I had a dream the other night, it was actually more of a nightmare and it was all about jewellery. I blame the Cheapside Hoard. I have never dreamt about jewellery before, but the last few weeks I have become increasingly interested and slightly obsessed with all things precious, things that sparkle, glint and gleam.
The ‘Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels’ is the latest exhibition at the Museum of London. It is a dazzling array of late 16th and early 17th century jewellery, which in itself is simply stunning, but add the layers of mystery surrounding discovery and ownership and you end up with something so special and enticing it is not surprising it has been giving me sleepless nights.
As you walk around the exhibition it is hard to believe these 500 pieces were discovered in 1912 buried in a cellar in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to discover these rare and unusual items, the first thoughts of those who laid disbelieving eyes on a time capsule of opulence undisturbed for 300 years. There are so many stories to discover and follow with the Cheapside Hoard, I am not sure where to begin. It is like sitting with a ball of wool (or perhaps gold thread would be more appropriate) in your lap. There are ends peeking out everywhere, which one to pull first? Where will the thread take me? How many other threads and stories does it cross and touch? What will be waiting for me at the end?
There is a story of origins: emeralds from Colombia, garnets from Sri Lanka and rubies from Burma. There is a story of trade, exotic, far flung destinations and dangerous voyages. Forever seeking the rare and unusual to satisfy a burgeoning 17th century populace thirsty for knowledge and desperate to use the world’s most precious and beautiful resources to mirror their self importance. There is a tale of maker, goldsmith, jeweller, gem cutter, foreign workers, guilds and trades. A tale of ownership and a wonderful mystery of why they were deposited in the silent safety of the dark earth. To us it may seem bizarre to dig a hole in the ground to keep precious things safe, but our history is littered with hoards, treasures and troves. There is a fabulous tale in Samuel Pepys diary from 1667 where he returns with his father to dig up the gold they have buried in an earlier period of crisis.
“My father and I with a dark lantern, it being now night, into the garden with my wife, and there went about our great work to dig up my gold. But, Lord! what a tosse I was for some time in, that they could not justly tell where it was: but by and by poking with a spit we found it, and then begun with a spudd to lift up the ground. But, good God! to see how sillily they did it, not half a foot under ground, and in the sight of the world from a hundred places, if any body by accident were near hand, and within sight of a neighbour’s window: only my father says that he saw them all gone to church before he began the work, when he laid the money. But I was out of my wits almost, and the more from that, upon my lifting up the earth with the spudd, I did discern that I had scattered the pieces of gold round about the ground among the grass and loose earth: and taking up the iron head-pieces wherein they were put, I perceived the earth was got among the gold, and wet so that the bags were all rotten…” (1)
There is another equally intriguing tale for me, my insider view as a museum volunteer has led me to marvel at the display, curation and care of these objects. How do you clean something as delicate as the wire work pendant, get a gem to gleam and sparkle so it appears as fresh as the day it was made. How do you suspend something as delicate as a single earring to magnify the craftmanship and beauty.
Back in July on a tour of the conservation department at the Museum of London we were shown the small jewellery casket pictured below. The conservator was working hard to create a wax insert into which the jewels would be set. A method of 17th century jewel care being recreated for a 21st century audience. When I see it in the display I smile to myself at a beautiful addition to the telling of a complex story.
There is one story that pulls me, intrigues me and captures my imagination above all others. I am trying to get my eyes to see the people who would have bought or worn these jewels, not the makers or sellers of these adornments but the shoppers, the wealthy merchants and those who would receive such gifts. Who would buy a ring set with a Roman gem, a sapphire depicting the incredulity of St Thomas, a pin decorated as a single-masted ship, the hull fashioned from a large baroque pearl. Were they buying for themselves, to show off and impress? Were they buying for a loved one, a wife or dear dependent? Perhaps a jewel for a lover, an attempt to buy affection and attention. I look at each display in turn, I try and imagine who would buy such beauty, what price they would pay, which recipient did they have in mind.
On my way to the exhibition I stop outside One New Change – the modern day temple to consumerism that marks the site where the Hoard was originally found. I try and imagine the location as our 16th and 17th century bedfellows would have seen it. Hazel Forsyth, curator of the Hoard, gives us a wonderful window on this world in her book which accompanies the exhibition (2). She talks of dark, narrow, irregular rooms, workshops and sales spaces intertwined, dingy alleys and passage ways very different to the white glare of the store I see before me that sits loud and proud.
Whilst trying to discover more of this 17th century Cheapside seemingly so different from today, I came across the ‘Old Bailey Online’ an amazing resource detailing the trials held at London’s Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913 (3). I think I have lost at least two days down this particularly fascinating rabbit hole. The cases provide a real magnifying glass on London’s underbelly of criminals, murder, theft and deception.
There are many reports of stolen goods being sold to goldsmiths in Cheapside, perhaps our Hoard is a thieves booty, stashed and for some unfathomable reason forgotten and never claimed.
There is a case report from 11th October 1676, a young fellow is charged with stealing two silver watches and a watch case from a shop in Cheapside, to the value of 10 pound.
“The master of the shop was a Watchmaker, but his wife on one side of it kept the trade of a Millineress: He being abroad, and none but she in the whole shop, the Prisoner and another came in pretending to buy Gloves and holding the Gentlewoman in discourse, and crowding up to the wall, on a sudden a boy in the street (supposed to be one of their Comrogues, and to be done by Confederacy) snatches two Watches off from the Grate and a Case and run away: he that was with the Prisoner pretended to strike at him, and run after him so far, that he never came back: and the Prisoner would have been going too but was seiz’d.” (4)
This excerpt mirrors exactly Hazel Forsyth’s talk of the infiltration of milliners, perfumers, and apothecaries that broke the hold of Goldsmiths in Cheapside. A theft of watches using distraction in 1676, today perhaps a theft of statement handbags on mopeds or scooters. These contemporary reports begin to illuminate my theorizing on who would buy these fabulous jewels. Perhaps we are not so different as I imagine.
One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition is a reconstruction of a jewellers workshop, it gives you the chance to imagine peering through a window, wooden instruments and tools, the gleam of a jewel nestled in a leather pouch, a twinkling necklace hanging from a bar across the window. Perhaps you would need to be admitted into the inner sanctum to see some of the Cheapside Hoard’s more dazzling objects, a back room for private clients of a more salubrious nature.
Accompanying this evocative reconstruction and mirroring the opulence of the jewels are the most breathtaking paintings, showing the jewels being worn by the (self) important men and women of the time. One picture of an un-named woman has a shockingly tiny waist. Even her jewels, we are told, have to be stitched and sewn into place, such elegance comes at a price and not just one of monetary value.
Perhaps these images will help me discover for whom you would buy an earring set with purple red almandine garnets. I see the portrait of Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Southampton from the National Portrait Gallery, she wears such an earring. Did her husband buy her this jewel, let her be admired, let jealousy stir, a clear sign of his wealth and power rather than a present of love for her?
I decide I might discover more of my theoretical purchasers of these breathtaking jewels if I take part in a game of need, want, desire.
Need – My wealthy merchant, the man or woman of the moment, rich in clothes and power, what do they need to have right now, to impress their friends and foe’s alike. What would they buy for themselves. I think the fan handle, gold enamelled, set with garnets and amethysts, one designed with a winged caduceus an emblem of eloquence, intellect (5). Perfect to waft in their face, an ideal foil to antagonise a rival.
Want – What would they want to buy their loved one, a sign of unbending fidelity and true expression of a pure unfailing love. We gain some insight from the 17th century love letters of Dorothy Osborne, Lady Temple (1627-1695).
“Before you go I must have a ring from you, too, a plain gold one; if I ever marry it shall be my wedding ring; when I die I’ll give it you again.”(6)
I am not sure we have anything to be considered plain in the Cheapside Hoard. But I will settle on a ring with a large solitaire table-cut diamond. No one could mistake the intention behind such a beautiful present (7).
Desire – To illicit desire, a tricky thing. We gain more assistance from Dorothy Osborne, she tells us of the power of a jewel to buy affection and love.
“You would wonder to see how tired she is with his impertinences, and yet how pleased to think she shall have a great estate with him. But this is the world, and she makes a part of it betimes. Two or three great glistening jewels have bribed her to wink at all his faults, and she hears him as unmoved and unconcerned as if another were to marry him”(8)
I think in this case I opt for the emerald parrot cameo, Hazel tells us they are considered excessively lecherous birds, green the colour of new love a perfect choice (9).
I love this game, it allows me to appreciate the story each item can tell.
My time spent with the mystery and excitement of the Cheapside Hoard is over too soon. I have not included any pictures of the jewels, no camera can do justice to the real beauty and delicacy I see. I am full of admiration for the skill involved to work stones, gems and metals to such wonderous heights.
I can’t resist playing the ‘Need, Want, Desire’ game for myself before I go.
Need – It would have to be the Salamander brooch, contemporary, unusual, I could pop it on my dress right now (10).
Want – The frog cameo ring, I would buy for a dear loved one, or perhaps my beloved would buy it for me, a moonstone worn to arouse tender passions (I have high hopes for Christmas) (11) .
Desire – The ship pin, I don’t know why this captivates my heart. A present for a lover, a gift of unrivaled delicacy. I will say no more (12).
As I leave the Museum of London, my eyes adjusting after dazzlement and splendour I retread my path past Cheapside. I have come so much closer to discovering the secrets of the Cheapside Hoard, the Museum of London have helped me unravel the threads. In many respects the Museum of London is much like the goldsmiths and jewellers who set their roots down in these well walked streets so many hundreds of years ago. The Museum of London has set out their stall, their windows are enticing their dark passages lead to rooms laden with treasures. But they are not selling jewels, they are the sellers of stories, multi-faceted, lovingly crafted stories, of London and the people who were born, lived, worked and died on it’s streets. The Cheapside Hoard is the biggest and best story of them all, it gleams and shines, it entices and seduces. You may not be able to walk away with a sapphire ring or a salamander brooch (unless you hit the museum shop first!) but you can take this story home with you to admire and share.
Please feel free to play my game, I would love to know your choices.
The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels – 11th October – 27 April 2014
Museum of London
Adult £10 (£9 without donation)
Concession/child (12+) £8 (£7 without donation)
Flexible family tickets for 3-6 people (must include at least one child and one adult) £7.50 per person (£6.50 per person without donation) – See more at: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/exhibitions-displays/cheapside-hoard-londons-lost-jewels/#sthash.D5lhLDGa.dpuf
1 – The Diary of Samuel Pepys – from 1659-1669, Samuel Pepys; edited by Lord Braybrooke (1825). Project Gutenberg. Web. http://www.gutenberg.org/ accessed 12/10/2013
2 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels. London: Philip Wilson Publishers
3 – Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.1, 12 October 2013).
4-Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 12 October 2013), October 1676, trial of young fellow (t16761011-1).
5 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg. 158
6 – The Love Letter of Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1652-1654, edited by Edward Abbott Parry (1901) Letter 48. Project Gutenberg. Web. http://www.gutenberg.org/ accessed 13/10/2013
7 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg. 167
8 – The Love Letter of Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1652-1654, edited by Edward Abbott Parry (1901) Letter 49. Project Gutenberg. Web. http://www.gutenberg.org/ accessed 13/10/2013
9 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg. 135
10 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg. 220
11 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg. 113
12 – Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels, pg.106