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Wealth in the City

06 July 2012

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Livery Companies' show


At Goldsmiths' Hall: the Middleham Jewel

At Goldsmiths' Hall: the Middleham Jewel

THIS paying exhibition at the Guildhall and the free show at the Goldsmiths' Hall encapsulate a tale of two cities. On the one hand, the tremendous wealth of the City, and, on the other, the impoverished lives of those whose work sustains it.

The Livery Companies were founded some 850 years ago, and, like Oxford and Cambridge colleges (and to a lesser extent the Inns of Court) have seen out the changes that have come and gone ever since. At the Goldsmiths' opening, the Lord Mayor wore the double "S" collar that had once belonged to Sir Thomas More, with the great morse that contains the diamonds that Elizabeth I paid the City for the 1588 Armada.

The Guildhall exhibition, in the much neglected and sadly often overlooked gallery that was misconceived 400 years later in 1988, is part of the City of London festival. The basement of that gallery houses remains of the Roman Amphitheatre (free) that alone should bring in the crowds, but, like the magnificent 15th-century Guildhall itself across the courtyard, it, too, is rarely visited.

That should change in the light of this little exhibition, once word goes round. What we get to see are not just the treasures of individual livery companies that form the Corporation of London, but the most diverse display of our island's heritage which one could imagine, and which tells a unique story of medieval piety and modern philanthropy. There is currently no catalogue available, as many loans were only agreed very late in the day, whereas the Goldsmiths' show boasts a lavish gold-bound volume that will serve a generation.

Nowadays, there are 108 Livery Companies in total. A latter-day Mr Gove would perhaps have no difficulty in removing some of the more recent accretions of trade associations. Happily, the exhibition concentrates on the Great Twelve Livery Companies, of which Goldsmiths' ranks fifth in precedence. There were four dozen in existence by 1515, when a table of precedence was first established.

But if you go the Guildhall by taxi you are travelling in the conveyance of a Worshipful Company granted livery in 2004, and the 2005 company of Tax Advisers has been somewhat in the news of late. The Guild of Public Relations Practitioners awaits the grant of a Livery; even Jimmy Carr could not make it up.

If you want to learn about the slave trade, you will find here the intricate snuff box that was owned by Thomas Bretton, an ironmonger, who at his death in 1723 left half his estate for the redemption of British slaves in Barbary and Turkey. An astronaut's protective gauntlet (1985) was worn by the last Soviet cosmonaut who worked on the Mir Space Station who came back to find himself Russian.

The register kept by the Parish Clerks is open at a page recording events between 12 and 19 September 1665, when 97 persons were baptised in City parishes, and a further 16 in those without the walls; and 1493 were buried in the City, of whom 1189 had died of the plague. The death toll in the outlying parishes was an astounding 3631, with 3070 victims of the bubonic plague. The Clerks also record that one man died when he fell from the belfry of All Hallows' by the Tower. Others died of the gripe, of thrush, "timpani", and failure of the lungs. This page alone brings the world of Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe to pulsating life.

The badge of office of the Master of the Clothworkers includes 102 diamonds from Queen Alexandra's coronation crown (1902). Edward VII was a Clothworker, and had agreed in advance with H. B. Carrington that the goldsmith could keep the diamonds he put into the new consort's crown. Here, too, are two 17th-century silver salts (Innkeepers) and the Venetian glass goblet ("The Weoley Cup") from which outgoing Masters of the Founders drink to their successors.

The exquisitely illuminated rolls of medieval Fraternities show how these religious bodies were gradually absorbed or transformed into later Livery Companies. The Fraternity of the Assumption of Our Lady, which later became the Skinners' Company, listed Henry VI, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Richard Neville, then Earl of Salisbury. Next to the Bede Roll of the Fraternity of St Nicholas (1448-1521) is displayed the Drapers' Ordinance Book of 1405. Both depict the assumption and include prayers for the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Ordinances of St Paul's School (1518) have a later cover depicting John Colet (1467-1519), the school's founder. Colet, who was Dean of St Paul's, was the eldest son of a former Lord Mayor of London and was himself a Mercer. In 1510, the Company of Mercers became trustees of the school that Colet re-founded; to this day, the company has interests in 17 schools.

The frontispiece was painted c.1585, and depicts Colet's skeleton on his tomb monument in Old St Paul's, rather than the commemorative terracotta figure set up in the Mercers' Hall by 1573. The image is very much that of an Elizabethan antiquarian artist.

The most priceless manuscript on display is the earliest surviving charter, which is the grant of Hernry II to the Weavers (1155/58). It is attested by the new Lord Chancellor, no less a person than Thomas Becket, who had assumed that office in January 1155.

Hanging above it is a long charter granted to the Carpenters at Westminster on 17 July 1640 by Charles I, who by then had other things on his mind after the collapse of the Short Parliament and with the threat of war with Scotland.

At least the Government has no declared plans to reform or revise the constitution of the Livery Companies. The Broderers, Poulters, and Tin Plate Workers look set to outlast the House of Lords.

"Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: 850 Years of London Livery Company Treasures" is at the Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2, until 23 September. Phone 020 7332 3700.



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