diamond geezer

 Friday, January 31, 2014

The Cheapside Hoard
Museum of London
(11th October 2013 - 27th April 2014)

Now's probably a good time to nudge you to visit this exhibition of mid-millennial jewellery at the Museum of London. It's been open for three months so initial numbers have died down a bit, but it's not yet Easter when last-minuters start queuing round the block. The exhibition contains approximately 500 pieces of jewellery which were buried together beneath a shop in the City in the mid-17th century, then forgotten and built over after the Great Fire of London. Workmen rediscovered the stash by chance during rebuilding on Cheapside in 1912, and took them to a dealer who recognised this as an amazing find. They've been in the possession of museum curators ever since, and this is the very first time the whole collection's been on show to the public. You can tell the subject matter is extremely valuable because coats and bags aren't allowed inside the exhibition, so you have to fork out an extra quid on top of the £8 admission charge for a locker. I struggled for some time to operate mine, even though I knew my pound coin had to go somewhere, until the kindly attendant pointed out the slot on the inside of the locker door. Further protection is provided by a wall-to-ceiling turnstile set into a metal grille across the entrance, and once inside you fall under the watchful eye of an employee of Sherpa Security Services (est 2005).

The introductory galleries explain a little about City goldsmithery and Elizabethan/Stuart jewellery, setting the main display in historical context. There's plenty to learn on the wiggle-through, including the fact that the site on Cheapside has now been covered by the One New Change shopping centre so there's no longer any point in going digging. Then comes the exhibition proper, not just a small area but an entire long gallery showcasing all the treasures unearthed. First up are the necklaces, hung inside brightly-lit glass cases, and if you picked up a magnifying glass at the start you can peer closer to see the craftsmanship of the gilded links. Beyond are pendants and rings set with pearls and a variety of other precious stones, plus a geological display that'll help you to tell your amethyst from your agate. I was particularly taken by a tiny watch, with lid, embedded in an emerald, which was damned impressive stuff for circa 1600. I also really liked an elegant bejewelled salamander brooch and, in a neighbouring cabinet, a bulging white and gold scent bottle set with diamonds and opals. I was rather less excited by the collection of cameos at the far end of the room, despite the great antiquity of some, and even though the skills needed to carve their intricate designs must have been immense.

The great majority of visitors to the exhibition were a) over 60 b) female, so I felt very much the odd one out as I wandered round. But there were a few dutiful husbands in tow, and also two annoying mothers jabbering away about family problems with barely a glance at the collection as they sped round. Immediately before the exit is a five minute video which attempts to suggest how the hoard might have been lost in the first place. This tale of Civil War migration seemed a little contrived - a fiction granted too much importance - and a few more competing theories would have been welcome. And then it was out to struggle with the locker again, after almost an hour spent in accessory heaven. It had been good to enjoy what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to view these amazing miniature works of art, and without huge numbers of people getting in the way. Assuming you have a midweek day off work between now and Easter, I'd recommend seeing the Hoard without the hordes.


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