by Baronessa Lucrezia-Isabella di Freccia
Before visiting the exhibition we were fortunate to be given two lectures & photo shows by members of the museum staff. The first talk was given by Hazel Forsyth, Senior Medieval & Post-Medieval Curator and the exhibition’s main curator, which covered the discovery, historical context and composition of the hoard. I had already attended her excellent public lecture last year but as this was a speciality audience, she focused less on the general and more on the detailed, including the provenance and use of many of the gemstones, and the scientific means they used for analysing the hoard.
I was especially delighted when she described how the emerald and garnet grape cluster pendants were created, as these are an especial favourite of mine and I have often wondered about the techniques used (basically the globes were initially carved out with a metal bit in the shape of a round hollow gouge in various sizes, and then refined with other gravers).
One other tidbit I found entertaining was the theory that blue sapphires were so popular in Elizabethan and Stuart jewellery because they were a taboo stone in India, so the stone merchants there actively encouraged the fashion for them in England and Europe.
The second talk was from Catherine Nightingale, Lead Applied Arts Conservator, giving an insight into the exhibition’s preparation, planning and installation.
From all accounts, keeping the enamel on items that old is a bit of a nightmare, as any quick or large change in temperature causes the metal to flex, which cracks or flakes the enamel (apparently with large Limoges items, that change can be as little as 2.5°C). When you consider just how much of the hoard is covered in enamel, that’s a very big headache indeed. Blues are reportedly especially bad for that, whereas reds and pinks are more stable. Interestingly, as I know from my forays into enamelling, when you are firing enamels it’s the other way around – in the kiln blues (and greens) are easy, stable colours to fire, reds and pinks are fussy and easily ruined. Catherine described how they painstakingly cleaned the pieces under a microscope with ionised water and alcohol and a very, very fine brush, and stabilised some of them using acrylic resin with acetone, sucked into gaps with capillary action – the stabiliser selected to be reversible in the event of later testing.
The next part of her talk greatly impressed me with just how complicated displaying the hoard was. Boxes had to be designed for moving each piece to ensure it wasn’t damaged and so that pieces of already broken chains etc stayed together. The display cases were reused ones from previous exhibits as there wasn’t the budget for new ones, so they had to design the contents according to what they had. Hazel wanted to show the pieces relative to how they were actually worn, which resulted in using fishing nylon to suspend many of the items and tying the floral chains to brass rods, the latter taking many hours of work. Personally, I thought the end result particularly effective and striking. Added to that, each material had to be scientifically tested to ensure there was no reaction with the materials of the case and its finishings, and the temperature in the cases had to remain stable. And these were but some of the main considerations!
Lighting was one of the things we had wondered about, as both Genevieve and I found it rather dim in the exhibit. Catherine explained the lights had to be within a certain bandwidth so as not to damage the period portraits, clothing and other items included in the exhibits, as well being carefully placed, as too many would generate too much heat from the electronics. Catherine and Hazel did say they would have preferred more lights, but alas didn’t have the budget for them.
Both talks were superb and I learnt a lot – they certainly deepened my appreciation for the use of scientific methods in conserving and investigating treasures of the past. Thanks again to Hazel and Catherine for sharing their time and knowledge.
After the talks we sojourned downstairs to view the hoard. I have gushed about it elsewhere before, so rather than repeating my rhapsodies will merely state that the exhibition is even more informative, fascinating and beautiful each time I see it, and I highly recommend it as an outing. There is also the excellent St. Peter’s Brewery pub, the Jerusalem Tavern, a ten minute walk away that I heartily recommend too!
ETA: The exhibition closed on Sun 27 April 2014.