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Treasures of the English Church - Goldsmith's Hall

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

A MAJOR exhibition of English church silver, Treasures of the English Church: Sacred Gold and Silver 800-2000, will be on display in Goldsmith’s Hall from May 30 to July 12, 2008.

Held under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury the exhibition features more than 330 spectacular objects from some of the country’s grandest cathedrals and from parish churches throughout England.

This is the first exhibition of such importance and scale ever to take place. It will be displayed over two floors at Goldsmiths’ Hall, which will assume an appropriately ecclesiastical atmosphere for the occasion to complement the gravitas of the subject matter. Each piece vividly evokes the tradition, symbolism and unbroken ritual of the Church of England through the ages.

Exhibition curator, Timothy Schroder, said: “The exhibition is a visual record of the entire history of the English Church and it is fascinating to see how the range and design of these precious objects reflect the politics and theology of their times.”

Many of the treasures on display have until now only been seen by a restricted audience which makes the bringing together of this outstanding group of church silver for the benefit of a larger public an event of huge importance.

All the exhibits will be viewable at close proximity as opposed to the elevated distance of the altar. Never before has it been possible to marvel at the minute detail of the magnificent jewel-encrusted Primate’s processional cross, graciously loaned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the highlights of the exhibition, the cross was designed and made in 1883 by George Frederick Bodley. Richly bejewelled it incorporates later additions, namely three sapphires and three opals which were presented to Archbishop Fisher when he visited Australia in 1958.

Another highly impressive aspect of the exhibition is a spectacular display of 17th century altar services brought together for the first time. Illustrating the glories of post-Reformation church plate, outstanding pieces from these grandiose, sculptural altar services on loan from the Bishop of Durham, St George’s Chapel Windsor, Christ Church Cathedral Oxford and Rochester Cathedral, represent church silver at its most opulent and flamboyant. Three magnificent alms dishes, together with a sumptuous pair of flagons chased with feathers, all dating from circa 1660 and loaned by St George’s Chapel Windsor are powerful examples and clearly demonstrate the grandeur and confident skills of 17thcentury silversmiths.

Among the earliest exhibits are Archbishop Walter’s silver-gilt chalice and paten from Canterbury Cathedral, dating from about 1160, which were discovered in his tomb, together with various jewels and pins which attached his pallium to his vestment. The paten is finely engraved with the image of the Lamb of God and is one of several interesting medieval patens included in the exhibition.

A small collection of exquisite medieval jewellery is also featured, for example the ring belonging to William Wykeham, the founder of New College Oxford. Other jewels exhibited, including a group from Durham Cathedral, were discovered in bishops’ graves excavated during the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the important themes of the exhibition is the role of the Church as preserver of objects that would otherwise almost certainly have ended up in the melting pot during the Civil War or at any other time simply through changes in fashion. These included a number of secular objects which were given to churches by pious parishioners and used for the service of Holy Communion.

Among these is a cup traditionally said to have been given by Anne Boleyn to her daughter Elizabeth I, who in turn gave it to her physician Richard Masters. Masters duly presented the cup, a secular drinking cup bearing the falcon badge of Anne Boleyn on the lid, to the church of St John the Baptist in Cirencester, where it has remained ever since.

Another example of an object which would not have survived is an extremely beautiful silver-gilt mounted crystal cup dating from 1577 which was presented to a church in Shropshire and is now preserved in Lichfield Cathedral Treasury*.

The communion cup or chalice has undergone many transformations since the Middle Ages and a large group traces the development of its traditional and familiar form through the ages. Following the Reformation most of the existing church plate was melted down and re-modelled to be in keeping with the reformed religion. The chalice adopted a more secular look with a simple conical bowl and stem. An impressive example from Eton College, dating from 1569-70, is a good illustration, although it is considerably larger in size than most, perhaps denoting the wealth of the College.

A select group of Roman Catholic recusant plate reminds the visitor of the religious persecution which was prevalent in England following the Reformation. These pieces are identified from their more medieval shapes; recusant chalices can often be dismantled so that they could be more easily hidden. They were also usually made for liturgical practices which were not considered acceptable to the Anglican Church, and were used secretly in private Catholic chapels, such as that at Arundel Castle.

Further interest is likewise provided by a small group of foreign silver objects which have made their way into English church collections. Among them is a beautiful and unusual chalice and cruet stand plundered in the late 17th century from a church in Havana, Cuba which now belongs to a church in Gloucestershire.

Aside from many of the country’s great cathedrals, other major lenders to the exhibition are Oxford Colleges, most notably Corpus Christi College and New College. A gold chalice and paten dating from circa 1507 given by Bishop Fox, founder of Corpus Christi, is the earliest piece of hallmarked English gold in existence.

Examples of the exuberance of high Victorian church silver are in abundance including a colourful display of Victorian Gothic revivalist works, designed by architects such as William Burges and Augustus Pugin to complete their architectural church commissions. Many of them are enamelled and jewelled, adding the element of colour.

Church silver by the Guild of Handicrafts and other 20th century silversmiths, such as Omar Ramsden, C R Ashbee, Harold Stabler, Louis Osman and Leslie Durbin, brings the exhibition into more recent times. A fine group of church plate loaned by Guildford Cathedral is noteworthy as it dates from the time of the building of the Cathedral, which took place from the 1930s until its consecration in 1961. A gold chalice from the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool dating from 1959 by Dunstan Pruden bears a wonderful figure of Christ in Majesty and is made from 300 wedding rings donated by widows, making it a good example of lay piety.

In contrast to the historic pieces the exhibition also showcases the fantastic vitality of modern church silver. Among the most significant commissions undertaken during the late 20th century, both co-ordinated and supported by the Goldsmiths’ Company, were those for the Cathedrals at Lichfield in the 1980s and at York to commemorate the millennium. These commissions brought together the talents of many outstanding contemporary British goldsmiths, such as Gerald Benney, Kevin Coates, Grant Macdonald, Keith Redfern, Jocelyn Burton, Brian Asquith, and silversmiths who were then recent graduates, namely Alex Brogden, Rod Kelly, Michael Lloyd, Toby Russell and Jane Short. Church commissions by other important silversmiths such as Stuart Devlin, Hector Miller and Richard Fox are also represented.

Moving into the 21st century, pieces such as an altar cross and two candlesticks made by Michael Lloyd in 2000, and a censer completed as recently as 2007 for Lincoln Cathedral by Anthony Elson as part of an on-going commission, demonstrate how the Church today remains a major patron of the silversmith’s art and how contemporary silversmiths continue to contribute to this important tradition.

With very few exceptions, all the exhibits belong to churches or religious institutions. An extraordinary number of medieval and later treasures remain in the possession of parish churches throughout the country and several pre-Reformation chalices and patens are still in regular use.

Everyone who is interested in the rich history of the Church of England and its enduring traditions and rituals will find this a fascinating and absorbing exhibition, while the sheer brilliance of workmanship of the objects, together with their historical and social context extends its interest and appeal far beyond the confines of religion.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication entitled Treasures of the English Church: A Thousand Years of Sacred Gold and Silver, which includes a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury, contributions by leading Church historians and silver specialists, and is edited by the exhibition curator, Timothy Schroder. Published by Paul Holberton publishing, the book, which will be of great interest in its own right, will be available for purchase at Goldsmiths’ Hall during the exhibition.

*Church Treasuries:
In 1957 Charles Oman, the Keeper of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, concerned at the potential plight of valuable church silver, came up with the idea of creating exhibition spaces in English cathedrals so that important pieces of church plate from the local diocese could be displayed for the benefit of the public rather than locked away in bank vaults or in some dusty corner of the church or worse still sold off.

With the help of Central Council for the Care of Churches, together with advice and considerable financial support from the Goldsmiths’ Company the first treasury opened at Lincoln Cathedral in 1960 with another opening at Winchester in 1969. Subsequent treasuries opened at Norwich (1973), York (1974), Chichester and Ripon (1976), Oxford, Gloucester and Durham (1977), Canterbury, Hereford, Newark and Lichfield (1980), Peterborough, St Paul’s and St Albans (1981), Carlisle (1982), Salisbury (1983) and Westminster Abbey (1986).

Admission: Free.

Times: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm.

Goldsmith’s Hall, Foster Lane, London, EC2V 6BN.

Treasures of the English Church Gallery