Jewels reveal how England became modern

Looking around jewellery shops is not something I find particularly exciting. The cabinets of watches, rings, necklaces and the like all merge into each other for me. So no sooner have I entered a jewellers than I’m looking for the exit.

Given this, why would I be remotely interested in the new Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the Museum of London? The show puts on display for the first time in its entirety a large collection of jewellery found in 1912 below a cellar of the City’s once principle shopping street. It had been stashed there, untouched in a wooden box for some 300 years.

Displayed in tens of cabinets, there’s enough amongst the 400 pieces (including rings, chains and brooches) to keep jewellery fanatics enthused for hours. Watching some visitors bent-double and using magnifying classes to look up close at the artefacts with colourful gemstones, you can imagine that some will be leaving with extremely sore backs.

But what saved the exhibition for me was the context the curators have placed around the hoard. Additional artefacts, like paintings showing wealty people wearing jewellery in social settings, have been brought in to help illustrate how the Elizabethan and early Stuart period was a game changing period for England. Whether or not you’re interested in the individual jewellery pieces, the show tells a fascinating story of how our nation grew.

Purchasing jewellery was just one way the nouveau riche splashed their cash and showed off to their peers at elabaorate parties. By this period, we had developed the craftsmanship to make spectacular pieces.

England was wealthier from the 16th century thanks to the discoveries in the New World of the Americas. Gems and other stones were brought to Cheapside, then the centre of London’s jewellery trade, before being sold to the capitals new urban elite.

Why the hoard was hidden away is something that’s just as fascinating. Although we can’t be certain of the precise reasons, the exhibition puts considerable emphasis on the fact that it was stashed around time of the Civil War. The jeweller in question could have been a Royalist, so when London fell into the hands of Parliamentarians he fled with city.

The jewels were stashed away, but never reclaimed. They were found by workmen in 1912 and were split amongst a number of museums. It’s only 101 years later (it seems the Museum of London missed the anniversary in 2012, perhaps because of all the Olympic mania) that they’ve gone on display for the first time together.

Against the likes of Philip II’s grave goods in Northern Greece or that of Tutankhamum in Egypt, the collection is never going to win the prize of the most impressive artefacts in the world (although drafting in Ghurka security does some what raise the collection’s profile and importance). But what the exhibition does excel at is telling the story of how England became modern.

Categories: Reviews

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