Jewels in the crown

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Where is the world's largest punchbowl? And a centrepiece made from 2,020 ounces of silver with a footprint one metre square? Chris Fautley visits the Museum of Freemansonry

Silverware, porcelain, jewellery, chinaware, glassware. Aspiring designers in search of inspiration will not be disappointed by London's Museum of Freemasonry, resident within the enormous Freemasons' Hall in Holborn.

And thereby lies a minor difficulty: triumphs of art deco, building and interior, afford so many distractions that it is a struggle to get as far as the first floor and the museum. Be aware, too, that it is not somewhere that will reveal what freemasonry is all about. However, if you want to gain an understanding of its hierarchy, have access to some of the eye-popping treasures accumulated by the movement since the 18th century - and, of course, be inspired - then this is the place for you.

The museum has some 100,000 items in its collection, although only a proportion are displayed. Around 30,000 of these are medals - or, in masonic parlance, jewels. Some are worn with ribbons, others as brooches.

Each lodge (there have been 9,000 over the years) has its own jewel; they may also be worn as a badge of office. Lodges are not established on a geographical basis; many are themed, with subjects ranging from Shotokan karate to the London Scottish Rifles.

Some jewels are silver, occasionally inset with gems; others, finely engraved in the most minute detail imaginable; still more are enamel and paste. Examples from the 18th and 19th centuries tend to be either plate or pierced in style, the design restricted only by the designer's imagination: flags, birds, scrolls, objects relevant to location or theme... That said, there is some degree of consistency: keys, geometry dividers and levels, swords, triangles, eyes, ears, mouths, moons, crosses and doves of peace are commonly recurring emblems.

Such recurrence extends to the larger items. Glassware, crockery, cutlery, silver tableware - most, such as the three silver elephant cigar lighters, and cribbage board, is entirely functional. Some pieces, however, represent ostentation at its grandest, although presumably the 9.5-gallon, Chinese export porcelain, True Friendship Punchbowl of 1813 - possibly the world's largest - once saw service.

And on the subject of superlatives, the star of the show must be the Sussex Plate - a huge 19th-century centre-piece made from 2,020 ounces of silver and with a footprint of one metre square. Other objects are no less impressive: towering Liverpool creamware jugs, some 45cm tall, with a girth of 75cm, are decorated with minutely intricate transfers; and don't miss the equally dazzling Sunderland jugs of 1830 in yellow and black canary lustre.

Some pieces have been used but once - ceremonial trowels for laying foundations, such as that used at Hammersmith Bridge in 1827. No less attention to detail is lavished on them, and no matter how intricate the engraving, those recurring emblems inevitably appear. And yet, like every other item here, their design is, for all that, perfectly unique.

LESSON IDEA

Design a jewel for a lodge of your choice: a place, a club or simply a group of people with similar interests. Be sure to include some of the commonly recurring items mentioned and consider, perhaps, why they might be relevant.

www.freemasonry.london.museum; tel: 020 7395 9257. Free admission. The museum is best suited to students in Year 10 and above. Sketching is permitted. Themed displays, such as sport, are occasionally mounted. Guided tours are available, telephone to check

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