Beyond El Dorado: power and gold at the British Museum

As the British Museum launches its show, El Dorado, London's designers discover a love of gold
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Gold alloy mask, 500 BC - AD 1600, from the British Museum's Beyond El Dorado exhibition

Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia runs until March 23, 2013, at the British Museum, WC1 ( Tickets cost £10 — call 020 7323 8181 to book.

A new show at the British Museum highlights the legend of El Dorado, an imagined city of gold in South America, and lays out its reality — with a wondrous array of ancient Colombian gold art and crafts.

London's decorators, designers and makers are joining the gold trail for autumn, using the precious metal to lift interiors and artefacts to levels of über-luxury. Walls sport gold-leaf motifs. Opened cabinets flash gold linings. Gold-covered ceramics are protected by hi-tech glazes, mosaics trap gold under glass, and fabrics and tassels drip with gold thread.

On furniture, gilding is surprisingly durable and baths, basins and curtain poles are lathered with gold leaf. Even humble hinges can be gold-plated.

Gold was prized with good reason by ancient craftsmen for its depth of colour and the way it reflects the light. It doesn't dim or fade. It is dense, durable — yet easily worked.

Frederick Wimsett, based in northwest London (, hand paints detailed Chinoiserie murals with backdrops of gold paint, then adds accents and highlights in 24-carat gold leaf. He says: "Nothing glows quite like real gold — it makes the details really pop." His customers have included fashion designer Alice Temperley, who sells his screens in her Bruton Street shop and commissioned his murals for her Somerset home.

Also with a celebrity clientele, artist Helen Lloyd-Elliott, who fittingly does leaf designs in gold leaf for panels, furniture linings and walls, has adorned Victoria Beckham's French château and Kit Kemp's hotels. Prices start from about £250 a square metre (01300 320 657;


IMAGE GALLERY: brighten up your home with gold


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1. Medallion sofa
By Saly Sirkin Lewis for J Robert Scott, £14,235 from Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, SW10 (
2. Sideboard
Coated in gold leaf with royal blue satin interior, £15,130 from the Longest Stay (
3. Free-standing Bathtub
Free-standing bathtub Tamar bath from Drummonds, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 and Chepstow Place, Notting Hill, W2. (01483 237202;
4. Apple-scented candle
Candle in an enamelled apple, £70 from the Longest Stay (
5. Storage cabinet
Elysée gold-leaf cabinet from Burgbad; £16,222 (
6. Ottoman
Quilted leather ottoman by Bisazza Home, available at Bisazza (
7. Doorknobs and handles
doorknobs and handles Handmade blown glass doorknob with gold leaf from Aaronson Noon, Worlds End Studios, Lots Road, SW10 (020 3005 4602;

Warm to gold's glow
Materials Council ( is a new London consultancy advising architects and designers. Director Brad Turner loves gold for its "extravagant aura of luxury", but also reveals its hidden applications. "Gold is an excellent conductor used in hi-tech devices and computers. There's more gold in a tonne of discarded mobiles than in a similar weight of gold ore — but we go on throwing phones away." Gold is nonreactive and antibacterial — "think implants and teeth". This metal reflects heat and doesn't easily melt — "so it's used in the engines of super-cars and for astronauts' helmets".

London-based Sherry Roberts launched last month, an online sourcebook where everything is for sale, including OTT golden furniture. "Gold brightens autumn with natural sunset hues — mix it with orange and sepia for a winter-warming glow," she says.


A three-panelled appliqué screen from Bisazza, Sloane Ave, SW3 (020 7584 8837;

Designer-makers love to contrast gold with other materials. RCA graduate Ndidi Ekubia ( working at Cockpit Arts in Deptford, lines silver goblets with gold. Ceramic artist Lisa Ellul takes four days to apply gold leaf to the cluster of intricate clay circles of her glazed stoneware bowls (

London glass master Adam Aaronson (now at World's End Studios, SW10; traps gold leaf within glass for bespoke door knobs.

Stitching with gold thread dates back to medieval times. The Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court, a leading exponent of gold work, holds popular metal threadwork courses. The next is over two days in January (£140;; 020 3166 6938).

Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia runs until March 23, 2013, at the British Museum, WC1 ( Tickets cost £10 — call 020 7323 8181 to book.


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