The other day an old friend and I went to see the Cheapside Hoard exhibition. This is a mysterious collection of astonishing jewellery that's thought to have formed the stock of a goldsmith's shop. It was buried before the Great Fire of London in 1666 for reasons that are unknown. After the Fire had consumed the houses above, nobody thought to dig too deep in the ruins. Instead, more houses (obviously not ones with very good foundations) were built. They were occupied for hundreds of years - and still nobody knew the Hoard was there.
In 1912, the Goldsmiths' Company, which owned the houses, had them demolished (ouch! how treasured they'd be now - but in those days, there were no laws about building preservation). Digging deep into the foundations, the navvies working on the demolition finally unearthed the jewels.
Needless to say, they thought it was their lucky day, so they hot-footed it off to "Stony Jack" a pawnbroker in Wandsworth. "Jack" took pains to let navvies know that he paid great prices for anything really old, and even if he didn't want it, he still gave you the price of a drink. Here he is, and I'd say he looks as if he was doing well.
So the Hoard was dispersed, but it has now been reassembled and restored, and this show, at the Museum of London, is the first time it's been available for public view since that anonymous goldsmith closed his shop for the very last time nearly 400 years ago.
There's such a lot to think about in the show (apart from considering the beauty of the jewels themselves). I learned that the links of this enamel and diamond necklace would have each been separately formed, and the enamelling, jewel setting and so on were probably done by various different specialists.
Necklaces were often vastly long, worn in hoops of ever ascending size, sometimes stitched onto clothing to keep them in place. And to me the most fascinating aspect was the symbolic and magical aspect of the jewellery.
Elizabethan portraits are full of symbolism and hidden meanings, and I have long been looking for a book that really explains them. (If you know of one, please let me know). For instance, the necklace above shows red and white roses, and the point of that is that they combine the symbols of the houses of York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose) to symbolise the Tudor dynasty.
And the round jewel prominently shown around the neck of the lady below is not a watch. It is a pendant, showing a column against a wheel of fortune, and it means "steadfastness in bad times". It likely related to something in her family history. Much of her other jewellery would have meant something too, right down to the choice of gemstones.
Rings might be stitched onto the clothing as a way of showing how important the wearer thought their meaning was. A remembrance ring, perhaps, for someone who has passed on.
I only took a few photos in the show. I didn't see any signs saying not to do it, and none of the security guards stopped me, but I felt somehow a bit uncomfortable. But the display was so interesting that I am going to return and see it again. I really want to take another look at this watch, for instance, carved out of a gigantic emerald - sorry it's not a very good photo.
By the way, just to get an idea of the impact of the earrings at the top of this post, take a look at the context, below. Nothing reticent about these rich Elizabethans, eh?
Later that day, T and I went out and picked some late flowers in the garden, and as T was carrying our little bunch past a huge shadowy hedge a ray of sunshine pierced the hedge and caught the flowers. I had the camera so took a picture, it looked quite unreal. To me they look as beautiful, in their own way, as the jewels in the Cheapside Hoard.
Some practical info about the exhibitions. Here is how to get to the museum. The show runs till 27 April 2014. There are magnifying glasses available for loan, but you might like to take your own. Security is very tight - you enter through iron turnstiles - and you're not allowed to bring bags inside, so be prepared. An adult ticket is £10 and there are many concessions, but admission to the museum itself is free.