Today I wandered over to Goldsmiths Hall in the City to visit an exhibition which opened only yesterday of Church silver and gold plate and vessels. The exhibition is said to the be the largest collection of religious metal work ever assembled and has a very impressive 300+ items on display ranging from the 10th century to modern times.
Goldsmiths Hall, one of the livery companies of the City of London is just round the corner from St Pauls and the very grand building is sited on a small side road – and I can only presume that the road must have been a bit larger in the past.
I met a friend outside and on going inside you are faced with the impressive grand staircase – and we actually did the tour somewhat backwards, so what you should do is go up the staircase and stop on the landing to admire the huge Primate’s processional cross currently used by the Archbishop of Canterbury – and then look up to notice the ornate ceiling of the building. Going up to the right (we went left) you then go into the main exhibition and it is laid out in a mixture of mainly historic timeline, but also thematically.
Going around the room you start with the medieval period and some of the oldest gold vessels known to exist and then moving through the civil war, the commonwealth and then on to the restoration – followed by Georgian and Victorian high Anglican.
There are some quite informative boards dotted around the place and it was interesting to learn that much early silverware was simply unfashionable domestic plate/vessels which are then donated to the local churches when the families upgraded to more fashionable pots and pans. Indeed, in the 18th century, there was a trend towards baptizing babies in bowls as opposed to fonts – leading to a spate of donations to churches of – of all things – punch bowls.
I know the Church and wine are common bedfellows, but being baptized in a punch bowl is taking it a bit far!
Once you have worked your way around the exhibition, going back down to the ground floor are two more areas set aside to show off modern church commissions.
As an exhibition it works on quite a few levels – there is the historic aspect of the displays. Also, you are learning some quite interesting history about church silver and gold – but also this works as a visual treat as the range of metal work is quite considerable. Indeed, some of the 17th century silver is so austere that it almost looks modernist in style – which is contrasted by the completely over the top gaudy gold work of the restoration period.
The only criticism of the display I would make is that there is a presumption that the viewer will understand some of the terms used to describe the items. A couple of bowls were displayed with a technical name, and frankly I have no idea what they are in actual fact. Most of the items have an obvious use, but there is the odd bit of head scratching at times.
There is also a rather good guide book available for a mere tenner at the front door, which has a lot of photos of the silverware we just looked at. While the photos in the book are very high quality, there is a slight issue as each item is photographed on its own, so it is not possible to know the scale of the items – and a tiny pocket sundial is shown larger than a plate which in real life is huge. Nevertheless, the book is a visual feast and the text adds quite a lot to what I had just seen in the displays.
We managed to spend about an hour and a half in the exhibition all told, which is not bad – especially as it is completely free of charge.
The exhibition is only open for a couple of months though – so you need to get down there before July 12th.
They also play suitable ecclesiastical music in the background which adds to the atmosphere.