Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tudors, Stuarts, jewels, and exploration

I went up to London to see some people, as an early Christmas present for myself. It was a very pleasant trip. I thought I'd review two excellent and complementary exhibitions, "The Cheapside Hoard" at the Museum of London, and "Elizabeth I and Her People" at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Cheapside Hoard is (probably) the working stock of a particularly fine jeweller in the the seventeenth century, buried beneath a Cheapside cellar sometime between 1640 and 1666. The cellar survived the Great Fire but the building above did not and was rebuilt in 1667. The hoard was dug up by startled navvies in 1912, and we may or may not have the whole lot. If as a child you ever thought of the treasure in a pirate's chest, or the hoards that dragons sit on, or the fabulous jewels in the treasury of a sultan's palace, this exhibition is almost gratuitously satisfying -- there are just so many jewels. There are amazing delicate chains of enamelled flowers, buttons set with pearls and diamonds, amethysts and emeralds carved into bunches of grapes, garnets, moonstones, diamonds, agate cameos and carved gems, even toad stones. Some of the stones are unset or even uncut but most are in the form of jewels in the old sense of several gems in a settings, jewels like you might find in an inventory, or jewels you might wear in a ruff or in your pomaded hair. There is a fantastic emerald salamander which could have been 1930s Cartier, and a watch case made from a single hollowed-out emerald with a slice of translucent emerald as lid. The word for all this is gorgeous. It's a thoughtfully laid-out exhibitions too. You get a magnifying glass when you go in the door, and most of the jewels are not laid down in flat displays but hung up in front of you in glass cases so they catch the light. There's good contextual material, with maps and city views, as well as information about where the jewels came from, and the state of the goldsmith's trade in seventeenth-century England. The best contexts though are given by the literally sumptuous portraits showing how these sorts of jewels were worn, in one case even seeming to show an exact duplicate of a pendant in the hoard being worn as an earring.

The NPG exhibitions is a bit more conventional. I love Tudor and Stuart portraiture, with its grave expressions and willingness to turn people into patterns. The best pattern of all is Elizabeth, an oval face between a geometric ruff and hair criss-crossed with jewels. The second-tier portraits of her are often the most interesting. There's a really lovely one owned by Cambridge University which is all in yellow and gold, and one from Hardwick Hall where the focus is on her complexly embroidered skirt. The builder of Hardwick Hall (more glass than wall) was the shrewd Bess of Hardwick, known to have had an interesting in embroidery, and there are some pieces from her collection in the exhibition. The catalogue doesn't make any mention of this but I wondered whether the skirt, which is covered in sea monsters and other beasts, was made or commissioned by her. There's a very good short story about Bess of Hardwick in Susanna Clarke's Ladies of Grace Adieu, catching her uncannily successful brand of domesticity.

The idea of the exhibition is to cover people from various ranks of life, on the grounds that the middle class became more prominent in Elizabeth's reign. So as well as a room full of aristocrats there's one of burgesses and other professionals, and at the end, to represent the poor, a rather plaintive collection of rough pots and a sailor's costume. There are quite a few loans from private collections, as well as the well known and obvious pieces like Burghley on his mule (which makes me want a mule). There's a wonderful picture of three children, whose identities aren't known but whose ages are five, six and seven. The eldest, a girl in a starched ruff and lace cap, sits in the middle with a guinea pig, while her brothers flank her in identical slashed peach doublets. There's also an excellent picture of Elizabeth Vernon, who married the Earl of Southampton (possibly Shakespeare's fair youth) in secret when he got her pregnant, thereby annoying Queen Elizabeth a lot. Elizabeth's reaction to the affairs and marriage plans of her maids of honour is often interpreted as jealousy, but given how much depended on her personal myth I think it's fair enough if she wanted the girls closest to her to behave themselves. The portrait of Elizabeth Vernon shows her dressing (says the catalogue) or undressing (says me) in a private chamber. Her ruff is pinned to a curtain behind her, and her jewels are laid out on a table beside her. She looks straight out at the viewer, her bodice unlaced, and she brushes out her long loose hair with a comb marked "Menez moi doucement", which means lead me gently. More strait-laced is the picture of Esther Inglis, a famous Edinburgh calligrapher, some of whose work is also on show.

At the end of the NPG exhibition was a sign about two related exhibitions: one was the Cheapside Hoard, and the other an exhibition at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum. This seemed like a nice coincidence to me. The Exeter exhibition is called "West Country to World's End: the South West in the Tudor Age". It fits in rather nicely with the other two. The biggest contrast is that it's free -- the catalogue costs little more than the entry to the NPG. It includes loans, including a few Holbeins from the royal collection, and old bits of Exeter now belonging to the V&A, but in general it's quite small. The idea of the exhibition is that the Tudor era was a golden age for the South West, not least because local sailors took part in the world exploration of the time -- Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh would be the most famous of those. There's a section on Exeter goldsmiths, as well as on Nicolas Hilliard, the son of an Exeter goldsmith who became a famous miniature painter, and went into exile with the Bodley family during Mary's reign. There's even some information on Thomas Bodley of Bodleian fame, though without mention of his embezzlement of Exeter Cathedral's manuscript collection. Apart from size and price, the other big contrast is in the oddly broader focus of the Exeter exhibition. Because of the question of sea voyages and exploration it's much more international than the other two London-biased exhibitions. There's some excellent pictures of native American life from Raleigh's Virginia expedition. They also have the Elizabeth I Armada portrait, which shows the defeat of the Spanish, admittedly largely by the weather rather than the English navy, behind a tremendously ornate Elizabeth with her hand placed over America on a globe.

The NPG exhibition is only on until the 5th January, but the Cheapside Hoard is around until the end of April, and is really worth seeing. I also saw the early Durer drawings at the Courtauld, which is always a good place to visit with intelligent shows. Also at Somerset House, and really worth catching, is Stanley Spencer's First World War Memorial Chapel from Sandham. It's very moving. Most of the panels are of very routine parts of soldierly life, like making tea and doing laundry. The big altar piece couldn't be moved but a picture is projected on the wall. It's called the Resurrection of the Soldiers, and shows those serried ranks of white crosses all jumbled up and pushed aside as the soldiers rise on the last day.

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