On Friday I went down to the Museum of London . The original plan had been to see the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition and then have a general look round. Unfortunately, the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition hadn’t started so we decided to take a quick look at The Cheapside Hoard. In fact, we almost didn’t.
Firstly it was £10 to get in – then there was an additional non-refundable £1 for the compulsory locker. Then there was a queue. Anyway, I’d heard a good review of the exhibition on the radio and it seemed a shame not to take a look, having made the effort to get there in the first place, so we got our tickets and, after a spot of lunch, stowed our gear in the obligatory locker and headed in to the exhibition. (The tickets turned out to be better value than originally thought – the £10 included the £1 for the locker and you could use your ticket to get £5 off a copy of the exhibition catalogue).
The Cheapside Hoard is astonishing. It’s a collection of mainly Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery that was buried, probably in the 17th century, in Cheapside (the City of London’s goldsmithing and jewellery quarter) and discovered by workmen at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the first time that it’s been put on public display.
Did I say that it’s astonishing? It’s astonishing.
The exhibition itself is first-rate. It opens with some excellent background material on the international trade that brought gold, jewels (and wealth) to Elizabethan and Jacobean London and on the work of the goldsmiths who plied their craft on Cheapside.
And then there are the jewels. One of the features of the collection is its rarity – changing fashions mean that stones have been continually reset and gold has been melted down for reuse or exchanged for hard cash. The other features of the collection are its quantity and its quality.
This is beyond bling. The people who wore these jewels weren’t advertising anything as crude as wealth or power. These were people who could afford to pay some of the finest craftsmen in Europe to make exquisitely fashioned buttons of gold and enamel; an amber squirrel the size of a thumbnail; yards of pearl and wirework chains to nestle almost invisibly against richly embroidered dresses. Many of the pieces are so small and intricate that you need a magnifying glass to appreciate them.
Thanks to the supporting information, The Cheapside Hoard opens up a world in which precious stones are still thought to have medicinal, even magic, properties; where they symbolize the virtues (and vices) of the wearer or their religious or dynastic affiliations. They are also a way in which people who may never have travelled further than their country estates could make physical connections to the distant and exotic lands that lay at the ends of ever-expanding trade routes – Peruvian emeralds, Indian moonstones, Sri Lankan pearls.
The Cheapside Hoard continues until April. Do not, under any circumstances, miss.