Why Did Queen Victoria Want the Rothschilds to Buy this Precious Jewel?
The Grenville Jewel is a precious locket made in England during the 17th century. It has a rather strange story; one which begins with a Royalist general, involves Queen Victoria and a member of the Rothschild family, and ends at the British Museum.
The locket contains a miniature, said to be that of Sir Bevil Grenville, a Royalist general form Cornwall. The Grenville Jewel was given by the Royalist commander to his wife. After the death of the latter, the locket passed on to her daughter. The precious object remained within the family for several generations, until it was acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Eventually, the Grenville Jewel, along with about 300 other pieces from Rothschild’s collection, was bequeathed to the British Museum, upon Rothschild’s death in 1898. This assemblage is known as the Waddesdon Bequest, and has been on display in the British Museum since 1900.
A Locket Covered in Precious Stones
The Grenville Jewel is estimated to have been made between 1635 and 1640. The locket is oval in shape, and made of gold. The exterior of the locket’s casing was decorated using champlevé, an enameling technique. In addition, the Grenville Jewel is decorated with a number of precious stones, including a large square sapphire in the center of the casing’s front side, rubies, emeralds, opals, diamonds, and a pearl pendant.
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The front and back casing of the Grenville Jewel. Source: Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0
The Man Inside the Locket
Inside the Grenville Jewel is the miniature of a man painted on a piece of vellum laid on card with watercolor. Based on the artist’s signature, we know that the miniature was painted by David des Granges, a Huguenot artist. The man depicted in the miniature is bearded, is shown in a suit of armor, and has been identified as Sir Bevil Grenville, a member of the English gentry. Grenville owned large estates in Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset. Between 1621 and 1629, Grenville served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for either the county of Cornwall or the borough of Launceston, and thus spent much time in London. Between 1629 and 1640, Charles I ruled without a Parliament. When the Long Parliament was convened in November 1640, Grenville served once more as the MP for Cornwall. This time, however, Grenville chose to be absent from Parliament for much of the time.
The miniature portrait of Sir Bevil Grenville. ( Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
In the two years leading up to the English Civil War (which began in 1642), Grenville’s absence from Parliament enabled him to raise a large amount of money. As a result of this, when the civil war broke out, Grenville was able to raise a regiment of Cornish foot soldiers to fight for the Royalist cause. This became one of the most effective fighting forces on the Royalist side during the early part of the war. For example, Grenville led his men in an uphill charge at the Battle of Braddock Down in January 1643, which won the battle for the Royalists. Unfortunately, in July 1643, Grenville received a mortal wound during the Battle of Lansdowne, and died from it the day after.
Sir Bevil Grenville's Monument, Landsdown Hill, near Bath, Somerset, England. (Ballista/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Grenville Jewel’s Owners
According to one source, the Grenville Jewel was given by Grenville to his wife, Lady Dame Grace Smith, shortly before his death at the Battle of Lansdowne. In 1647, Grace died, and the locket was mentioned in her will. This object was inherited by her eldest daughter, Lady Elizabeth Prideaux. It was then passed on to her nephew, Charles Harward, when she died. As Harward died without issue, the Grenville Jewel was inherited by his sister, Catherine, the wife of Arthur Chichester. It was during this time that, apparently, the locket caught the eye of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. In 1880, Chichester supposedly received a letter from Queen Victoria requesting him to sell the object to Rothschild. It is not clear why she intervened in such a manner and to this day it remains a mystery why she petitioned Chichester on Rothschild’s behalf. Having little choice in the matter, the Grenville Jewel was sold for £1,000 ($1355).
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In 1898, Rothschild died and part of his collection, which included the Grenville Jewel, was bequeathed to the British Museum. This collection became known as the Waddesdon Bequest, and it has been on display in the museum since 1900. Since 2015, the Grenville Jewel has been exhibited in Room 2a of the museum, which is a newly-designed gallery for the objects Rothschild donated.
Three other objects in the Waddesdon Bequest: The ‘Cellini’ bell, a turquoise glass goblet, and a statue of Omphale. ( Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
Top image: Detail of precious stones adorning the Grenville Jewel. ( Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
By Wu Mingren
Brown, M., 2015. The Rothschild treasures given centre stage at the British Museum. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/11605250/The-Rothschild-treasures-given-centre-stage-at-the-British-Museum.html
Plant, D., 2014. Sir Bevil Grenville, 1596-1643. [Online]
Available at: http://bcw-project.org/biography/sir-bevil-grenville
The British Museum, 2017. miniature / locket. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=38300&partId=1
The British Museum, 2017. The Grenville Jewel. [Online]
Available at: http://wb.britishmuseum.org/MCN4892#1612999887
The British Museum, 2017. The Waddesdon Bequest. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/galleries/themes/room_2a_waddesdon_bequest.aspx