Monster fish and rider

WB.158     1550–1600 or 1820–98 • Enamelled gem-set gold, pearls • pendant

The chains are modern and it belongs to a group which may have been made to deceive. Moulds for monster fish jewels survive from the Paris workshop of Alfred André (1839–1919).

Curator's Description

Pendant jewel; gold; form of monstrous fish, enamelled white and green, set with oblong garnet surrounded by emeralds and amethysts; on side with amethyst, other with lozenge-shaped garnet; warrior with shield and club on back of fish; suspension chain with pendant pearl.

This object was previously owned by Londesborough, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

8 cm wide, 10.2 cm high, 2.3 cm deep, and it weighs 76.5g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

See below for previous Tait catalogue entry from 1986. This object is now thought to be possibly 19th century.

Origin: Spanish, late 16th century(?).

Provenance: Stated to be from the Collection of Lord Londesborough(?) in Read 1902, no. 158. This uncertain provenance was not repeated in Dalton 1927. It is not mentioned in the catalogue of Lord Londesborough's Collection (see F.W. Fairholt, ‘Miscellanea Graphica, Representations of ancient, medieval and renaissance remains in the possession of Lord Londesborough’, London, 1857).

Commentary: The previous attribution of this jewel in Read 1902 and Dalton 1927, “German, late 16th century”, no longer seems tenable in the light of recent publications, especially the evidence of two colour reproductions of the famous pictorial Inventario of Our Lady of Guadalupe, dated c. 1777 (Archivo del Real Monasterio, Guadalupe; see Muller 1972, folio 43, col. pl. VII, and folio 1, col pl. VIII. The monster-fish pendant (folio 43) is remarkably similar to the Waddesdon pendant. There are minor differences, especially in the arrangement and selection of gemstones along the side of the fish, though the same slightly crude effect of large rectangular stones juxtaposed in an unsophisticated manner is re-created; the head and tail of the fish are very similar, and a single fin rises from the ridge along the body of the fish but the rider is missing, although a square recess is cut out of the ridge to receive the figure (already lost before c. 1777).

A second monster-fish pendant is recorded on folio 1 of the Inventario (Muller 1972, col. pl. VII) and, again, it is almost identical with the Waddesdon pendant except for the exact arrangement of the gemstones on the side of the fish. Moreover, this jewel still retained its warrior rider c. 1777; the small figure seated on the ridge in the middle appears to be a native, with bare legs, holding a tiny shield and in his raised hand a primitive-looking spear. Not only is the modelling of the head and the tail of the monster-fish similar, but the scaly body is clearly executed in the same way with white enamel, and a green translucent enamel has also been used on the head and tail; however, the chains and 'cartouche' are different, and there is no pendant pearl shown hanging in the centre.

The latter feature is boldly incorporated into two designs for monster-fish pendants in the Llibres de Passanties in Barcelona: one was submitted by Pere Guardia in 1586 (folio 278) but has neither a rider nor a tail curled into a loop, and the side of the fish is set with only two gemstones; the other drawing submitted by Esteva Gariga, also in 1586 (folio 284), is closer in appearance, with its open jaws and long tongue, its spiky ridge and twisted tail, but, again, there is no rider and only one large gemstone on the side (both drawings are reproduced in Muller 1972, figs 130-1).

However, one example, complete with its native rider, has survived in the Treasure of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (today called Ciudad Trujillo) and can therefore be accepted as sound evidence for the recent Spanish or, more properly, Hispano-American, attribution of this class of jewel. The Late Renaissance jewellery in the Cathedral Treasure, dating from the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, is thought to include pieces formerly in the treasuries of the Mercedes church and that of the Virgin of the Rosary; indeed, it may include some of those jewels that were frequently borrowed for great occasions by the donors or the city officials - a habit that the synod of 1610 so strongly condemned (see 'Colección Lugo', ‘Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación’, Ciudad Trujillo, vol. VIII, 1945, p. 154). It is extremely unlikely that any of these jewels pre-date the Sack of Santo Domingo by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, for the contemporary accounts suggest that his men did a very thorough job and few pieces of gold would have escaped their attention. The monster-fish and rider jewel in the Cathedral Treasure of Santo Domingo was most recently described and illustrated by E. W. Palm in an article, Renaissance Secular Jewellery in the Cathedral at Ciudad Trujillo (‘The Burlington Magazine’, XCIII, 1951, p. 318, fig. 22), as:

“a shark (4.5 cm), set on each side with three rubies. The gold is covered with white enamel, except for the scales and a few spots of brilliant red and green, with blue at the head. In addition, the fins stand out in blue, as does the dress of the small rider armed with a javelin and a round shield which sparkle golden above the animal. Although the writer cannot recall another shark pendant, there comes to mind the beautiful dolphin . . .”

Palm's description, if reliable, establishes that this jewel is half the size of the Waddesdon example, though in most other respects it is very similar. Of course, the gemstones may not have been expertly examined and, as so often happens, garnets may have been mistaken for rubies. Certainly, the crude rectangular forms of the gemstones and their gold collets on the side of the monster-fish are not unlike those on the Waddesdon example. Although the Santo Domingo jewel has a double suspension chain and 'cartouche' with pendant pearls of a similar character, it is not identical with the Waddesdon version - and certainly does not include the distinctive 'figure-of-eight' gold links, but the enamelled elements of the chains appear to be identical.

There seems little doubt, therefore, that this type of jewel was fashionable in Spain and Spanish-American cities towards the end of the sixteenth century, though the vogue for such fantastic fish-and-man pendants may have had a long life and some of the examples that have survived may belong to the first decade of the next century. Of the published extant but unprovenanced versions three are extraordinarily close variants; these are preserved in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in the Cini Foundation, Venice (see Hackenbroch 1979, figs 871-3). All three vary in the arrangement of large and small gemstones on the sides, and all three have native (so-called 'Indian') riders of similar character, though the Cini example does not carry a shield and club. Significantly, the suspension chains and 'cartouches' on the Madrid and Boston examples are identical with the Waddesdon pendant, even including the unexpected 'figure-of-eight' links. The white and gold scaly pattern on the bodies of these three monster-fish pendants varies in size and, indeed, the curve of the fish's back fluctuates from the more U shape of the Madrid version to the gentle flattened version in the Waddesdon Bequest. Undoubtedly, all four have a common origin, perhaps in a Barcelona goldsmith's workshop, but none has a well-documented history traceable back to more than 100 years or so.

The existence of four such similar jewels - and there may be others in private collections - must give rise to doubts and lead the jewellery historian to strike a note of caution, pending the opportunity to bring all four jewels together for detailed examination. The fact that three of these four jewels have suspension chains and 'cartouches' of the same distinctive design, the same enamelled decoration and the same exceptional 'figure-of-eight' gold links of thin gauge does, undoubtedly, indicate that they were all in the same workshop - at least to be renovated - during the nineteenth century, because it is inconceivable that the three sets of chains pre-date that century. A fourth identical set of chains, including the 'figure-of-eight' links (but with a slightly different and smaller 'cartouche'), was attached to Lord Astor of Hever's monster-fish pendant (sold at Christie's, London, on 27 November 1979, lot 181, with col. illus.); this virtually undamaged specimen was a smaller, simplified version, with no loop in the tail, fewer gemstones on the sides, but with an identical rider astride the fish, although there was no raised ridge into which the rider could be fitted. Enamelled in the same way, the pendant was obviously no more than a feeble copy and of nineteenth-century origin. It is certainly difficult to believe that four genuine sixteenth-century monster-fish should simultaneously require new suspension chains and 'cartouches' in the nineteenth century and be taken to the same workshop in the same town. However, it might be argued that such a situation could arise in a country like Spain, where the Treasury of a famous shrine could suddenly be dispersed. Thus, until the invasion in 1808 by the armies of the French Republic and of Napoleon Bonaparte, Spain's half-dozen major shrines were still possessed of their rich treasuries and of the many jewels donated by pilgrims; before Wellington had succeeded in driving the French back to the Pyrenees, cult centres like that of the renowned Virgin of Montserrat (near Barcelona) had been sacked and their contents looted. Such an incredibly rich and lavishly patronised shrine and adjoining Benedictine monastery were rewarding to the plunderers, and no doubt many of the jewels, snatched from their places in the church, needed new chains and other minor repairs before they could be sold to eager collectors.

Even those shrines that escaped during the Peninsular War did not always keep their Treasuries intact: the shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar at Saragossa made a sudden decision to disperse its collection of donated jewels by holding a sale by auction in the summer of 1870. Unfortunately, this dispersal led to one pendant jewel at least being copied and faked by Reinhold Vasters (active 1853-90), the goldsmith of Aachen, whose 1,079 workshop drawings have been preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1919. Among them is a coloured pencil drawing (E. 2843-1919, illus. in ‘Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’, ed. A. Somers Cocks, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (Debrett’s Peerage Ltd), London, 1980, p. 141, no. HG. 7); it is a direct copy of the jewel depicting a dog standing on a cornucopia, which the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) purchased at the 1870 sale of the Treasury of Our Lady of the Pillar in Saragossa and which was, again, published in 1980 as a genuine Spanish Renaissance jewel of c. 1600 (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, p. 83, no. 109). The survival of at least one faked version is established, and, indeed, this faked jewel was lent by Breede of Kiel, West Germany, to the same exhibition in 1980 (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, p. 139, no. H. 23, illus. p. 138). This spurious jewel originally belonged to Frederic Spitzer (sold in the Paris sale (F. Chevalier) April-June 1983, lot 1842) and then to Lord Astor of Hever (sold in the Christie's, London, sale, 27 November 1979, lot 167). Spitzer possessed a second example of this jewel (lot 1843 of the Paris sale in 1893), and other dubious examples have been seen in the salerooms and in loan exhibitions, such as 'Kleinodien' (held in 1964 at the Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt am Main - see the ‘Katalog der Ausstellung’, 1964, no. 45, col. frontispiece).

The Victoria and Albert Museum in fact purchased not one but two virtually identical versions of this 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendant, both acquired at the Saragossa sale in 1870 (Charles Oman, The Jewels of Our Lady of the Pillar at Saragossa, ‘Apollo’, June, 1967, pp. 400 ff., pl. II). Oman stated that “there were three enamelled pendants with a white dog as the central motif, a subject popular with Barcelona jewellers at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They bought two of these (Pl. II, b and f) for £42 (lot 441) and £34. 13s. (lot 449), respectively”.

Oman does not say what happened to the third example but if it went to Reinhold Vasters no doubt it could have served as a model for the faked versions, which the collections of Frederic Spitzer and others, subsequently contained. They were, of course, not recognised as fakes until the rediscovery of the Vasters drawings (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) in the 1970s and the ensuing programme of research (see Charles Truman, Reinhold Vasters – the last of the goldsmiths?, ‘The Connoisseur’, vol. 200, March, 1979, pp. 154 ff., col. pl. G.). However, Truman (p. 158) has already cast doubt on the genuineness of one of the two 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendants purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum at the Saragossa Cathedral sale of 1870. If his suspicions were to become proven fact, that Saragossa provenance would cease to be a guarantee of the authenticity of any of the jewels of Our Lady of the Pillar. Significantly, Truman's view has been rejected without comment in the Victoria and Albert Museum's official publication (see Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1982, p. 154, case 26, nos 15 and 17, where both the 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendants are dated “about 1603”). Truman does not state which of the two had aroused his suspicions but, as only one of the two (Inv. no. 334-1870) was included in the Victoria and Albert Museum's 1980 special exhibition (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, no. 109, col. illus. on p. 83), it must be assumed that the dubious version is Inv. no. 336-1870, especially as all reference to its existence was studiously avoided by Somers Cocks, who wrote the catalogue entry, no. 109. The dubious version (Inv. no. 336-1870) is said to be set with diamonds and rubies and an emerald (see Bury 1982, p. 154, no. 15), whereas the other example is said to be set with crystals, spinels and an emerald (see Bury 1982, p. 154, no. 17; also ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, no. 109). To establish the authenticity of the Victoria and Albert Museum's two 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendants from the Saragossa sale of 1870 is now a matter of crucial significance for the study of nineteenth-century faking of Renaissance jewellery.

However, one vital - and rather puzzling - piece of evidence has been overlooked. It has not hitherto been pointed out that as early as 1857 it was widely known that Lord Londesborough's Collection in London contained one of these 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendants (see Fairholt 1857, pl. v, fig. 3, with col. illus., where it is stated that the jewel “was obtained in Spain”). It appears to be a well-made example, having the cornucopia set with six emeralds and one ruby. It had already been taken out of Spain and brought to Lord Londesborough by the middle decade of the nineteenth century and so could - perhaps wrongly - be presumed to pre-date Reinhold Vasters' faking activities in Aachen (see also cat. no. 23, p. 147) [WB.154].

If the three examples of this 'dog' jewel from the shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar at Saragossa are, however, assumed to be genuine Renaissance pieces, it would imply that they and the Londesborough example were almost 'mass-produced' by late sixteenth-century Spanish jewellers. It would therefore follow that the four monster-fish pendants could be:

(a) all genuine Renaissance jewels, c. 1600;

(b) all faked nineteenth-century productions; or

(c) one genuine, with three later copies.

The evidence of these four 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendants and of these four monster-fish pendants raises three fundamental questions:

(i) To what extent were jewels of this class being 'mass-produced' c. 1600 in Spain?

(ii) To what extent were jewels of this class already being copied by Spanish goldsmiths before c. 1850 (when Lord Londesborough's example was acquired in Spain)?

(iii) To what extent were jewels of this class being copied outside Spain for sale to the unsuspecting Spanish, some of whom (in good faith) later donated them to shrines, like the Virgin of the Pillar in Saragossa (that is, before 1870)?

No definite answer can be given at this stage, as there has been no opportunity to bring all these jewels together in one place for scientific study alongside the one securely provenanced version in the Cathedral Treasure of Santo Domingo. The fact that in 1979 all four monster-fish pendants were published as “c. 1560” does not signify, for Lord Astor of Hever's faked 'dog-on-cornucopia' pendant had also been published in 1972 as “circa 1600” alongside the matching drawing dated 1603 from the Barcelona Llibres de Passanties, folio 362 (see Muller 1972, p. 96, figs 152-4). Although this 1603 drawing, submitted by Gabriel Ramon, makes a most convincing comparison, the Barcelona apprentice drawings offer no guarantee of authenticity for the jewels with which they can be compared. Furthermore, the surviving examples of a particular jewel may seem at first indistinguishable. Thus, there is almost no distinction to be observed when comparing photographs of these 'dog-on-cornucopia' jewels - certainly nothing which would enable a skilful fake to be distinguished from the Renaissance originals. It is only when, by good fortune, they are available for study in the same place that the differences in execution can be detected and the craftsmanship of the nineteenth-century faker firmly identified.


  • 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. 158
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 158
  • Priscilla E. Muller, ‘Jewels in Spain, 1500 – 1800’, The Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1972, p. 87, fig. 134
  • Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, fig. 870, col. pl. XXXXI
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 53, fig. 31
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no.21, pls. XVI, XVII, fig. 125.

    [A Nicholas HIlliard miniature of a young woman, (perhaps a member of the Strangways family given the accompanying motto) aged 16 in 1605 (dated) wearing a similar pendant with emeralds or diamonds on a fish shape on her sleeve, sold at Robert Holden Ltd in 2008. Illustrated in Art Quarterly Summer 2008. Also see fig.154 in Priscilla Muller, 'Jewels in Spain 1500-1800', New York, 2012, p. 95 with drawings of jewels from Guadalupe collection.]See winged dragon pendant set with emeralds sold at Sotheby's 12 December 2003 lot28.

  • 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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