Nereid and child

WB.155     1550–1600 or before 1872 • Enamelled gem-set gold, ‘baroque’ pearls • pendant

Old and new elements appear to be bolted together on this jewel, which is constructed around two ‘baroque’ pearls.

Curator's Description

Pendant jewel; gold; set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies; form of a Nereid with child, bodies of Baroque pearls with white enamel; Nereid holds cornucopia-shaped torch, set with stones; tail curved towards left shoulder; two pendant rubies and a pearl hang from lower edge; suspended by chain.

This object was previously owned by Mount Charles and Elizabeth Conyngham, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

4.4 cm wide, 9.2 cm high, 1.3 cm deep, and it weighs 52g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Italian or German, late 16th century.

Provenance: From the Collection of Lady Conyngham formed before 1830 (see Introduction, pp. 19-20); by descent to the Countess of Mount Charles, who lent the jewel to the Exhibition of Jewellery, South Kensington Museum, 1872, no. 211, and again to the Exhibition of Enamels, South Kensington Museum, 1874, no. 416.

Commentary: This exceptional Renaissance jewel possesses a remarkably expressive quality. It is conceived as a miniature sculpture in the round and, indeed, is an outstanding example of émail en ronde bosse. The faces of the Nereid and child are turned close together so that tender glances seem to be exchanged, as if to encourage the struggling child to keep erect on its weak legs.

The goldsmith has not used the 'baroque' pearls in the round. Instead, he has set them into the torso of each figure, and so has been able to exercise a greater control over the sculptural effect; by using the white-enamelled gold to unite the two figures at shoulder level, he has created a most effective sense of unity and interdependence between them. This quality is continued on the reverse where the arms and legs are expressively modelled.

Very few similar jewels of the Renaissance have survived with a well-documented history. Two of the most accomplished have, fortunately, been preserved in the treasuries of two of the major German princely families. The first is a figure group representing the rape of Deianira by the centaur, Nessus, which has survived (without its original setting) in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden. The unknown goldsmith has expressively conveyed the entwined movements of the two bodies as the centaur leaps forward but twists his torso round and flings his right arm around the back of Deianira, whose body is largely composed of a 'baroque' pearl. It is a masterpiece of miniature sculpture, in which the anonymous goldsmith has used little but white enamel expertly modelled, gold finely chased (as for the hair) and a 'baroque' pearl interpreted with imagination (J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe’, vol. III, ‘Kleinodien der goldscheidekunst’, Leipzig, 1929, p. 169, pl. 2, no. 1).

The second extant example was made to form the stem of a rock-crystal covered cup in the Kunstkammer of the Dukes of Württemberg (see M. Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum, Stuttgart’, Pfullingen, 1973, p. 7, col. pl. 31), but is in no way different from the large pendant jewels that were conceived in the round as miniature works of sculpture. The stem of the cup is a brilliant achievement, for the irregularities of the one large 'baroque' pearl have been interpreted as the two bodies of the Triton and Nereid, so inextricably conjoined in their passionate embrace that the two figures have become one. Only their gold and white-enamelled heads, shoulders and limbs can be identified as they form a delicate support for the rock-crystal cylinder in its gold and polychrome-enamelled mounts incorporating the six seated émail en ronde bosse figures of the Virtues. The author of this rather Italianate, late sixteenth-century masterpiece, which was first recorded in the 1643 inventory of the Duchess Barbara Sophia of Württemberg, is not known, and, of course, the links between the Medici court in Florence and the artists and craftsmen of Southern Germany, particularly in Augsburg and Munich, were very close at this time. The recent attribution of these two works to a goldsmith of “Augsburg, c.1590” (see Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, pp. 175-8, figs 479-80) is made without any documentary evidence to support it.

Another mermaid pendant jewel which is very similar to the Waddesdon jewel is preserved in the ancient Danish Royal Collections at Rosenborg, Copenhagen. It incorporates the 'baroque' pearl in the torso in identical fashion, and the white-enamelled head, shoulders and arms are very similar in modelling and detail; the gem-set mirror in the mermaid's left hand is, however, different, although it may not be entirely in its original state. Of course, the origin of this jewel cannot now be determined from the archives, but it may have come from Germany, like the court designer, Corvinianus Saur, who in 1613 was appointed by King Christian IV (reigned 1588-1648) after joining the goldsmiths' guild in Copenhagen under the King's aegis in 1596. However, another historic jewel in the Danish Royal Collections, which is more firmly associated with Corvinianus Saur's work for the King, is the highly individual, emblematic pendant in the form of a crane as the symbol of Vigilantia (see H. C. Bering Lüsberg, ‘Christian den Fjerde og Guldsmedene’, Copenhagen, 1929, pls X-XI, CIV-XVI; Charles Beard, The Lion Jewel, ‘The Connoisseur’, 101, 1938, pp. 72-7). Its importance in this context lies in the jeweller's use of more than the usual single large 'baroque' pearl for the body of the crane; in the raised leg of the bird, for example, there is another 'baroque' pearl, whilst in its raised claws is placed yet a third - according to legend, if the crane should fall asleep the pearl in its claws would be dropped and thereby reawaken the bird immediately. The gem-set wings of the crane, together with the sophisticated enamelled design on the reverse of the pendant, prove that this royal commission exacted from the jeweller the highest level of craftsmanship. It seems most unlikely that the jewel would have been made anywhere but in the Danish court workshop but Corvinianus Saur's years of training in Augsburg probably played a part in achieving this handsome solution.

The same uncertainty of origin now hangs over the closely related Winged Siren with Tuba, which has survived as the finial to the cover of an Italian (Milan?) jasper standing cup, made for Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, and included in the Munich Schatzkammer by 1637 (see Hans Thoma, ‘Kronen und Kleinodien’, Munich, 1955, p. 30, pl. 80, for an excellent detail photograph of this jewel). The head and neck of the Siren are in the form of a finely carved hyacinth cameo, whereas the hair, shoulders, arms and torso are made of white-enamelled gold; the enamelled abdomen and tail are set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds in a carefully graduated order of diminishing size. Although the jewel does not incorporate a 'baroque' pearl, the way in which the hyacinth head is set within the enamelled gold is very similar indeed; furthermore, the sense of movement and the expressive grace of the Siren's left arm and hand resting on its curving tail are not unrelated to the expressive qualities observed in the little Nereid and Child jewel. Hitherto, the Siren in the Munich Schatzkammer has always been attributed to an Italian workshop, perhaps in Milan, c. 1570, but recently it has been proposed that, although the carved hyacinth cameo head is the work of a Milanese artist, the goldsmith's work is Germanic and, therefore, it “may have been the result of a harmonious co-operation between Milanese gem-cutters and German jewellers at the court of Rudolph 11 in Prague' (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 196, fig. 544). The case for abandoning the well-established attribution of the Siren commesso jewel, with Italian hyacinth cameo head and its truly sculptural qualities, has yet to be convincingly made and, therefore, the possibility remains of an Italian origin for the Nereid and Child jewel.

Another related jewel with an excellent history is the Crowned Mermaid pendant that incorporates a 'baroque' pearl within the enamelled gold torso of the figure. It was among the jewels inherited by Anna Maria Ludovica de' Medici, sister of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Electress Palatine; upon her return from the Palatinate she gave these jewels to Florence, but after her death in 1743 they were transferred to Vienna by order of the Emperor Francis, husband of Maria-Teresa. Eighty-three of these jewels were returned to Florence in 1923 and the Crowned Mermaid (now in the Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti, Florence) was one of them; consequently, it could have been made towards the end of the sixteenth century either in Italy at the court of the Medici or in one of the major court workshops north of the Alps. Most recently the jewel has been published as “c. 1580” (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 240, fig. 642, where the author suggests it “may also belong to this group” - that is, a group created by Netherlandish artists and craftsmen).

In some respects the nearest parallels to the Nereid and Child jewel occur, albeit on a far grander scale, on the famous Double-tailed Winged Siren pendant in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden. This outstandingly beautiful court jewel has, most recently, been attributed to a Hamburg goldsmith, Ruprecht Miller, who in 1600 went to Sweden and worked at the Swedish court for about twenty years (see Hackenbroch 1979, pp. 212 f., fig. 593 A-B, where it is argued that, on stylistic grounds, the Dresden Double-tailed Siren jewel can be related to the gold enamelled pierced relief on the ceremonial saddle mounts intended for the coronation of King Gustav II Adolph in 1617). Neither this late date nor this new attribution to Miller seems yet to have been conclusively established and, consequently, the origin of that Dresden masterpiece remains an open question. Although it does not incorporate a 'baroque' pearl, the translucent enamelled scaly body and tails are not only similar in execution and design but, on the front, are set with gemstones in a similar fashion. Indeed, the tails are terminated in the same way and each is set with a triangular-shaped gemstone, whilst the elegantly modelled head of the Siren is set with a gem-stone above the forehead in a manner that is strongly reminiscent of the Waddesdon Nereid.

Two further pendants in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, may be cited, for although they do not incorporate any 'baroque' pearls, they are both composed of pairs of female figures joined in embrace. The figures are allegorical: on one jewel they represent Prudence and Simplicity, if the inscription on the black-enamelled band across the reverse is accurate; on the other jewel they represent Justice and Peace. Both jewels have been largely stripped of their gem-stones, pendant pearls and, even, of significant details (like the attributes held by the figures and one of the two diamond-set obelisks at the side); nevertheless, the gold enamelled pierced scrollwork and quasi-architectural elements still form a background to the two pairs of seated figures. Each pair is shown with an arm around the other's shoulder, and in this respect an effect similar to that on the Waddesdon Nereid and Child jewel has been attempted by the goldsmith. Furthermore, each of the heads of the four allegorical figures is set with a gemstone above the forehead, and the modelling of the heads is not dissimilar (Sponsel 1929, p. 170, pl. 2, nos 4-5).

The attribution “German, sixteenth century” published in Read 1902 would therefore still seem to be the most likely, since comparable material has survived in the ancient collections of Saxony and Württemberg, and even the Munich Winged Siren with Tuba and the Medici pendant of the Crowned Mermaid (in the Palazzo Pitti) may be the work of a goldsmith from north of the Alps. Read's opinion was modified (without explanation) in Dalton 1927, where the Nereid and Child jewel was published as “German or Spanish, sixteenth century”. However, in the absence of any comparable jewels of known Spanish origin or, even, comparable designs for jewellery among the Barcelona Llibres de Passanties, there seems to be no justification for the attribution to a Spanish workshop; of course, the international quality of much of the best jewellery of this type c. 1600 makes any firm attribution almost impossible, but in so far as the evidence exists, it would seem that a German origin is the most likely, although an Italian or, more specifically, a Florentine influence cannot be discounted.

In Evans 1970 this jewel was illustrated and in addition to being described as “probably German, c. 1580” (see caption to pl. 82c) it was closely associated with the designs of Erasmus Hornick, particularly “in that the Nereid it represents is mounted by a little figure in enamelled gold”. Although none of the published designs by this Antwerp-born goldsmith can be directly related to the jewel, it does seem probable that its distinctive characteristics are part of the ornamental vocabulary that was evolved in the Antwerp-Augsburg-Nuremberg milieu of the mid-sixteenth century. Hornick spent much of his life in Augsburg, from his marriage there in 1555 until shortly before his death in 1583 (while at Rudolf II's court in Prague), but for the seven years 1559-65 he was resident in Nuremburg while his series of pattern books of design for both jewellers and goldsmiths was being published. The distribution of these books helped to establish the vogue for the kind of Antwerp Mannerist style that Hornick had mastered as a young man and which became so fashionable in many centres in Germany. Dame Joan Evans also cites, as evidence of the spread of this fashion to England, the gift to Queen Elizabeth I on New Year's Day 1574 of a jewel of a mermaid with a maiden on her back (Nichols, 1, p. 379); there is no indication where this jewel had been made, but it is an indication of the popularity of this type of subject for court jewellery by the 1570s.


  • ‘Catalogue of an Exhibition of Jewellery’, South Kensington Museum, London, 1872, no. 211
  • ‘Catalogue of an Exhibition of Enamels’, South Kensington Museum, London, 1874, no. 416
  • 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. 155, pl. XXXVI
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 155
  • Joan Evans, ‘A History of Jewellery, 110-1870’, London, 1953 (rev. edn 1970), p. 111, pl. 82c
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 26, pls. XX, XXI, figs. 139-141
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.224-229.

    A similar pendant can be seen on a portrait of Máire Rua O'Brien (c.1615-1686), by a follower of Gilbert Jackson painted c.1635-40 in a private collection. See 'Portraits and People : Art in Seventeenth Century Ireland', Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 2010, pp.106-108.

  • 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 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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