THE ART & CULTURE OF GOLDKNOWLEDGE IS PRECIOUS

  • What is the common link between the biblical Temple of Solomon, the dome over the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides in Paris and the Royal Bank of Canada's modern headquarters in Toronto? In all, gold has been used by the architects in one way or another. In the Temple of Solomon, the bible tells us, "Solomon overlaid the house within with pure gold: and he made a partition by the chains of gold before the oracle; and he overlaid it with gold" (Kings, book I, chapter 6, verse 21). The great dome over Napoleon's tomb is covered with gold leaf, which does not tarnish, even with the atmospheric pollution of modern Paris, and only needs to be renewed once in a generation. The Royal Bank of Canada has gold reflective glass in its windows, cutting cooling and heating costs. Thus, gold was applied from antiquity, not just for its beauty and splendour, but for its unique versatility in other applications. Even Shakespeare remarked on "The singing masons building roofs of gold" (Henry V, act I, chorus, line 198).

    The role of gold was not in the structure of the building, but in its adornment and enhancement. In ancient Egypt the massive sandstone walled temples built to their gods were embellished with gold. The great monument to Ammon that Amenhotep III built at Thebes was described by a contemporary inscription as:

    "An august temple ... of fine white sandstone, wrought with gold throughout; its floor is adorned with silver, all its portals with electrum (a pale yellow gold/silver alloy) ... it is supplied with a 'station of the King', wrought with gold and many costly stones. Flagstaffs are set up before it, wrought with electrum".

    The Parthenon, that sacred shrine and symbol of authority, in Athens, completed in 432 BC by the architect Ictinus and the 'master of works' Callicrates, with decorations by the sculptor Phidias, equally employed gold. Standing inside its sanctuary was a monumental statue of the goddess Athena almost 12 metres (40 feet) high sculpted by Phidias from wood and covered in gold and ivory - gold for Athena's clothing, ivory for her flesh.

    The empires of Rome and Byzantium introduced more subtle applications for gold within the increasing number of Christian churches and basilicas after 400 AD. This was the great age of early Christian art, which has survived primarily in the mosaics enhancing the interior of churches. The mosaics were composed of small cubes, or tesserae, made of stone, tile or glass laid in a bed of mortar; golden tesserae were made by affixing gold leaf to the cubes and often formed the background for the designs. "These mosaics owe their compelling power to the brilliancy of the gold grounds," notes the French art historian André Grabar. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, built in Rome by Pope Sixtus III around 440 AD, remains as one of the finest early examples. The church has a splendid nave with majestic colonnades and between them panels of multicoloured mosaics. The mosaics covering the central triumphal arch are "scintillating against a gold ground", wrote André Grabar. In Ravenna the church of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, completed in 549, has similar brilliant gold backgrounds for wall paintings. Two other churches in Ravenna, Sant' Apollinaro Nuovo and San Vitale, built when it was the Italian stronghold of the Byzantine empire, contain equally compelling gold-backed mosaics. In these churches it is almost as if the architects were seeking to create an environment for mosaics and wall paintings; they are an integral part of the building.

    In Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire for over one thousand years, the famous church of Hagia Sophia, with its great central dome held up by soaring piers, arches and vaults, originally had gold leaf on its pillars and a multitude of mosaics and wall paintings, so that its interior glowed warmly according to contemporaries; unfortunately many of these glories were destroyed in the 8th century. However, in later centuries of Byzantine power a revival came with gold-backed icons - the wooden panels covered with gold leaf painted on the screens separating the sanctuary from the nave of Byzantine churches. They can still be seen in such Istanbul churches as St Saviour in Chora.

    The enhancement of buildings with gold has been global. To the Inca people of Peru, who regarded gold as the 'sweat of the sun', it was natural to adorn the walls of their Temple of the Sun at Cuzco with 700 paels of pure gold (though tragically they were ripped down by Francisco Pizarro's conquistadors). The golden spirals of Burma's celebrated temple, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which dominates the Rangoon skyline, demonstrates the Buddhist religion's widespread use of gold in its temples and statues of Buddha, to which faithful worshippers often stick even more little specks of gold leaf. In Japan, the Moa Art Museum has a tea ceremony room completely decorated in gold, with gold leaf on the walls and 24 carat teapots and cups for the ceremony itself.

    In a rather different attempt to improve the environment, Charles I of England once ordered that all London goldsmiths should work in Cheapside and Lombard Street so that the area should be "an ornament ... and lustre to the City". A sentiment that might seem worthy of modern urban planners.

    And indeed, the love of dressing up buildings, religious and secular, in gold has not diminished. The ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York is dressed with gold leaf, as is the Helmsley Building astride Park Avenue. Politicians, too, seem to enjoy debating under an aura of gold. The state capitol buildings in Denver, Colorado, and Canada's Houses of Parliament in Ottawa have touched up their domes with gold leaf. Prestige is not the only reason. "If you paint a capital dome you're lucky if it lasts more than four or five years; but gold leaf will stay on for twenty-five or thirty years," says Mathew Swift, president of Swift & Sons, whose family firm has been beating out gold leaf for nearly 150 years.

    Modern technology has found new uses for gold in buildings, both to reflect heat and to retain it. Glass coated with a thin film of gold not only reflects the sun in summer, but in winter bounces internal heat back into rooms, thus retaining warmth within the building. At the Royal Bank of Canada building in Toronto the 77.7 kilo (2,500 ounces) of gold used in its 27,000 windows was chosen primarily for energy conservation. In another Canadian building with gold glass not only were cooling and heating costs cut by 40 per cent, but the capital cost was also less because a smaller air conditioning plant was required. Aside from economy, the subdued greenish light within a building can create a particular mood, especially in such places as the Garden Court of Coutts' banking house in London, which is roofed entirely with golden glass. From ancient Egypt to modern banks, it seems architects find a use for gold.

  • "But gold shines like fire blazing in the night, supreme of lordly wealth" - Pindar, Olympian Odes, 518 - 438 BC

    Gold has mythopaeic qualities. Untarnished and endurable, it can be beaten and hammered, annealed and spun; its brightness survives time, burial and the forces of decay. Its role in the history of dress and fashion has been central to man since Homer dressed Hector in gold armour in The Iliad. The precious metal itself has been central to ideas about identity, display and status. It has defined social position, signified wealth, given iconic, quasi-religious status to royalty and grandeur to ecclesiastical dress. As a colour, reproduced through imitation gold thread or dyes, it has remained a constant, imparting glamour and glitz to the wearer. Gold as a precious metal or colour has been as important in dress as in jewellery.

    Its rarity has been imbued with allure. The Egyptian Tutankhamun and his queen (1361 - 1352 BC) are depicted wearing woven linen embroidered with gold. In Ancient Crete (1750 - 1400 BC), fashionable men and women wore girdles at the waist in gold and other metals. A sample of cloth from the fifth or fourth century BC demonstrates that the ancient Greeks wore gold embroidery and Dionysius of Halicarnassus cited Tarquin the Ancient as being the first to appear in Rome dressed in a robe embroidered with gold.

    For the Romans of the Republic, however, dress was simple and unshowy. Petronius, in his Satyricon (c. AD 60), mocks the vulgar Fortunata who wears brightly coloured clothes and gold embroidered slippers. Two hundred years later, sumptuosity was acceptable and the tunica palmate, worn by the emperor and later by consuls, was made from purple silk and covered with rich gold embroidery. Although early St Paul echoed the Old Testament moralists when he commanded women to 'adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety' (1 Timothy 11,9), later Christian moralists specifically targeted women in their tirades against fashion: "Clement of Alexandria exhorted them to 'put out of the way fabrics foolishly thin ... bidding farewell to embroidery in gold ..." When the Emperor Constantine moved from Rome to Byzantium (renaming it Constantinople) in AD 324, gold became a mainstay of imperial grandeur, demonstrating immense wealth and luxury.

    Cloth of gold, imported from Italy to the royalty of Europe and the men and women of fashion, was along with furs, the zenith of luxury from the 14th to the 17th century. Gold or silver cloth was made by wrapping fine metal wire around a silk thread, making it more flexible for weaving. These threads would be fed across the fabric, giving it a magnificent sheen. It was the ultimate in conspicuous consumption, and the vain Sienese were famous for their love of rich gold brocade. Edward III of England attacked the "outrageous and excessive apparel" of his aspirant people; only royalty was allowed to wear cloth of gold. A magnificent example is given in the Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London), which shows his grandson, Richard II, in a houppelande of cloth of gold, woven with his emblem, the hart. At the same time, bezants, clinking gold and jewelled chains were essential accessories. But the fabric was not only essential to fashion but also to ceremonial: Richard III was arrayed in cloth of gold after he had been anointed king at his coronation in 1483, the gold signifying the divine consecration. Henry VIII met his rival Francis I at Golden Vale 1520; so splendid was their dress and that of their courts in their rivalry it was called Field of Cloth of Gold.

  • The epic legend of Jason and his Argonauts, who sailed from Greece to the shores of the Black Sea over three thousand years ago in search of the Golden Fleece, has won legitimacy through the work of modern archaeologists. The 'Golden Fleece' was to be found in the ancient kingdom of Colchis on the south-east shores of the Black Sea, where rivers carried down alluvial gold dust from the high mountains of the Caucasus in what is now Georgia. The specks of gold were trapped in the wool of sheepskins that local gold miners spread in the beds of the streams. The technique is still understood by the mountain people of Svanetia in the high country of the Caucasus, reports Professor Othar Lordkipanidze of the Georgian Academy of Sciences.

    The archaeological detective work by Professor Lordkipanidze reveals that the area of Colchis was rich in gold in ancient times and that, in the city of Aeetes, there was a palace of gold and the king had a golden helmet. Moreover, both there and in Greece there were strong beliefs in the 'divine essence' of the fleece. "A golden ram or lamb belongs to ancient strata of religion, a symbol of royal power and protection," he says. "Whoever owned the fleece could reign."

    Now in Greece, Jason, the story goes, had been cheated of his throne by his half-uncle King Pelias. If he could secure the golden fleece he could win back the throne. This was the motive for his 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) voyage. Perhaps, in more real terms, if he came back with gold from Colchis he could finance an uprising to overthrow the King.

    The practicalities of the voyage itself were also proved in 1984 when the explorer Tim Severin launched an expedition in a specially built wooden boat, designed on the lines of an ancient Greek galley, to row and sail from Greece across the Aegean, up through the Bospherus to the Black Sea and on to modern Georgia. The voyage was accomplished in just over two months, ending up at the mouth of the Rhioni river which, in ancient times, was known as the Phasis and along whose banks several bronze age settlements have revealed wonderful gold ornaments.

    So the voyage of Jason and his Argonauts was feasible. Professor Lordkipanidze has excavated ancient communities in Colchis (although he is not sure which was the city of Aeetes) and uncovered wonderful gold diadems, rings and earrings. And he confirms not only what writers over two thousand years go said about sheepskins being used to trap gold, but has tracked down similar reports through the centuries. The geographer Strabo in the 5th century BC was explicit. "It is said in their country (Colchis) gold is carried down the mountain torrents and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins and that this is the origin of the myth of the Golden Fleece." The Roman historian Appian was more specific, noting that, "many streams issue from the Caucasus bearing gold dust so fine as to be invisible. The inhabitants put sheepskin with soggy fleece into the stream and this collects the floating particles".

    The story was always the same. In the 19th century gold was being taken by skins from the Rioni and Tskhemnis-tsgadi rivers. And a report for the Georgian Academy of Sciences in 1946 said geologists were finding 5.3 grams (0.17 troy oz) of gold per one tonne (32,150 troy oz) of sand in the rivers. The description of recovery could have been written three thousand years ago. "Gold is obtained by means of sheepskins. A sheepskin, stretched over a board or flattened in some way, was placed in the river, fixing it so as not to be carried away by the stream, with the fleece on the upper side. The soaked fleece trapped the gold particles. After some time the skin was withdrawn and spread on the ground to dry; the dried skin was beaten to shake out the grains of gold."

    The technique that gave birth to the myth of the Golden Fleece has survived at least three thousand years unchanged. Jason and his Argonauts were ancient gold prospectors.

  • Gold attracts. Its incomparable, rich colour is visually alluring and focuses the eye. It has long been used in the interior as ornamentation and decoration but historically, it was used to convey status, wealth and luxury.

    In many cultures, accustomed to hours of sunshine, gold is a favourite theme in fashion, interior decoration, tableware and vessels because it is burnished by, and reflects the sun, bringing a wonderful, visual voluptuousness. However, in Western cultures, possibly because of our climate or temperament, its traditional use is quieter and more subtle. Its unique decorative role in every important interior and stately home in Britain is plain to see. It is used to create mood, richness, to accent and highlight and it comes into its own at night when candles are lit. It brings richness to heavy velvet or damask curtains by the addition of rich, golden passementerie and lavish gold thread tiebacks. Gilded ornate or plain gold picture frames illuminate the colours in a painting and draw the eye to the subject - and it is frequently employed by interior decorators for the same purpose ¬ to create atmosphere and draw attention to particular aspects of a room or its furnishings.

    George Renwick, a well-known London Interior Designer, says the golden rule in decorating is to "start with the door handles ¬ and if they are of a golden colour - then everything else must follow the theme through ¬ from light fixtures, drawer handles, picture frames and bathroom and kitchen taps and accessories." He also adds, that if you choose gold, then you should thoroughly enjoy it and use it lavishly. He suggests that "one wall decorated completely in gold leaf would create a stunning contrast to its surroundings". Gold has remained a constant feature through a plurality of periods, tastes and styles, such as the fashion for ormulu and French Empire.

    Gold has also seen fashions and methods change in textiles and wallpapers. Centuries ago, pure gold leaf was applied directly on to a surface paper. Early wallpapers featuring gold motifs, were painstakingly made by Perry's of Islington, London, and took hours of labour. The template for the gold pattern was placed on the paper, and glue and gold leaf were applied by hand. The paper was subsequently hung on a type of "clothes line". When it eventually dried, gold adhered to the pattern and the extra gold which clung to the paper, had to be knocked off, which created quite a mess on the factory floor! Many wallpapers, made by Perry¹s - particularly 'Gothic Lily', with its fine gold outline designed by Pugin (1812-52), still decorate interior chambers of the Houses of Parliament.

    Textile designer Cressida Bell has strong roots in design and is constantly experimenting with pattern. Cressida uses gold because it adds glamour. "I love it because it twinkles. I can only use a little in fabrics because it is a metallic thread and can become heavy ¬ but it gives just enough sparkle. I also like gold on lampshades because they then look just as good on as off". Paloma Picasso has also used patterns of gold mosaic in her bathroom as an extremely effective way to contrast with sea green.

    Gold decoration on china and porcelain is one of the most traditional uses of gold in the interior but it is still extremely fashionable and a best seller in many London stores. According to the Josiah Wedgwood museum, the British were using gold on their china as early as 1765. Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, ordered a tea and coffee service "with a gold background and flowers raised in green".

    However, in the mid 1750s, gilding was an unstable process. Honey was used to stick gold leaf to china. It was therefore very vulnerable as the pattern could easily slip. No potter was prepared to take on the commission in case they incurred royal displeasure. However, Wedgwood wanted Royal patronage and made the service. The Queen was so delighted that Wedgwood were able to call the set "Queensware". This set is on display at the Wedgwood Museum and faint traces of gilding can still be detected. Wedgwood still make a dinner service which is called "Black Astbury", of raised gold with a black border. A single 10 inch dinner plate costs approximately £600 and consists of 1200 individually applied strokes. Another established English company, Thomas Goode, which has three Royal warrants ¬ to the Queen, Queen Mother and HRH Prince of Wales ¬ still find their china with gold decoration (22 carat) is very popular. They also display innovative ideas for contemporary settings using large gold underplates or chargers to dress up a table, combined with glasses with a gold rim or gold decoration on the stem and napkins with subtle golden embroidery which all makes for a lavish and opulent presentation.