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Friday, 17 January 2014

Into the vaults at the Cheapside Hoard

Here at The Ministry we often visit exhibitions together yet rarely review them as one, but when it came to Museum of London’s latest blockbuster ‘Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels’  we had too much to say for ourselves so why not reveal our critical personalities and combine our assessments into one post for the first time ever! 

Terri says... 

‘The mysteries that remain, lost among the cataclysmic events of the mid- 17th Century: who owned the Hoard, when and why was it hidden, and why was it never reclaimed’ – Museum of London.

What is so significant about the Cheapside Hoard? The mystery of why and who buried the collection of jewellery in the seventeenth century is a key theme of the hoard’s history and its current exhibition at the Museum of London. Who owned the hoard? Why was it hidden? And why did the owner never return to claim it? Opinion is varied yet one story predominates; in some sort of a hurry a jeweller buried his working collection containing rings, brooches, necklaces, gemstones expecting to return. Regardless of the jeweller's personal life and absence due to Elizabethan drama/death the hoard provides the most fantastic examples of 16th and 17th century craftsmanship and consumption.

Filled with Jacobean and Elizabethan treasures the simple wooden box of sparkling and shiny jewellery was unearthed at the City of London’s Cheapside in 1912.  Cheapside was considered the Hatton Gardens of its day, occupied by jewellers, markets, dealers the area even provided a site of pageantry for Elizabeth I the day before her coronation in 1599. Beneath the commercial hub of the City the hoard was left untouched for hundreds of years, until a high priced game of Finders Keepers when workmen evacuating a cellar unearthed the cache. The lucky sods soon sold all of their loot to ‘Stony Jack’ a notorious antiques dealer and ‘Inspector of Excavations’ for the London Museum, who then sold it majority to the London Museum, a few pieces to the British Museum and one chain to the V&A

The Museum of London’s exhibition ‘Cheapside Hoard: London’s lost jewels’ is the first time in since that sale in 1912 that the entirety of the hoard has been displayed together. The sheer amount of sparkle makes the show a ‘must see’ but what does it contents tell us?
Jacobean and Elizabethan London was a site of conspicuous consumption, with the birth of travel and overseas trade in the sixteenth century London was becoming a notorious site of consumerism – that has lasted until today. The rich were getting richer and a new middling merchant class was emerging. With this, the dramatic effect of status loomed heavy among those merchant classes and upper parts of society. A need to prove wealth and standing and what better way was there than to adorn oneself in jewellery. The more exotic to show travel and the larger quantity to show wealth equaled a theatrical need to express who you are by what you were consuming.

The Cheapside Hoard offers examples of some of my favourite conspicuous consumption habits of the period; ladies littering their dresses with rings and droplets of diamonds, pearls and any other gems – images we are familiar with in painting of the period but due to the nature of such ornaments little examples have survived. Beautiful enamel necklaces that hung down to the waists of males and females and exotic gemstones; amazonite from Brazil, rubies from India and perhaps most prolifically of all a watch made of Colombian Emerald. The watch not only shows the length and depth of travel and the need to consume but the craftsmanship of an unknown individual, the emerald would have had to have been the size of an apple to accommodate the watches movement. 

The sheer amount of examples is thrilling yet it is surprising to hear that the curator of the exhibition Hazel Forsyth believes that many of the treasures are still out there, Citing stories of ex- London Museum workers bringing back the odd ring or brooch as they leave the institution coupled with the 1912’s workmen’s fondness for a few drinks. Are there more treasures to be exhumed from the Cheapside Hoard?

If only my jewellery box looked like this... 

Kristin says... 

With objects like these, you can be damn sure that Museum of London is expecting Cheapside Hoard to be its blockbuster exhibition of the year. And in true MoL style, the exhibition design matches the theme of ostentation. Entering the exhibition, you will be expected to leave all your belongings behind and pass through barred doors that make you feel like you are entering the Bank of England. Security procedure or exhibition design? Unclear, but the effect is amazing. It’s almost difficult to read the introductory text panel you are so distracted by a lighted sculpture of precious jewels hung from exposed wood beams. The beginning contextualising displays are, thankfully, blocked from the rest of the exhibition because if you knew what was coming next you would probably be spending considerably less time examining that painting. Around the corner is a reproduction jeweller's shop and once you make it past there, well, jewellery bonanza. 

The sheer scale of the hoard is brought together in one large room where you can circulate around the cases examining the minute details of each piece using your own spy-glass. On the one hand it brings an interactive element to an otherwise quite distant exhibition of expensive jewellery, but on the other hand it’s necessary as each item is so minute. Despite the very exciting subject matter, I don’t really envy the person who had to plan out a major exhibition based only on incredibly intricate 17th century jewellery. But with beautiful high resolution videos, complementary textiles and paintings and your trust magnifying glass, it all feels way more accessible.

 As it should be in an exhibition about the beauty of small things, it is the little touches that really makes the exhibition design a stand out. Contemporary shop signs actually hung at their proper height make a great change from the way such objects are normally displayed. What is really quite an average looking wooden carving seems ominous and somehow more real mounted above the rest of the displays. Someone on the exhibition team has even thought to push for tactile replicas which you can covet as you examine the real thing close up. Who said that an exhibition about jewellery had to be fiddly?

If we could fault the exhibition on any front it would be the video at the end. Why have they found it necessary to commission a dramatic video that expounds the secrets of the hoard and very tenuously tries to link it to modern life? We came for the shiny things, you gave us the shiny things, and we are pleased. 

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels is at the Museum of London until the 27th of April.

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