Recently, I was lucky enough to have a personal tour of the V&A jewellery gallery (properly named the William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum) by the renowned jewellery historian Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. It’s amazing how personal anecdotes bring life to things. No matter how many new details or wonderful facts I’ve discovered on my own at whilst gazing at its expansive collection, nothing has been more fascinating than the hour or so I spent listening to Beatriz tell me about the people who wore the jewels glittering before us. It shows that it’s the human factor that catches the imagination, not just the jewels themselves, and the lives that these diamonds have lit up.
At the doorway, the first piece to catch the eye is a huge golden torque discovered in Ireland, the Shannongrove Gorget. Beatriz pointed out the ridge down the middle, so obvious that I was amazed I’d never spotted it before – this is where it was carefully folded in half by the person who possessed it. Why on earth would anyone do such a thing? Nearly three thousand years ago, this deliberate destruction of an unimaginably precious object was the ultimate gift to the gods who dwelt along the mystical Shannon Estuary. To look at this golden object and see both the handiwork of its creator and of its destroyer was slightly giddying.
Diamond Lives of Queens and Princesses
We moved onto an emblazoned pendant locket, the Heneage Jewel, made in 1595, with its internal miniature of Queen Elizabeth I painted by the foremost exponent of miniature portraiture, Nicholas Hilliard. In contrast to the imperial golden profile of the queen and the pious praise of her defence of the Anglican faith on the exterior, the glittering and vibrant interior portrait reflects upon the fresh beauty and virtue of the queen. Could this personal gift from the monarch to her trusted courtier Sir Thomas Heneage reflect more a more intimate bond between them?
Further along is a suite of fresh, leaf green, peridot jewels set in gold. They were a gift to Miss Cotes in April 1816 from the Prince Regent, the future George IV, to wear at the marriage of his daughter, Princess Charlotte, to dashing Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Princess Charlotte was highly spirited and the Prince Regent was anxious to keep her under scrutiny so he assigned ladies of the court, the Dowager Countess of Rosslyn and her nieces, the Cotes sisters, to keep close to her. Charlotte resented their almost constant presence, and referred to them as old ‘Famine & the Consequences’. Princess Charlotte was the darling of the nation and, as in the outpouring of grief for a later Princess, Diana, the entire kingdom mourned her tragically early death in childbirth two years later.
Diamond Lives of the Rich and Famous
Many jewels made their way to the V&A jewellery gallery collection due to the generous legacy of Lady Cory, who bequeathed her enormous collection to the museum in 1947. Lady Cory was a grand dame in the Edwardian style and appeared in public draped in lace and a variety of jewels, many of which she ‘improved’. Centre stage is a huge diamond spray brooch of 1850, which Lady Cory had enlarged by adding a few older diamond set parts – upcycling her diamonds! The flower head motifs are set en tremblant to shimmer with the wearer’s movements.
At the far end of the gallery, suspended at head height, is the enormous diamond Manchester Tiara, commissioned by Consuelo, the Dowager Duchess of Manchester. An American born heiress and a bon vivant, she ‘took Society completely by storm by her beauty, wit and vivacity and it was soon at her very pretty feet’ when she married George, the 8th Duke of Manchester, in 1876. After he died in 1892, she applied herself to merry widowhood and sparkled at the head of fashionable society – quite literally – by resetting all her diamonds into a huge and spectacular new tiara made by Cartier in 1903.
At each of the gallery’s showcases, Beatriz told me captivating stories about the lives behind the diamonds. So, how did Beatriz become so intimately knowledgeable about the finest museum collection of jewellery in the world? A talented and creative one woman encyclopaedia on jewels and craftsmanship, Beatriz was consultant curator in the re-designing of the gallery by Eva Jiricna in 2008 from its previous iteration, with its slightly chaotically arranged jewels set against dowdy dusky-pink and complete with a turnpike entrance. She described to me how she literally cut out and pasted pictures of the collection’s 3000-odd pieces onto rows and rows of A4 paper laid on her floor at home to work out the best way to arrange the displays into interesting themes that smoothly guided the visitor within an overall chronology. She measured peoples’ average eye heights to best position the stunning flow of hero pieces suspended along the centre of the gallery. Her consideration is the secret of its success in sharing these diamond lives: by putting people’s perspectives first, visitors feel intimately connected to the jewels, and they, in turn spring alive.
I host regular guided talks in the V&A Jewellery Gallery for small groups of 4-5 max. Please book on Eventbrite (link below) or email me for futher details. firstname.lastname@example.org
V&A Jewellery Gallery: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/jewellery