Nautilus cup

WB.116     1600–1650, later alterations to stem and foot • Shell: Nautilus pompilius, mounts: silver-gilt • standing cup

Curator's Description

Standing cup; nautilus shell mounted in silver, embossed and chased; cup has band round lip, engraved with scrolls; serrated edge; supported at sides by two bands, representing tritons holding dolphins; band formed of mask of Pan on front; top, figure of Neptune on horseback; baluster stem with lion masks and brackets; base, sea-monsters in cartouches with fruit between; inscribed.

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

How big is it?

19.6 cm wide, 29.1 cm high, 9.6 cm deep, and it weighs 593g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: Probably Dutch, first half of 17th century, with some later alterations. None of the three punch-marks can be identified.

Marks: The underside of the foot-rim is punched (close to the rim) with three marks, the top edges of which are lost:

(i) A bird within a shaped shield; perhaps the town-mark.

(ii) A letter D, with a plain shield-shaped punch; probably the date-letter.

(hi) An unidentified device, perhaps a tree (?); probably the mark of the unidentified maker.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: The carving of this nautilus shell is exceptionally ambitious and accomplished, illustrating to perfection the seventeenth-century Dutch technique described by Georg Rumphius (published posthumously in his life's work, ‘D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer’, Amsterdam, 1705). The importance of Rumphius' contribution, as a resident on the island of Amboina (Moluccas) since 1656, is discussed in WB.114 (see curatorial comment) and so it is necessary to repeat only his brief statement about this particular form of carving: “once the shells are clean [that is, stripped to the nacreous layer], they are cut through where the little chambers are so that the furtherest four or five become openwork, the three or four nearest being completely cut away, and in the innermost curl a small open helm is cut . . .”. Although Rumphius goes on to state that a crest and mantling can be added to the visored helm, he describes neither the tools nor the method of cutting through the delicately thin walls of these inner chambers of diminishing size, all of which have an interconnecting tube which finally links to the octopus-like creature that inhabits the wide mouth of the shell. Through this tube, the creature controls the gaseous content in the various chambers and thus, it is said, helps to control the rise and fall and general movement of the shell itself within the water.

Few nautili decorated with these pierced helms have survived, but those with well-documented histories or identifiable engraved decoration are all convincingly attributable to Dutch workshops, such as the Amsterdam atelier belonging to three or perhaps four generations of the Belquin family (see W. H. van Seters, Oud-Nederlandse Parelmoerkunst: het Werk van Leden der Familie Belquin, Parelmoergraveurs en Schilders in de 17e Eeuw, ‘Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jarboek’, 1958, pp. 173-238). The founder of this dynasty was Jérémie Belquin, who in 1604 had left Metz to settle in Utrecht as a 'monteur d'arquebuses' but by 1608 had moved to Amsterdam, where he was described as both 'monteur et graveur de musquets', ivory and mother-of-pearl (often engraved) being favourite materials for the decoration of guns at this period. His son Jean was active in Amsterdam as a 'graveur en inegger van parelmoer' ('engraver and inlayer of mother-of-pearl') and had three wives; of his several sons, Claes became a well-known painter at Kampen and Copenhagen but Johannes (Jan), who was born within months of his father's death in 1636, became an accomplished ‘parelmoergraveur' in Amsterdam, as is demonstrated by his only known fully signed nautilus shell, long since preserved in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). It is signed ‘Jan Belkien’ (in the foreground of one of the three roundels with putti). The Sloane Collection, acquired by the nation upon his death in 1753, formed the nucleus of the British Museum at its inception in 1753, and only in 1883 was this masterpiece by Jan Belkien transferred from Bloomsbury with the rest of the shell collections to the newly built British Museum (Natural History) in Cromwell Road, South Kensington. This signed nautilus shell (Sloane Collection no. 1880) not only combines a truly sophisticated scrolling acanthus pattern in the cameo technique with three densely crowded figure scenes engraved (and blackened) in the nacreous layer, but also has a pierced, openwork helm at the very centre of the

inner curl of the shell. Nothing is known of Jan Belkien's life nor the date of his death, but on grounds of style this tour de force appears to date from the beginning of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. It can be compared with a slightly less ambitiously carved nautilus in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, which is signed 'C. Bellekin f' (the signature of that most famous shell engraver of the family, Cornelis Bellekin, probably a brother or cousin of Jan); it has cameo carving in the form of vine scrolls on the exterior, a pierced helm on the inner curl, and black engraved mantling and crest immediately above (see W. H. van Seters, op. cit., pp. 200 f, figs 17-18). Again, on stylistic evidence this shell can be dated to the earlier period of Cornelis Bellekin's oeuvre, probably before the end of the third quarter of the seventeenth century.

A more certain dating, c. 1654 or very soon after, can be given to one further example of the rare pierced openwork helm at the centre of the inner curl of a nautilus shell: the famous Admiral Tromp shell, preserved in Sir Hans Sloane's collection (no. 60) and now in the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington. This shell is very finely engraved (and blackened) with representations of the two famous Dutch Admirals, Martin Harpertzoon Tromp (on the one side) and Michael de Ruyter (on the other), who both fought historic naval battles with the English fleet during the Cromwellian Commonwealth and, in the case of Tromp, suffered death - and the defeat of his force - at the hands of Monck's blockading fleet off The Hague on 31 July 1653. On the Sloane nautilus, the depiction of Tromp as Neptune holding both the trident and the rudder while seated in a shell drawn by seahorses is copied from an allegorical copper engraving of 1654 signed : “C. Holsteyn fecit; C. van Dalen sculpsit; Wouter Muller excudit.” The decoration of the shell is as much a work of virtuosity for the fineness of the black engraving as for the cameo heads of the two admirals subtly and successfully carved in low relief - an almost impossible feat within the thin nacreous layer of the shell.

Equally, the piercing of the inner chambers of the curl of the nautilus shell to create the openwork helm (and adjacent decorative motifs) is daringly executed and, despite the losses due to subsequent damage, is still very impressive. Even though it is no longer as complete as the example in the Waddesdon Bequest, the Admiral Tromp nautilus shell is strikingly similar and helps to confirm the attribution of this silver-mounted example to a Dutch workshop, probably in Amsterdam.

This attribution is reinforced by the striking evidence of the historic 'Nautiluspokal aus dem Hamburger Ratssilber' (Renate Scholz, ‘Goldschmiedearbeiten: Renaissance und Barock’, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 1974, p. 92, no. 29, col. pl. (cover), illus. on p. 55). This beautiful tall cup (H. 42 cm), made for Christian, Graf zu Egch, entered the civic plate collection of the city of Hamburg in 1707 after his death and is now preserved in the Hamburg Museum (inv. no. 1963. 57). The masterly cameo carving of the exterior of the nautilus shell is matched by the accomplished pierced openwork of the knight's helm on the inner curl; fortunately, the exterior decoration incorporates a dated signature under the crown (on the front of the shell): “P.G. 16. 52 den 20. Mert.” The unknown monogrammist P.G. has been discussed in relation to the productive Amsterdam workshop of the Bellekin family (see M. Meinz, Ein Nautiluspokal aus dem Hamburger Ratssilber, ‘Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen’, 9, 1964, pp. 17-28, with illus.), and its Netherlandish origin in 1652 now seems securely established, whereas its silver-gilt mounts were made almost fifty years later on and are the work of a Hamburg goldsmith, Johann Wilhelm Heymann (master 1699, died 1732).

The silver foot and stem of the Waddesdon Bequest cup are not entirely in their original state (as mentioned under Condition), but a fair impression of the design of the missing section (at the join of the foot and stem) can be gained from the comparable, but unmarked, silver cup now set with a nautilus shell signed “J. Bellekien” and probably carved c. 1660 (formerly in the Private Dutch collection of Mr J. W. Frederiks - see W. H. van Seters, op. cit., p. 190, fig. 11; also J. W. Frederiks, ‘Dutch Silver’, 4 vols., The Hague, IV, 1961, p. 13, no. 23, pl. 30). The inner curl of the shell is carved with an openwork pierced helm and the exterior is engraved with scenes from the set of prints, ‘Het Boerenleven’, by Pieter Quast (c. 1606-47) and, in between, with moths and insects based on prints of 1630 by D.J. Hoefnagel in ‘Diversae Insectarun Volatilium Icones’. However, it is possible that the silver foot and stem might have been made earlier in the seventeenth century - perhaps to support a plain nautilus shell of the type preserved in this Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup - but in neither of the earlier publications is Bellekien's signed shell described as a later addition.

Another nautilus cup, acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1953, is also unmarked but is considered to be late sixteenth-century Dutch work (see Th. M. Duyvené de Wit-Klinkhamer, Een Hollandse Nautilusbeker, ‘Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum’, I, 1953, pp. 25-30; also, Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 9, no. 15, pl. 19, where it is again dated to the sixteenth century and attributed to an anonymous goldsmith in Delft). Indeed, it can be compared with another undated, but similar, silver nautilus-shell cup, which is struck with the Delft town-mark (preserved in the Municipal Museum, Delft; see Frederiks IV, 1961, p. 10, no. 17, pl. 21). Both these standing-cups have a number of features that can be related to the Waddesdon Bequest cup, though both seem markedly earlier in most respects.

The previous description of this Waddesdon Bequest cup as “Flemish or German, about 1590” in Read 1902 and Dalton 1927, seems therefore no longer as tenable as before. The set of three punch-marks (on the underside of the foot-rim) still provides no solution. Firstly, the mark with a bird (in profile to the left) within a shield cannot be convincingly read as the town-mark of The Hague, which is a stork and is almost invariably under a large crown. Although the stork is not always clearly recognisable as such - and, unfortunately, the mark on the Waddesdon Bequest cup is also indistinct - nevertheless, the shape of the shield coincides only with a mid-seventeenth-century series of The Hague town-marks, in which case the date-letter mark, D, would stand for 1656. Such a late date would seem to conflict with the stylistic evidence of the remainder of the cup, which probably points to a date before the second third of the seventeenth century. Secondly, the maker's mark (a tree?) is as yet unrecorded among those of The Hague (see E. Voet, ‘Merken van Haagsche goud- en zilversmeden’, The Hague, 1941, pp. 157-9, 231-5; also, ‘Haags zilver uit vijf eeuwen’, exh. cat., Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1967, nos 12 and 23, with photographs of the marks for 1607 and 1643 respectively; moreover, the earlier of the two, no. 12, is a fashionably mounted nautilus-shell standing-cup that serves only to emphasise the inferior and, perhaps, old-fashioned character of the Waddesdon Bequest cup).

The recent discovery, during a thorough investigation of the reverse of the silver mounts of the Waddesdon Bequest cup, of the incised initials MI, repeated in seven different places, may help to confirm the impression that the lightly engraved heart containing the letters MI (on the openwork lug at the front of the calyx) is a later addition. If the seven 'hidden' sets of the initials MI (on the inner surfaces of the mounts) are those of a repairer, then perhaps he was also responsible for adding his initials in one inconspicuous place on the exterior. The silver mounts, although typical of the more conservative trends in early seventeenth-century Dutch silver, are no longer in their original condition. Indeed, the foot-rim, which bears the intriguing set of three unidentified marks, may have been added to enhance its value as a collector's item during the nineteenth century, when the mounts were repaired.


  • 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. 116
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 116
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.8, figs. 97-102
  • Hanns-Ulrich Mette, 'Der Nautiluspokal : Wie Kunst und Natur Miteinander Spielen', Klinkhardt & Bierman, Munich, 1995, no. 59
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.270-271.
  • 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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