Just over two weeks ago I went to a fascinating exhibition of jewellery at the Museum of London and spent a good few hours browsing the extensive collection – now that’s something I didn’t think I ever hear myself saying.
This was no ordinary bunch of gleaming metal though. When it was first discovered it was called The Cheapside Hoard, and having seen it I can honestly say that it undeniably fits that category and is a very rare treasure indeed. Because it was split up soon after its discovery this is actually the first time in over a hundred years that the complete collection has been in one place and on display to the public.
Discovered by labourers working with pickaxes in an old cellar on Cheapside (not far from where the Museum of London is now), the buried wooden box they uncovered was full of what turned out to be over 400 pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery.
Kept in darkened galleries, behind a heavy duty turnstyle gate and guarded by security, the first items you come across are intricately made necklaces, with tiny enamelling and studded with gleaming jewels. The image below in no way shows off the beauty or delicacy of the necklaces – but the way they are displayed in the exhibition, suspended in mid-air in large glass cabinets, certainly does. The lighting and the setting of all the items is extremely well done and there really is no substitute for seeing them first hand.It is the workmanship which amazes with all their tiny details and demonstrates the extent to which the wealthy, even in the 17th century could obtain extremely high quality items of exquisite craftmanship, made of precious stones from all across the world.
The gemstones demonstrate the international trade of luxury goods in the period, with emerald from Colombia, topaz and amazonite from Brazil, spinel, iolite, and chrysoberyl from Sri Lanka, ruby from India, Afghan lapis lazuli, Persian turquoise, peridot from the Red Sea, as well as Bohemian and Hungarian opal, garnet, and amethyst, and pearls from Bahrain. Large stones were frequently set in box-bezels on enamelled rings. Most of the gemstones are cabochon cut, but there are a few with more modern faceted cuts, including rose cut and star cut. A particularly large Columbian emerald, originally the size of an apple, had been hollowed out to accommodate a Swiss watch movement dated to around 1600. There are also a Byzantine gemstone cameo, a cameo of Queen Elizabeth I, an emerald parrot, and some fake gemstones made of carved and dyed quartz. (quoted from the Wikipedia page here)
When the hoard was buried can be pinned down to somewhere between 1640 and 1666 – there is a stone seal with the arms of William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford who was given that title in 1640 and the cellar belonged to a building which stood before The Great Fire of London in 1666.
So, why was such an incredibly valuable amount of jewels buried and why was it never recovered? As there is no record to provide us with an insight into the true story of the hoard, we are only left with conjecture. Who was the person who buried the box – was he a wealthy customer, a trader, or a poor crafts-person? Was it buried in desperation just before the fire of London took a hold of the building? Or, was the Civil War to blame and the owner killed in battle? We may never know.
The Museum of London is stones throw from the Barbican Centre and a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral – it is a fascinating museum and we had a good long look round after seeing the exhibition, wondering why we hadn’t been there before.
The museum of London tells the story of the world’s greatest city and it’s people. It cares for more than two million objects in it’s collections and attracts more than 400,000 visitors per year. It holds the largest archiological archive in Europe. (who we are).
The entrance is typical 60’s architecture – you approach it by a bridge over a road, then follow a sweeping covered walkway which encompasses a small garden, before entering the tall foyer of the museum itself. The building is worth a visit, the museum is worth a visit, and the exhibition (which is on until the 27th April 2014) is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.