The Museum of London‘s exhibition on the Cheapside Hoard has been open for a few months now, and I got the chance to visit with my friend on Saturday morning. Security is tight: you aren’t allowed to take bags or coats with you into the exhibition area, which I can understand – but you have to pay for the privilege of storing your stuff in a locker, which I feel is a bit cheeky.
The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels is a major exhibition, and looks at the collection of jewellery from the late 16th and early 17th centuries that was discovered in 1912, buried under a Cheapside cellar. The reason why this amazing collection was left here is as yet undiscovered; the mystery surrounding the treasure is part of what makes it so fascinating.
On entering the exhibition we were able to grab magnifying glasses to help us take a closer look at the jewellery: this proved very handy, although we didn’t need them for the first part of the exhibition, which was about the history and context behind Tudor and Stuart London and the jewellery trade. We learned about the importance of jewellery in society, and how it was used to indicate status: a portrait of Elizabeth I showed her dripping in gems – perhaps, as Francis Bacon rather harshly suggested, to detract attention from her ageing person. We also took a look at the inside of a goldsmith’s shop, and viewed a number of jewellery chests and boxes, many of them almost as beautiful and ornate as the jewellery they once contained.
Afterwards it was on to the Hoard itself, displayed within glass cases, with similar items grouped together. So the first section was filled with chains, enamelled, bejewelled and worked in gold, designed to be worn around the neck or the wrist. Another case contained pearls, another displayed rings, and yet another concentrated on the different kinds of gemstones found among the treasure, ranging from rubies and emeralds to amethysts and garnets. There was even a handy guide to where the various stones came from.
Many of the items could be worn today: necklaces, bracelets and rings are all common items of jewellery. However, others would be less common in the twenty-first century. Small scented bags would have undoubtedly helped to combat the stench of sixteenth and seventeenth century London, and the examples here are beautiful and ornate, particularly the little frog. It’s also unusual nowadays to carry a watch (except for a wristwatch), but the emerald pocket watch is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this collection.
Some of the items follow similar designs and patterns, but a few stand out as individual gems among a collection of treasures. A parrot cameo, a ship hairpin and a butterfly necklace are particularly beautiful, as is the tiny salamander brooch complete with little feet. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition, but this brooch’s design has been expanded and placed on the Museum of London wall for the duration.
Visit the Cheapside Hoard exhibition. Marvel at how such a beautiful collection managed to survive underground for three hundred years, and wonder how on earth it got there. You have until the 27th of April. It’s worth it.