All that glitters: 12 golden objects in our collections

Gold is a colour of reverence, an object of luxury, a symbol of wealth and power. As a mineral, it is geologically scarce, adding to its rarity and value. On top of this it is uniquely malleable and resistant to tarnish and corrosion.

From goldwork and gilding to goldsmithing and jewellery making, here is a look at the ways in which gold has been used in objects from our collections.

 

Golden threads

Detail of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream,  probably Thomas Poyntz

Golden tapestry

Goldwork is the art of embroidery using precious metal threads. Gilt-metal thread is used in large quantities in this 17th-century tapestry from the collection at Knole, Kent to enhance a scene from the book of Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, dreams of a gigantic statue made of four metals, including a head of gold.

View of the back of a Mantua Court Dress

A dress spun with gold

Floral embroidery of red poppies and golden wheat sheaves, spun from precious metal threads, adorns this silk dress from the collection at Springhill, County Londonderry. The use of gilt thread on silk, combined with the technical skill required to weave fine motifs , would have made this a very expensive dress in its day.

The peacock dress

Lady Curzon's golden Peacock dress

This dress, from the collection at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, incorporates the motif of a peacock feather, symbolic in Indian culture and the Hindu religion. The fabric was made in India and embroidered by gold thread embroiderers who incorporated iridescent green beetle wing covers to represent the eye of each peacock feather. The gown was worn by Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India, at the Delhi Durbar in 1903.

Gold leaf and gold ground

A Man and his Wife by Master of the Barbara Legend

Golden devotion

Gold was a symbol of devotion and heavenly riches during the Renaissance. This 15th-century double portrait from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, shows a husband and wife in prayer. The generous use of gold leaf, which is created by beating gold into an extremely thin sheet, was used in sacred paintings to depict divine illumination.

An illuminated leaf from 'The Lives of the Caesars' by Suetonius / Blickling NT 3130728

The golden Caeser

Blickling Hall's splendidly illuminated manuscript of 1452 of 'The Lives of the Caesars' by Suetonius is said to have cost the Duke of Ferrara 4 gold ducats. The illumination in this manuscript is at least partly by the great Italian illuminator of the 15th century, Marco dell'Avogaro.

Detail of wallpaper in the Library at Charlecote, designed by Thomas Willement

Golden ground

Brown strap-work designs contrast with an embossed gold ground in this wallpaper designed by Thomas Willement for the library at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. Wallpaper like this, known as flock, was originally invented to imitate expensive cut-velvet hangings.

Gilding

The Golden Water Buffalo in the area known as 'China' at Biddulph, Staffordshire

Sacred buffalo

Gilding in sculpture is achieved by applying a very thin coating of gold leaf to a solid substance. At Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire, a gilded water buffalo perches amidst a canopy of trees, overseeing the China garden. It was made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who, in addition to being a sculptor, was a keen geologist.

Grape scissors, Ickworth House

Gilt grape scissors

These gilded sterling silver scissors were developed specifically to cut grape stalks. They originally belonged to the 1st Marquess of Bristol who helped assemble a magnificent collection of silver for Ickworth in Suffolk. Grape scissors were one of many new silver objects produced in the decades around 1800, quickly becoming an essential accoutrement for a fashionable household.

The Kedleston Drawing Room Sofa

Giltwood sea nymphs

Writing in 1765 about the magnificent John Linnell sofa with giltwood legs carved as figures of tritons and sea-nymphs, the English architect Samuel Wyatt wrote 'it is certainly as elegant a piece of furniture as ever was made... The gilding is by far the best done of any I ever saw.' It was supplied for Nathaniel Curzon, Lord Scarsdale at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire.

" Gold — what can it not do, and undo?"
- William Shakespeare
A tiger head finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan

The Tiger of Mysore

Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore in South India, was also known as the Tiger of Mysore. For this reason, tigers adorn many of his belongings including this gold finial, set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. It was taken from his throne after the sack of Seringapatam and was given to Henrietta Clive by Arthur Wellesley, later the 1st Duke of Wellington.

Gold medallion with a portraits of Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina at Chartwell, Kent.

The Tsar's gold

This gold medallion commemorates the halcyon days of the Russian royal family; it was produced on the occasion of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. At the time, the Romanovs were the wealthiest family in the world, with control over the world's third largest gold reserve. Later, the Soviet Red Cross gave the medallion to Lady Clementine Churchill in recognition of her fundraising for the Aid to Russia Fund which was set up during the Second World War.

Gold ring

A pagan and Christian ring

This ancient gold ring is inscribed with the name of Venus (implying a devotion to the Roman goddess of love) and a Latin phrase which translates as ‘Senicianus live in God’ (a phrase associated with early British Christians). It was discovered in 1785 and eventually was acquired by the Chute family of The Vyne in Hampshire. In the past it has been wrongly identified as the inspiration for Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Video

See an 18th-century gilt table being restored

Thanks to generous support, a beautiful 18th-century gilt console table in Beningborough's collection in North Yorkshire has recently returned to its former shining glory. It took 240 hours of skilled craftsmanship to conserve the structure of the table and the marble top. The final aspects of gilding the gold took place in the saloon for visitors to see. This video tells a rare behind-the-scenes conservation story.

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