Gold: Cairo to Constantinople – Early Photographs of the Middle East

Gold: Cairo to Constantinople – Early Photographs of the Middle East


Gold is the most extraordinary alloy, it is the most malleable and ductile of all metals; a single gram can be beaten into a sheet measuring one square metre, at a thickness of 0.125 millionths of a metre, or drawn in a wire to a length of 41 miles (66km) at a thickness of 1 micron. Although it has dropped from a record high of nearly $2,000 an ounce, today it is now $1140. Most gold is turned into jewellery, but some is used in industry and enormous amount is just kept in vaults as an investment.

It is also the choice metal of royalty and rulers, so it comes as no great surprise that the Queen has a shed-load of the stuff, most of it passed down through successive monarchs. There are some beautiful gold objects in her Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and some fascinating paintings, including one bought by the Queen Mother in 1942, William Nicholson’s still life of a Gold Jug, the surface of which he has captured with remarkably free brushstrokes.

Benedetto Gennari’s Danaë Receiving the Shower of Gold, in which Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain (golden shower?) and impregnated her, is not a patch on Titian’s versions, or Rembrandt’s, but it has some amusing putti scooping up the coins. Another amusing painting is by a ‘follower’ of Marinus van Reymerswaele called The Misers, depicting a couple of greedy and avaricious grotesques counting out the gold coins and entering the amounts into a ledger. One of the most beautiful objects on display is a gold crown, almost child-like in its simplicity, from Ecuador around 1000AD, which pre-dates the Inca invasion. The Rillaton gold cup from a Bronze Age burial around 1500BC, so called from the site of the cairn of stones under which it was found in Cornwall, is another example of simplicity itself with its horizontal concentric corrugations.

A lot of bling is also in the show, as what gold is saying is that it is expensive and rare and anyone who has it is rich and important. The Padshashnama (Chronicle of the King of the World) from 1656, is reputedly the finest Islamic manuscript in the Royal Collection, and depicts the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah-Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal, sitting cross-legged in one pan of a set of golden scales, while his weight in gold, silver and other precious items are heaped into the other. These were then distributed as alms, to prevent him from suffering any corporal or spiritual calamities.

Also on display is a design for the Gold State Coach by Sir William Chambers, with painted panels by Giovanni Cipriani, which has to be the ultimate über-kitsch bling vehicle ever made; it certainly was the most expensive at the time. It has been used at every Coronation since that of George III in 1762, including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, and the actual coach is housed in the Royal Mews next door. A cigarette case by Carl Fabergé, presented by the Dowager Tsarina of Russia to King Edward VII in 1903, is made of three-colour gold, with rose diamonds and cabochon ruby, in a glorious sunburst design. Curiously, the caption in the cabinet states that it is a Patch Box, or boite á mouches, which were used by ladies, and some gentlemen, to accentuate the whiteness of their skin and to conceal blemishes. With this confusion as to its usage, perhaps this little case was ahead of its time and could combine both descriptions and be used to keep nicotine patches in?

The Early Photographs of the Middle East were taken by Francis Bedford, who accompanied King Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, on an educational Grand Tour of the Middle East in 1862 and documented their trip, taking in Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, sometimes going on horseback and sleeping in tents; a most un-royal way to travel. The exhibition includes archeological finds brought back to Britain by the Prince, including an Egyptian papyrus inscribed with the Amduat, intended as a funerary road-map through the Underworld of Re, and a number of ancient scarabs set in gold. More bling!

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Until 22 February 2015

Admission £9.75

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