Ptolomaic cameo, possibly of Cleopatra.

The oldest piece. Ptolomaic cameo, possibly of Cleopatra.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

Gold and enamel scent bottle. Use of perfumes made a comeback during the Tudor period.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

An assortment of gorgeous pendants.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Elizabeth Wrothesley, Countess of Southampton, 1620. National Portrait Gallery.

The fascinating thing about the hoard is that it tells us a lot, and yet it holds deep secrets too. Jewellery tends to be messed about over time. Fashions change, tastes change and so a lot of pieces get broken up, adjusted, reset, made into something else and so on. The jewels represent therefore a massive survival for jewellery and fashion historians to learn from. Second, a huge proportion of the precious stones are from the New World, particularly striking are emeralds from South America, reminding us how the maritime powers of Europe were dicing for global supremacy across the high seas, Elizabethan England not least of them, taking early steps on the road to becoming in time the number one player.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Watch set in South American emerald. Amazingly, the translucent lid is actually closed!

Having recovered from the sensory assault dished out by the jewels themselves, one has time to take in the support displays which put the whole thing in historical context and the curators have done a fantastic job. Contemporary portraits of England’s elite hanging on the outer exhibition wall, showing of their bling. Puritanism still being in its infancy, this was a period was of ostentatious display among England’s ruling elite. Status symbols. We have a section showing what contemporary Cheapside looked like through maps and illustrations. It was London’s leading thoroughfare of posh retail, dominated by goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers. Another cabinet (my favourite after the jewels themselves) tells us about security, showing containers ranging from fancy jewellery cases through to ponderous iron-clad chests, secured by the most unimaginably complex locking mechanisms.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

Braun and Hogenberg map of London, 1574. Pic: author.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Reconstruction of contemporary jeweller’s workshop using actual tools from Museum of London collections. Pic: author.

Treasure containers. The fancy and the cautious. Pic: author.

Treasure containers. The fancy and the cautious. Pic: author.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Ephemera. One of several typical shop signs from the era. Delightful. Pic: author.

So the hoard has told us much. But not its biggest secrets. Who owned it and why did they bury it? When did they bury it? And why didn’t they come back for it? The when has kind of been established. No earlier than 1640, because the newest piece has been successfully dated to that year. No later than 1666, the Great Fire, because the building under which the hoard was buried was destroyed in the Fire. As for the who and the why, there’s a short film clip at the end which throws up some possibilities. The English Civil war kicked off in 1642 and even after the Restoration in 1660, England was beset by religious and political uncertainty and strife. So they were dangerous times. In all likelihood the person who did the burying died and his secret died with him. But why did he do it, whose “side” he was on – religiously or politically? Who was he? We’ll almost certainly never know.

This is a landmark exhibition, wonderfully conceived and executed. highly recommended.
The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels runs until 27 April 2014.

All images Museum of London unless otherwise stated.

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