Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gold: Power and Allure

Among the hidden secrets of London are the collections of historical objects held by the city’s 108 livery companies: not hidden, in many cases, in the sense of being inaccessible to the public (most of the collections can be viewed by arrangement), but hidden, nonetheless, in the sense that, with all of the competing attractions, most Londoners, let alone visitors, rarely do see them.

The exhibition, Gold: Power and Allure, currently showing at Goldsmiths’ Hall[1] brings together many of the treasures from the livery companies, together with items from public and private collections around the country, to tell the story of the goldsmith’s art over 4500 years of British history. Highlights include several of the pages’ jackets made for the coronation of George IV, sumptuously ornamented with gold wire; a gold facsimile of the Portland Vase made as a trophy for the Epsom races in 1884; a signet ring made for William the Conqueror’s son; and, the ultimate present for someone who has everything, a life-sized mouse automaton made in Switzerland in 1810. There are also some truly stunning examples of work by the very best modern goldsmiths.

I was naturally drawn, however, to some of the very earliest gold-work from the British Isles dating back 4500 years, the more so since there are objects here that I wrote about in Undreamed Shores. Hair ornaments, similar to these ones found at Amesbury in Wiltshire, are among the first objects that my protagonist notices after he is rescued from the sea on the Dorset coast. They make a real impression on him, both because they are worn by a stunningly beautiful woman, and because they are the first metal objects he has ever seen:

Although most of her hair hung loose, each side of her softly rounded face was framed by a single plaited tress…Half way down each of these tresses was attached an ornament, made of a material he had never seen before. It was a material smoother than polished stone, and it shone like the sun’s rays on the ripples of the sea…

Later, he sees the woman’s father (a character I based on the man who was buried with the ornaments now on display at Goldsmiths’ Hall) making one of these ornaments:

Amzai watched as Arthmael placed the gold on the curved surface of the stone, carefully scored a shape on it with the flint knife, and then started to cut the shape out…

There are gold collars or “lunulae,” also, in the exhibition, similar to the one worn by another character in the book, a significant object in the plot, since the jealousy it inspires propels the story towards its conclusion:

 (Photo: John Maynard Friedman).

She held it up a final time, and Amzai became aware of a presence behind him, listening as they spoke. “May I look at it?” Harritz asked…He held it up to the light and watched as it shimmered…[2]

My visit to the exhibition not only provided a welcome break from the final editing (hopefully) of my next novel, An Accidental King (set in the early years of Roman Britain), but provided me with an idea for a future novel as well. In the same room as the hair ornaments and lunulae is an enigmatic object of the 1st or 2nd Century AD, made for a man who, to judge from his name and dates, could plausibly be the great-grandson of my protagonist in An Accidental King (I’m not suggesting that, historically, this was the case – there isn’t enough evidence to support this – merely that it could make for a good story). Here, however, I am thinking far into the future, since I won’t be telling this man’s story until I have told his grandmother’s: I was reading a letter about her in the British Library last week and, yesterday, on my way to and from the exhibition, I was walking the streets she once walked.

I can only suggest that you visit the exhibition for yourself: there is enough material there to inspire a hundred novels!

[1] 1st June to 28th July, 10.00 to 5.00 Monday to Saturday, admission free, Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2V 6BN.
[2] Undreamed Shores, by Mark Patton, published by Crooked Cat Publications, 2012 (


  1. Fabulous post, Mark. This exhibition sounds wonderful. London has such a wealth of historical items, and it's sometimes frustrating I live so far away.

    Thanks for sharing your visit.

  2. I ditto Cathie's comments. I live even further away and haven't been to London, except in transit for ages. One of my best 'gold' moments was way back in the early 80s (? when the first exhibition of The gold of the Pharaohs came to Edinburgh. My husband got tickets to the opening evening, a very glitzy event in itself. Fabulous to see the gold so close and weven better than years after when I saw it again in Cairo.

  3. Could either of you be tempted to come down for the Historical Novels Society Conference (28th-30th September)? I can't offer accommodation, I'm afraid - my writer's garret, true to all the stereotypes, has only one bedroom - but it would be great to spend time together!