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Cup - The Frewen Cup

The Frewen Cup

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (possibly, engraved)
    Netherlands (possibly, engraved)
    York (repaired)

  • Date:

    ca. 1650 (engraved)
    1658-1660 (repaired)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Plummer, John (goldsmith)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Nautilus shell body, polished and engraved, with silver-gilt mounts

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 56, The Djanogly Gallery, case 1

Object Type
In this cup a nautilus shell forms the bowl of the standing cup. (The nautilus is a sea creature related to the squid and octopus.) The shell is set in magnificent silver-gilt mounts that transform it into a luxurious display piece.

Material & Technique
The hard outer layers of the shell have been removed, either by scraping or by using acid, to reveal the nacreous (mother-of-pearl) layer underneath, which has been polished. The decorative engraving has been blackened to provide a sharp contrast with the iridescent body.

Subjects Depicted
The design of the mounts and the engraving on the shell accentuate the marine origins of the shell itself. The accomplished engraving of the shell depicts specimens of marine life interspersed with floral and scrolling motifs. These were probably taken from a print source such as Johannes Johnstones' compilation of Historiae Naturalis de Piscibus ('Natural History of Fish', 1650-1653) by the Roman author Pliny the Elder (died 79 AD). The elaborate silver-gilt mounts incorporate marine monsters amongst waves, fish and serpents. The cover takes the form of a sea god astride a marine monster, while maidens from the Americas make up the strap mounts.

Ownership & Use
A taste for mounted nautilus cups had flourished in Northern Europe since at least the 14th century. Shells were highly prized as exotic and rare objects as well as for their talismanic (magical) properties.

Physical description

Cup, Nautilus

Place of Origin

England (possibly, engraved)
Netherlands (possibly, engraved)
York (repaired)


ca. 1650 (engraved)
1658-1660 (repaired)


Plummer, John (goldsmith)

Materials and Techniques

Nautilus shell body, polished and engraved, with silver-gilt mounts

Marks and inscriptions

Maker's mark for John Plummer


Height: 26.2 cm including finial, Width: 19 cm maximum, Depth: 11.5 cm, Diameter: 11 cm foot

Object history note

By 1667 this cup was in the possession of Sir Stephen Frewen. Shell worked in England or The Netherlands; remounted by John Plummer in York

Descriptive line

'The Frewen Cup'. Nautilus shell body, polished and engraved, with silver-gilt mounts. Shell engraved around 1650, mounts by John Plummer of York, 1658-1660.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Glanville, Philippa. Problems of Mounted Objects. The Silver Society. The Proceedings, 1985/86/87. vol. 3, nos 7/8/9, pp. 229-33.
Glanville, P. Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England. A Social History and Catalogue of the National Collection 1480-1660. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990. ISBN 1851770305
Vanke, Francesca. 'The Frewen Cup'. In: The Paston Treasure. Microcosm of the Known World, ed. by Andrew Moore, Nathan Flis, and Francesca Vanke. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780300232905 030023290X. Published to accompany the exhibitions 'The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World' and 'The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World', co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, on view 15 February-27 May 2018, and Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, on view 23 June-23 September 2018.

Labels and date

British Galleries:

European collectors mounted natural curiosities such as shells, coconuts, or unusual stones to emphasise their rarity and value. As European trade expanded in Asia, Africa and the Americas after 1600, these objects became less unusual. By the 1630s mounted cups could be found in households below the level of the nobility. They might be displayed with other treasures such as porcelain or collections of unmounted shells and coral. [27/03/2003]

Production Note

Shell probably engraved about 1650; repaired and remounted 1658-1660 by John Plummer in York


Drinking; Metalwork; British Galleries


Metalwork Collection

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