Nautilus cup

WB.115     1594 • Shell: Nautilus pompilius, mounts: silver-gilt • standing cup

Curator's Description

Standing cup; nautilus shell mounted in silver, gilt and chased; cup has broad band round lip, engraved on outside with sea-monsters; supported at sides by two bands, representing tritons holding dolphins; front with band formed of mask of Pan; back with fish, from which issue waves supporting Neptune on horseback holding spear; stem in form of figure of Neptune riding a sea-monster and holding a trident and conch; foot embossed with men tilting on backs of sea-monsters; inscribed.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

13.5 cm wide, 22.9 cm high, 8 cm deep, and it weighs 424g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: Probably Utrecht, 1594. Previously catalogued as bearing only one silver punch-mark - wrongly identified in Rosenberg 1928 as a date-letter stamp in use in Antwerp (R35111). This cup is published, for the first time, as bearing a complete set of three punch-marks: the town-mark of Utrecht(?), the date-letter of 1594(?), and a maker's mark, GK(?), over an illegible device.

Marks: The set of three marks are struck close together over the engraved decoration on the narrowest part of the rim-mount towards the end (on the right-hand side when the cup is viewed from the front); the marks were struck one above the other because, although they now appear to be in a horizontal line, they are turned on their side.

The town-mark is in the middle:

(i) Assay mark for Utrecht (in the form of a shield bearing the arms of Utrecht; R3768I and E. Voet, jun., 'Nederlands goud- end zilvermerken', The Hague, 1978, Utrecht no. 2 or 3).

(ii) Date-letter, an X (within a waisted-shaped punch), probably for 1594.

NB: Although the pre-1596 cycles have not survived in the records, nevertheless it is accepted that in Utrecht the use of date-letters (in addition to the town-mark) became obligatory after the decree of 1507 (see J. H. Leopold in 'Dutch Silver, 1580-1830', exh. cat., ed. A.L. den Blaauwen, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1979, p. xxxvii). The first date-letter cycle for Utrecht set out in Voet 1978, p. 38, commences with the year 1596 (the letter A). On the evidence of this and the following cycle it is clear that only twenty-two letters were used in each cycle, and that from among the letters U, V, Y and Z three would be chosen for omission. Consequently, the letter X of the cycle preceding 1596 would have been for the year 1594 - and, indeed, it is stated in Voet 1978 (p. 75, fn. 85) that a piece of ecclesiastical plate bearing an inscription and the date 1591 is marked with the date-letter T.

(iii) Unidentified maker's mark: G K (?) above an illegible device.

The assay sample for testing the purity of the silver was taken from the corresponding area on the opposite side of the rim-mount, leaving a 'wriggle-mark' that has largely obliterated the engraved eel-like creature swimming in the water behind the ferocious fish; another assay sample was taken from the underside of the base.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: This highly sculptural Mannerist work of the late sixteenth century is the creation of an unidentified goldsmith, whose workshop was probably in Utrecht, then a major centre in the Netherlands' revolt against the rule of Philip II of Spain (died 1598). Fortunately, it may be compared with one other surviving nautilus cup from Utrecht bearing the date-letter A (for 1596) and the maker's mark (a cockleshell) of Jan Jacobsz van Royesteyn, preserved since 1973 in the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (see J. W. Frederiks, ‘Dutch Silver’, 4 vols., The Hague, IV, 1961, p. 20, no. 35, pl. 44; J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, p. 289, pl. 618; ‘Dutch Silver 1580-1830’, ed. A. L. den Blaauwen, The Hague, 1979, p. 16, no. 7). The history of this equally sculptural cup (H. 29 cm approx.) is not well documented, although it appears that thirty-eight years after it had been made it was depicted in a still life by Pieter Claesz dated 1634 (in the Landesmuseum, Münster) and that by the early nineteenth century it was already in England, because the underside of the foot is inscribed: “To Chas. F. Forbes from his very sincere friend Castlereagh 15 March 1830.” At some stage this cup lost its original nautilus shell, for it is known that while it was in the William Randolph Hearst Collection (sold at Christie's in 1938) it had a silver-gilt substitute for the shell. The present nautilus shell is, therefore, a modern replacement that predates the sale of the cup from the Lamon Collection (Christie's in 1973) but the mounts, apart from being regilt and the subject of a few minor repairs, like the modern sword and shield held by the finial figure, are in good condition.

The oval domed base is designed and fashioned in an almost identical manner to that on the Waddesdon Bequest example, although the embossed and chased watery scene filled with marine creatures lacks specific scenes of combat, or even such individual figures as the youth playing a harp. However, the design for a smooth integration and attachment of the sculptural stem - a satyr riding a dolphin - is the same. Again, the satyr acts as a caryatid: partly with both arms raised to support the sides of the shell, and partly with his head bowed forward so that a conch shell resting on the back of his neck between his shoulders can be soldered to the small calyx beneath the shell. This solution is perhaps more contrived and, artistically, less satisfactory than the one devised by the goldsmith G K (?) on the Waddesdon Bequest version. The two strap-mounts on either side of the shell are of a very similar design and, significantly, the elaborate strap-mount at the front is joined on to the lambrequin border without extending up as far as the projecting moulding. The shape of the engraved lip is similar and the set of three marks are punched in a wider, and slightly more conspicuous, part of the lip on top of the engraved stormy sea with its ferocious marine creatures and sinking ships. Only the rear strap-mount differs substantially in design, with its fearsomely spiky marine monster terminating in open jaws that incorporate the inner curl and valve of the nautilus shell itself (WB.114). The half-standing and half-kneeling bearded figure balancing on top of the monster's head is very similar to the two riders on the Waddesdon Bequest cup, and if both cups date from the mid-1590s it is highly probable that in Utrecht any two goldsmiths making similar mounted shell cups would be deriving their ideas from a common source. Each has introduced individual variations, but essentially all the main elements of this sculptural type of standing-cup incorporating the nautilus shell are the same.

Another rare Dutch nautilus cup of the early 1590s has survived in the Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft, and it exhibits all the same basic features of construction and many similar elements of decorative design (see ‘Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum’, Amsterdam, 1960, p. 93; Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 9, no. 16, pl. 20; Hernmarck 1977, no. 168). Although it bears no maker's mark, this cup (H. 27 cm) is struck with the town-mark of Delft and the date-letter B for 1592 and evidently came to England in the middle of the seventeenth century, for it is included in the famous still life known as ‘The Paston Treasure’ (in the Castle Museum, Norwich) which was painted soon after Sir William Paston's death in 1663. Not only is the form of the oval foot very similar to the Waddesdon Bequest example but the stem is, again, wholly sculptural. It consists of two satyrs, standing back to back on top of a turtle and making music. Both are caryatid figures, for on each head rests a scallop shell and these two scallop shells form the calyx beneath the nautilus shell, to which the four vertical strap-mounts are attached - as on the Waddesdon Bequest cup. The rear mount terminates in a monster's head (ridden by a bearded nude figure) and its open jaws are fashioned around the inner curl of the nautilus shell - as on the 1596 Utrecht cup in Toledo, Ohio. Again, this 1592 cup in Delft has a lambrequin border, an engraved lip and, on either side, a rosette and bolt to fasten the mounts together.

It is interesting to note that the elaborate vertical strap-mount at the front of the shell on the 1592 Delft cup overlaps the lambrequin border and projects upwards in front of the rim-mount. This is a feature of the few extant nautilus cups known to have been made in the Netherlands around 1600, and therefore its presence on the Waddesdon Bequest cup should not cause any concern. However, the damaged and clumsily restored area of the lambrequin border lies hidden beneath the undamaged horned mask on the vertical strap-mount of the London cup, and therefore a restorer would seem to have carefully repaired the strap-mount but spent very little time on the lambrequin border since it would be hidden from view. In the process of restoration the strap-mount may have been altered and, indeed, the 'triple-plumes' motif between the two horns of the mask does seem inconsistent with all known late sixteenth-century designs. As the position of the 'hinge fastening' on the twisted rope moulding does not seem to be original it may be deduced that the strap-mount, instead of being fastened to the lambrequin border, was attached to a slightly higher and perhaps stronger moulding. The state of the strap-mount at the front of the Waddesdon Bequest cup cannot, therefore, be relied upon and may include confusing features that are better disregarded because they relate to the subsequent repairs and alterations.

Whereas stems composed of caryatid tritons or nude mermen riding dolphins can be found on many nautilus-shell cups, it is interesting to note that on one famous German example - the Jupiter nautilus cup mounted C.1600 by Nicolaus Schmidt of Nuremberg (master 1582, died 1609), which since 1822 has been part of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace - the stem is a sculptural caryatid in the form of a finely modelled, bearded, nude rider on a seahorse (see Hayward 1976, p. 382, pl. 473; Hernmarck 1977, no. 164; ‘Wenzel Jamnitzer und die Nürnberger Goldschmiedekunst 1500-1700’, exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1985, p. 360, no. 333, fig. 96 (for the coloured drawing of the cup dated 1610) and fig. 28 (for the cup itself)). When it was bought for George IV at the sale of the Wanstead House Collection in 1822, its true origin had been lost and the marks were no longer recognised, with the inevitable result that it was attributed to Cellini - an attribution recorded in the inventory of William IV (reigned 1830-7).

Similarly, the use of the seahorse as a flamboyant finial mounted on top of the nautilus-shell cup became popular in Germany; a particularly well-documented example, long since given to the University of Uppsala, is the magnificent ewer and basin of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who was killed in battle in 1632 (see H. Seling, ‘Die Kunst de Augsburger Goldschmiede 1529-1868’ 3 vols., Munich, 1980, p. 257, figs 242-3). This piece is the work of an Augsburg goldsmith, Hans Maulbronner, c.1630, and, in the mounting of the shell, represents a rejection of the Antwerp Mannerist style in favour of a more restrained, elegant simplicity; nevertheless, the sculptural element was retained for the finial in the form of a lively seahorse.

By contrast, the Utrecht nautilus-shell cup acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1858 is heavily restored and, therefore, misleading (inv. no. 4868-1858); see C. C. Oman, ‘The Golden Age of Dutch Silver’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1953, no. 11, with illus.; Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 21, no. 37, pl. 46). It bears a set of three marks but they are, most curiously, stamped on the calyx beneath the shell. They are just legible as the town-mark of Utrecht, the lion rampant mark (perhaps of Nicolas van der Kemp, master in 1614) and a date-letter S (for 1613). The nude kneeling figure carrying a trident at the top of the shell is a modern replacement, and neither the rim-mount nor the three strap-mounts are original. The heavy restoration of a nautilus-shell cup before 1858 is, perhaps, no longer regarded as so exceptional a phenomenon; nevertheless, it should be stressed that whenever the pre-nineteenth-century history of a piece has been lost it is essential to have detailed examination (and publication) of its component parts before accepting the visible features as authentic and contemporary with any set of marks that may be punched on one section of the mounts.

Finally, although the date-letter X on this Waddesdon Bequest cup has been tentatively read as the stamp for 1594 in the Utrecht cycle of letters, there remains considerable uncertainty about identifying the precise cycle to which this date-letter may belong, because of the dearth of Utrecht silver bearing sixteenth-century date-letters. In style, the beautifully embossed and chased mounts of this cup could belong to the period around 1570, especially if the workshop was influenced by the prevailing Antwerp Mannerism. Consequently, the earlier date of 1572 for this meticulously fashioned cup cannot be entirely discounted, although comparable pieces from the Netherlands, which are reliably marked, have been dated to the later cycle around the 1590s. Similarly the two famous dated cups with the nautili enriched with applied gemstones made in Rotterdam are dated to the end of the sixteenth century - firstly the 1590 cup (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna - see E. Kris, ‘Golschmeidearbeiten des Mittelalters, der Renaissance und des Barock. I Teil: Arbeiten in Gold und Silber’, Publikationen aus den Kunsthistorischen Summlungen in Wien, Band 5, Vienna, 1932, no. 89, pl. 64, and Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 17, no. 29, pl. 37), and secondly the 1589 cup (Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam – ‘Bulletin Museum Boymans’ 1954, p. 93, and Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 16, no. 28, pl. 36). In this turbulent period of unrest and open revolt against Spanish rule, it is not surprising that the losses among secular goldsmiths' work had been particularly severe and any rare survivals, like this Waddesdon Bequest cup, would be carefully restored and cherished.


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 115, pl. XXVIII
  • Rosenberg, 2nd edn (1911), no. 3908
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 115
  • Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, 3rd edn, Frankfurt, vol. IV, 1928, p. 30, R35111
  • C. Hernmarck, ‘The Art of the European Silversmith, 1430-1830’, 2 vols., Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1977, no. 167
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 70, pl. XIIIB
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.15, pl. V, figs. 87-96
  • Hanns-Ulrich Mette, 'Der Nautiluspokal : Wie Kunst und Natur Miteinander Spielen', Klinkhardt & Bierman, Munich, 1995, no. 58.

    A note from Stuart Forrie to Dora Thornton in August 2009 records that the nautilus shell itself, given by Lord Castlereagh to Sir Charles Fergusson (1779-1852) was bequeathed by the latter to Sir William Martins of St James in his will of 8 November 1850 as a record of Fergusson's friendship with Castlereagh.

  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991
    4. Mette 1995: Mette, Hans-Ulrich, Der Nautiluspokal : Wie Kunst und Natur miteinander spielen, Munich, Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1995

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