Magazine article History Today

The Jewel of History: Corinne Julius Visits a New Gallery of Jewels at the V&A to See What Sparkle They Add to Our Understanding of History

Magazine article History Today

The Jewel of History: Corinne Julius Visits a New Gallery of Jewels at the V&A to See What Sparkle They Add to Our Understanding of History

Article excerpt

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'Bling' may be 'the thing', but a love of flashy jewellery is not new. Self-adornment is one of the oldest human urges and man has used jewellery to express values, beliefs and emotions from cradle to grave. Jewellery can be used to demonstrate affection or to dazzle and awe. It is used extensively to communicate the status, wealth and power of the wearer, and as the display in the new V&A Jewellery Gallery shows, its study casts light on political, social and economic events.

The gallery has been closed for refurbishment for four years during which time each piece of jewellery in the Museum's collection has been conserved and reassessed. The former dark, dingy, prison-like gallery entered and exited through full-height turnstiles has been transformed into a capacious jewel box. Architect Eva Jiricna in close consultation with the curators has created a gem-like interior with a sparkling glass staircase up to a new mezzanine floor, which increases the display area by nearly a third.

There are over 3,500 items on show, ranging from the Shannongrove Gorget, a Celtic gold breast ornament of 700 BC, to Peter Chang's acrylic and polyester brooch (1992). The story of (principally) European jewellery over the last 800 years is told in four huge, 3.5-metre high, curved glass cases that allow viewers to see the exhibits from all sides. Those seeking amplification can turn to the beautifully lit wall displays or to the computer terminals which contain detailed information, including images of the backs of pieces.

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One key jewel with hidden secrets is the Armada or Heneage Jewel. It is believed to have been given by Elizabeth I, sometime after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, to Sir Tomas Heneage, a Privy Councillor and vice-chairman of the Royal Household, and it demonstrates Elizabeth's power, loyalty and affection. The front shows a three-dimensional cast-gold formal profile of the Queen set on a deep blue enamel background and frame, the latter set with square cut diamonds and rubies. To enhance the image of omnipotence fostered by the Queen in the last decades of her life, her portrait draws on Roman tradition. This 'brand' flattered both her political and personal vanity, distracting the public's attention from the cost of the war against Spain, the rebellion in Ireland and poor harvests. It gave the Queen a 'mask of youth' at a time when she was ageing visibly. In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, 'She imagined that the people who are much influenced by externals would be distracted by the glittering of her jewels from noticing the decay of her personal attractions.' She also wished to reinforce her role as defender of the Protestant faith, symbolized on the back of the locket by the image of a sturdy ark sailing through a tempestuous green enamel sea and a rain-filled sky encircled by the inscription meaning 'Peaceful through the stormy waves'.

The locket was her declaration of loyalty to Sir Thomas Heneage, with the rubies and diamonds symbolizing love, devotion and constancy. The Queen is reported to have responded to his gift of an earring to her, by proclaiming that 'Whenever it was in her ear she would not hear a word against him.' Her gift to him, whilst formal on the exterior, when opened indicates a deep intimacy. The inner portrait reveals a delicate miniature by Nicholas Hilliard of a very girly, almost ethereal, Elizabeth, bedecked in a white virginal dress staring intimately out at the viewer and the inner case is enamelled with a red Tudor rose and 'Alas that so much virtue, diffused with beauty, should not last inviolate', an extract from a Walter Haddon poem of 1567. …

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