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Buried treasure: Diana Scarisbrick applauds an unmissable exhibition that sheds much light on the Cheapside Hoard.

The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels

11 October 2013-27 April

Museum of London

Accompanying book by Hazel Forsyth

ISBN 9781781300206 (paperback), 19.95 [pounds sterling]

(Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd)

If you want to experience the magic, mystery and romance of history then this enthralling exhibition is not to be missed. Buried under the streets of the city of London for more than 300 years, and discovered by chance in 1912, the Cheapside Hoard of jewellery has at last, like a sleeping beauty, been brought to life. Brilliantly displayed and researched, it evokes the elegance and the luxury of English men and women in the period that came to an end with the Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Because it lay hidden for so long, this jewellery has survived almost unaltered. The pearls have perished, but the stones are still in place, the enamels are intact, and the settings are the same as when they were made. Not only does the excellent condition provide grounds for surprise, but so does the range of gemstones available in London at that time. It includes diamonds from Golconda, Colombian emeralds, topazes from Brazil, amethysts, sapphires, garnets and chrysoberyls from Sri Lanka, rubies from Burma, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoises from Persia, peridots from St John's Island in the Red Sea, rock crystal from the Alps, opals from Bohemia and Hungary, and pearls fished in the Gulf. The faceting is sophisticated, for although some stones are simply polished en cabochon, most are table, trap and rose cut. Enhancing their colour is opaque white enamel with added black, green and blue details in the peapod or cosses de pois style, invented in France, 1610-20.

The designs illustrate how the art of mounting stones has superseded the figurative compositions of the Renaissance goldsmiths. Therefore, except for the fine group of cameos and intaglios ranging from a fine Hellenistic royal portrait to a 16th-century depiction of an episode from Ovid's Metamorphoses, classical themes are rare. However, Mercury's caduceus, symbolic of peace, is represented on an enamelled fan holder, and festive pendant bunches of emerald and amethyst grapes allude to Bacchus, god of wine and conviviality. A different note is struck by the remarkable series of long enamelled chains composed of star-like flowers, roses and daisies interspersed with green leaves, and by a miniature red squirrel, a parrot (Fig. 2) and an ape each realistically carved from hardstone, which reflect the growing interest in the world of nature. Jewelled crosses, and a locket set with bloodstone cameos of Christ and the Virgin enamelled with the Instruments of the Passion (Fig. 5), are reminders that this was the age of the Christian metaphysical poetry of John Donne, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert. Echoing the pastoral idylls of Edmund Spenser and Robert Herrick are miniature shepherd's crook hair pins for a girl wishing to pose as a 'faire shepherdess'.

Just as every gem had a magical or healing property attributed to it, so each motif had a significance of its own. Another pin surmounted by a ship with baroque pearl hull (Fig. 3) was regarded as an emblem of happiness. Sentiment is well represented. For the poet Robert Greene, a lizard-like, fire-resistant salamander, its back streaked with velvety green emeralds highlighted by diamonds, signified 'a lover scorched with affection' (Fig. 4), and hardstone hearts symbolise both sacred and profane love. The mischievous boy-divinity Cupid is represented by a moonstone cameo, and also by a group of his enamelled and jewelled arrows, ready to strike at his victims. Surprisingly, none of the many rings in the Hoard bear either these symbols or the loving messages known as 'posies'. Similarly absent are memento mori hourglasses, death's heads and crossed bones, which were such a feature of 17th-century life with its high mortality rates.

While the symbolic and gem-set bodkins drew attention to the head, the wonderful group of earrings, designed as tiers of finely cut coloured stones--emeralds, amethysts, garnets, aquamarines--would light up the face. As an alternative to the large pear-shaped drops depicted in the portraits of Van Dyck, which few could afford, small pearls were pinned to wirework enamelled pendants. Two of the brooches--a diamond bow-knot, and a cluster of large rose-cut stones--remained in fashion over the following centuries. Outnumbering all these jewels are the rings, the big stones set as solitaires, the smaller in clusters and half-hoops. The taste for luxury that emanated from the court of Charles I would have been satisfied by the watch, with the movement set ingeniously into a hexagonal block of an emerald (Fig. 1); another watch with the name of the Geneva maker G. Ferlite can be dated to 1610-20. Other attractive accessories include a scent bottle and a mysterious collection of enamelled gold handles wrought in various designs, with empty sockets intended for the feathers of either a fan or an aigrette.

The jewels are shown in the most logical way, and in well-lit cases. Curator Hazel Forsyth has succeeded so well in recreating the context in which they were made, sold and worn that they take us back in time to the atmosphere of Cheapside, the Bond Street of 17th-century London. In addition to presenting a jeweller's workshop complete with tools, she has found portraits of men and women wearing jewels similar to those on show, and others that depict the leading artists, poets and city businessmen of the time. Although the riddle of whether the Hoard is a jeweller's stock, a burglar's swag or a private collection has not been resolved, Forsyth has discovered an important clue, namely a seal bearing the crest of Baroness Stafford, who married in 1640. It therefore seems likely that the collection was hidden during the Civil War, buried so deep in the ground that it escaped the Great Fire of 1666. Indispensable to the enjoyment of the exhibition is a well-researched book that includes, besides much previously unpublished information, a gripping account of the murder of a rich gem trader at sea, describing the dangers confronting the enterprising men who brought these rich and rare gems to London for the beautification of English women.

Diana Scarisbrick is an independent art historian, specialising in jewellery and cameos.
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Title Annotation:The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels
Author:Scarisbrick, Diana
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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