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Gold, partner of the sacred

06 July 2012

Abigail Willis reviews the Goldsmiths' exhibition of more than 400 objects


DIAMONDS may be the precious commodity on most people's minds in this Jubilee year, but gold takes centre stage in an ambitious exhibition at the Goldsmiths' Hall to celebrate 4500 years of British gold. And while Portia's suitors were warned that "all that glisters is not gold," it is very much the real McCoy at Foster Lane: a dazzling display of more than 400 golden objects from unrefined nugget of pure Cornish gold to William Beckford's golden teapot and some glittering prizes from the world of sport.

The exhibition, curated by Dr Helen Clifford and uniting rarities from institutions and private collections across the country, is the largest ever staged by the Goldsmiths, and case after successive case of coins, cutlery jewels, medals and regalia build up an irresistible sense of how gold has permeated every aspect of British life, not only its great institutions of Church, monarchy, and commerce but also the private rituals of daily life.

Gold's rarity, its radiant incorruptability, weight, and sheer malleability meant that the metal was from early times prized above all others (except when it came to making weapons, for which it was too soft). The purity of gold made

it the perfect partner for sacred ceremonies, and the equation of godliness with gold was readily employed by the Anglo-Saxon Church, as archeological finds

such as the Warminster Jewel


This little rock crystal, held in a golden frame and set with a deep blue glass cabochon, is thought to be the handle of an aestel or manuscript pointer, of the sort sent to all the parishes in his kingdom by King Alfred as an accompaniment to his translation of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care. The jewel emphasised the value of the text, and the ceremony surrounding its careful study.

Most medieval religious gold was lost to the crucibles of the Reformation, but rare high-quality survivals include a magnificent brooch in the collection of New College, Oxford. Fashioned in the shape of a letter M, this diminutive 14th-century jewel manages to find room to include a tiny annunciation scene, with the figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin placed within the twin arches of the letter form. Lavishly set with cabochon cut stones, the brooch spells out the mastery of its medieval goldsmith, whose livery company was granted its first royal charter in 1327.

Some small personal devotional gold objects survived the iconoclasm of the 16th century only by being lost first. The lozenge-shaped reliquary known as the Middleham Jewel dates from c.1450, and is engraved with the Trinity on the front, the Nativity of Christ on the verso; it was evidently lost when quite new, but its owner's loss became our gain when it was discovered by a metal detector in 1985.

Even more remarkable is the survival of Bishop Fox's gold

chalice and patten. The earliest known piece of religious hallmarked gold, stamped with the letter k to denote the year 1507-08, it was given by the Bishop to Corpus Christi, the college that he founded in 1515. Being unjewelled, the chalice seems almost plain by Continental standards of the day, but the very fact of its being made in solid gold marks it out as a gift befitting the Bishop of Winchester, one of the country's richest dioceses.

The Welshpool Communion Cup reveals something of the story of gold itself. Made from "purest Guinea gold" in c.1662, it was presented by Thomas Davies to his home town in thanks for his safe return after service with the East India Company. Gold imported from the West African Guinea coast generated considerable wealth in Britain - on the back of its plentiful supply, a coin of the same name was introduced in 1663, and quickly became the premier currency in Europe.

The ease with which gold can be melted down and refashioned also played a part in the superb medieval-style chalice made by the ecclesiastical goldsmith Dunstan Pruden for Liverpool Metropolitan (Roman Catholic) Cathedral in 1958 from 300 donated wedding rings.

In this jubilee year, the exhibition fittingly includes significant pieces of royal gold, none better illustrating the confluence of the royal and the sacred than the gold ampulla used to anoint Charles I at his Scottish coronation at Holyrood House in 1633. The talismanic powers of royalty and gold also combine in a gold "touchpiece" presented by Charles II for the curing of the tubercular infection scrofula, the King's Evil. Appropriately, the gold coins most often used for this purpose were known as Angels.

But it is not just the religious and royal artefacts that impress: the scope of this exhibition ensures that there is something for everyone: for numismatists, there is a gold coin from every British monarch since Edward III; for militarians, there are medals and regalia, such as Ethiopa's magnificent Badge of the Order of Solomon; while, for social historians, there are the golden trinkets that mark our passage through life - from teething rattle to cigarette case and mourning rings.

In all areas, the level of craftsmanship on display is as breathtaking, as the material it deploys, from the unknown maker responsible for the Snettisham torc to time-burnished names such as Paul de Lamerie and Omar Ramsden and Britain's current crop of designer-makers, whose exquisite work is eloquent testament of the goldsmith's evolving art.


"Gold: Power and Allure" is at Goldsmiths' Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2, until 28 July. Phone 020 7606 7010.



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