Photographing the Cheapside Hoard
October 25, 2013
Robert Weldon, manager of photography and visual communications for GIA, had read about the Cheapside Hoard in a journal some years ago, but that did not prepare him for his first glimpse of the treasure.
“It was one of those moments where you don’t anticipate what you’re going to see,” he said. “We went down to the dungeon of the museum, past a bevy of guards – and you know why the guards are there – and all of the sudden we’re in an area that looks like some kind of laundry room. Everyone’s quiet. Suddenly you realise that there on a table are 20 of the most exquisite items you could imagine.”
He and videographer Kevin Schumacher had just spent hours interviewing and filming the staff and were distracted by lugging their equipment into the room. The collection was laid out on a big table, with various pieces set on little pedestals.
“The significance of the moment almost didn’t register,” Weldon said. “Finally seeing this treasure just sitting before us. That’s when the interviews of the day – where we had discussed the significance of certain pieces due to their age, the times they might have been carved or the type of gem trade that had probably existed in the 1500s and 1600s – really came into focus.”
Weldon was instrumental in setting up the opportunity for GIA to document the Cheapside Hoard in a Gems & Gemology article. He contacted the museum after an introduction to Museum Director Sharon Ament from U.S.-based diamond dealer Alan Bronstein. A week later, he and Schumacher were on their way to London.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really observe this treasure and to be able to relate its incredible and significant history,” Weldon said.
That meant that the pressure was on for Weldon to work out the most efficient way to travel with a limited studio, and yet be able to capture the best possible photos.
“I had to come up with a method to photograph these items, not knowing what my studio space was going to be like at the museum. And also understanding that when you send out a studio, you’ve got to deal with customs issues and carnets,” he said. “So I went home and invented a small studio that collapses into a three- to four-inch thick tablet that can be packed into a bag and easily placed in a conventional suitcase. My camera and lighting came with me separately in the carry-on luggage. I didn’t even have a chance to test the mini-studio properly.
“It looks like nothing, but it’s how it’s used, along with the skill and understanding of what a piece needs before you photograph it,” he said. “Hazel Forsyth, senior curator of the collection, did not allow the pieces to be handled, but put items down on the stage and moved them around for us according to our wishes.”
Weldon and Schumacher spent the majority of the day, beginning at 8:30 a.m., documenting the museum and its various exhibits and interviewing staff about the Cheapside Hoard.
“I was getting more and more nervous as the interviews went on, even though I was the person asking the questions,” Weldon said. “Knowing that it was getting later and later, I was thinking, ‘when am I going to photograph the 20 Cheapside pieces?’.”
The stills photography finally started at 4 o’clock. The museum staff made special arrangements for additional photography time, Weldon said, and he was able to finish by 6:30.
“It’s practically unheard of to photograph that many significant pieces in just over two hours,” Weldon said, but he is proud of what they accomplished. “I felt that it was important to document as many views of each item as we could, and although this added to the time spent, I was happy, because each piece had an incredible story to tell.”
A life’s work
Weldon interviewed Hazel Forsyth, who has written two books about the Cheapside Hoard, for nearly two hours.
“I feel moved when I think about her, because this is a woman who has dedicated a great portion of her professional life to really understanding this collection. This treasure is at the very core of what she does every day and she knows it absolutely better than anyone on earth,” he said. “She knows how something was put together and what the significance of it was at a certain place in time. She is also the one who has done most to uncover who the person, or persons, might be that put this treasure under the ground.”
He compares her talking about the collection to uncorking a bottle of wine.
“All of the sudden, all of this information is pouring out; this wonderful, incredible knowledge,” he said. “And then she’ll remind herself, ‘and oh, by the way, there’s this other aspect of this jewel and here’s what we can say about that’. She is able to look at certain aspects of the jewellery and tell you what may have happened. She has such incredible reverence for it.”
“You are reminded about why you’ve become a gemmologist and what an incredible trade we’re in,” Weldon said. “All of the things we studied: you’re seeing them right there in front of you.”
He was particularly fascinated with the carved emerald watch, knowing that emeralds from Colombia were only discovered by Europeans in the late 1530s, and were only reaching European lands by the late 1500s.
“Here’s this magnificent emerald from Colombia, so you know it had to do with early trade with the Colombian emerald deposit that was to make such an incredible impression on the world,” he said. “Then European watch technology, only a hundred years old at that time, helped to create this truly international, fusion jewel.”
“You’re transported back in time, because you’re looking at details that someone’s tool actually performed on the gem and you’re sort of channelling them by seeing it. You’re imagining who this person, or group of people, might have been who for whatever reason decided to bury this treasure under a floor. And inevitably you ask yourself: ‘what happened to those people?’ It’s a mystery.”
Those questions are fascinating to him, he said.
“We still don’t know how to solve all of the secrets of the Cheapside Hoard, although there were hints from Forsyth as to what might have been, and the exhibit at the London Museum till April 2014 also provides a strong clue.”