Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Nautilus And The Pearl: Accreting The Early Modern English Collection

Alexandra Marraccini

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

— from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At The Fishhouses’

I. Chambers

[1] The Cabinet in Early Modern England could be a series of small drawers, a room like a closet or a large parlor, or even a series of purpose-built display chambers. The nautilus is a creature famous for using its chambered compartments to be able to dive. While the nautilus accretes its chambers over time as it grows, deep under the waves, the Cabinet’s chambers are made by Early Modern collectors, and not grown—though they, too, are filled over time with much natural material that often creeps into the blurry realm of artifice and initially artificial material that asymptotically approaches the axis of the natural. Working particularly, but not only, during the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, these collectors were often also naturalists, merchants or aristocrats, and members of the early Royal Society. Their collections were forces and sources in shaping new period of scientific inquiry in England. This text examines the nautilus, the pearl, and the English Early Modern Cabinet together in context as a way of looking at looking itself, including in related scientific prints, silverwork, and still lifes in Northern Europe.

[2] This essay is also an exercise in Cabinet thinking as a methodology. Formatted as a series of related chambers, each spilling over into the next, it suggests a way of reading the Cabinet between multiple media and temporalities, dancing always between points of reference without a strict linearity, a structure imposed on the Cabinet only retrospectively by typical historical analysis. Echoing the multiplicities of shells, paintings of these same shells, accreted pearls and exotica, prints of oceanic objects, and paintings of oysters, this essay gives its reader a new way of negotiating the sensorium of the Cabinet as a whole and models this method in its structure. It begins with a wave of dates, names, and facts. This crests in a series of related observations, first turning to oysters and a still life by Roestraten, then to nautilus cups and the concept of liquidity in the Paston Treasure Painting, and to pearls and accretion in period literary sources, before returning to the Frewen Cup and then Von Somer II’s frontispiece to Willoughby’s Icthyographia as case studies, and finally concluding by asking how the Cabinet uses the interrelations of these things to construe what we call the ‘real’. Problems of Cabinet media and depiction inform a multivalent Cabinet ontology.

[3] The first wave begins to press at its chamber here, with a swell of relevant background information:

   Starting in about the 1590s, Portuguese and then Dutch traders in the Pacific brought back nautilus shells to Europe for sale to collectors. In 1594, Theodore De Bry, a Belgian exile in Amsterdam, engraved indigenous and enslaved peoples diving for pearls and other wondrous objects in the Caribbean. Both the pearl and the nautilus are described as far back as Pliny and Aristotle, and indeed Pliny was a primary source for considering these natural-historical phenomena in Cabinets and related painting.[1] Philemon Holland’s English translation of Pliny, including the passage on the nautilus and that on the pearl in Book IX, Chapter XXXV, was first published in 1601.[2] Channeling Pliny and his own distaste in turn, Holland notes specifically of pearls:

It was not sufficient belike to bring the seas into the kitchin, to let them down the throat into the belly, unlesse men and women both carried them about in their hands and eares, upon their head, and all over their bodies…this shell-fish which is the mother of Pearle, differs not much in the manner of breeding and generation, from the oysters[.] (Holland 1634: 254-55)

Meanwhile, in the mid-to-late 1600s in Amsterdam, Cornelius Bellekin used engraving on the surface of the nautilus and other mother-of-pearl shells to make images (Kisluk-Grosheide 1997). These are variously human, vegetable, and animal in form, and include images of specific fishes that look drawn from nature and resemble related scientific prints. In 1680, a Dutch émigré to London, Peter Roestraten, painted both oysters and nautilus cups, some engraved by Bellekin.[3] The paintings went on to hang in the Cabinets of Royalists and their allies. One example is the painting of the Paston Treasure, which is in the style of Roestraten, and hung in the cabinet of the Pastons at Norfolk, with no fewer than four nautilus cups shown in depictions of their collection. At roughly the same time, Paul Von Somer II, a Flemish Protestant religious refugee in England (who eventually went on to work as an engraver for Francis Willoughby, fellow of the early Royal Society and co-author, with John Ray, of its first book on ichthyology) was commissioned for an illustrated frontispiece. This frontispiece, which has numerous shells and shell creatures amongst its oceanic bounty, was published in 1685.

[4] In 1698, the English scientist and antiquarian Martin Lister went to France, ostensibly to study medicine. He ended up in the aquaria of Guillame Rondelet, trying to make pearls out of sea snail mucus. He wasn’t as far off from Mikimoto and the cultured pearl of the 20th century as it sounds, since nacre is mucus layered on an irritant in the oyster’s body. Lister also observed artificial pearls, made from ground mussels and mother-of-pearl bearing shells. He went on, with the aid of fellow antiquarian Hans Sloane in the Bahamas, to publish the first comprehensive treatise on conchology and the shells of related organisms, in which the pearl oyster and the nautilus both receive full page engraved foldouts. In the 1690s, in the Low Countries, Wenceslas Hollar engraved a plethora of these same shells, and in 1705, posthumous engravings from Robert Hooke, another prominent early scientist in England, prominently feature the nautilus. The Royal Society, meanwhile, had already published its first catalogue, again featuring pearls, oysters, and the nautilus, in 1685.

[5] There is a net here that dredges up things in common: the first is refugee or immigrant artists from Northern Europe producing media for the English aristocracy and their collections, and the links in these media between modes of representation from portraiture, to still life, and finally to scientific illustration. The Royal Society—and the new ‘English’ conception of scientific and natural-historical activity it nourished throughout the seventeenth century—is shared amongst people and things the nautilus and the pearl also share. This essay takes the nautilus and the pearl as its seed, and layers it with the accreted nacre of Early Modern English collecting culture, broadly conceived, as case study. From the oysters of Roestraten’s still lifes, to the nautilus cup engraved by Bellekin with marine animals for the Pastons, to the oyster and other shells of Lister and fish of Willoughby, the nautilus and the pearl allow us to ask how seventeeth-century collecting in England related to temporal layers and types of gazes, both for period collectors and art historians now. They particularly allow us to consider what it meant to show knowledge and its acquisition, situated precariously between art and nature, the personal and societal.

II. Oysters

[6] Pearls are embedded in oysters and their stories, including for Samuel Pepys, who sponsored Willoughby’s Icthyographia for the Royal Society, and specifically recommended oysters for New Year’s breakfast in his diary of 1661. The oysters at the Borough market in London, where they have been sold at the stall of Richard Haward since at least 1792, are shucked by professionals in one of two ways.[4] Especially with English native oysters, sticking the specialized oyster shucking knife through the ‘hinge’ at the back of the bivalve, where the two matching halves meet, is the preferred method. The ‘French’ or generally Continental method of shucking is to run the knife around the sealed edges of the two shells, where the membrane meets, and open the shells on their own hinges.

Figure 1. Peter Roestraten, ‘Porringer, German Cup, and Oysters’ (1680). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[7] Curiously, the oyster halves in ‘Porringer, German Cup and Oysters’ (Figure 1), currently hanging in the silver gallery of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and painted in London by Pieter van Roestraten around 1680, must have been shucked both ways. The halves are entirely separated, meaning the membrane connecting the two shells has been severed, but so too has the connecting ‘hinge’. It is shucked in both the Continental and English modes to display its innards, bitter and briny in contrast to the sweet white wine in the glass behind it. Roestraten, initially trained by Frans Hals in Haarlem, depicts an English collection for an English aristocratic patron in this still life, but one who is drinking imported Spanish or Italian wine, has a period English gilt-copper cup, and a porringer, or stew pot, that is German ware, in the style of many ornamental Kunstkammer objects.[5] Superficially an English painting for an English client, the artist’s Dutch origins, as well as the far- flung imported goods depicted in a single collector’s holdings, show that stylistic ‘Englishness’ in the object culture of the period is hybrid across national boundaries.

[8] The inside of the oyster, with the muscly white flesh that accretes the nacre to form pearls, is itself here a literal accretion of layers of oil paint in service of the figurative. The ‘real’ oyster and the ‘real’ wine, if there was ever any single oyster or cup of wine used as model and not indeed many equal ‘real’ multiples, are presumably long spoiled. The open golden pocket watch, in this Roestraten as well as in a comparable vanitas example in the Royal Collection, and another in the Art Institute of Chicago, recalls this tendency toward rot, an emblematic memento mori common in this type of pronk stillleven [ornamented still life] of the period.[6] The watch ostensibly reminds the viewer that all things perish, that mortal wealth is meaningless in the face of immortal salvation.

[9] I say ostensibly because the very existence of the images of bread, wine, and oyster, means that in some sense, these things don’t really perish at all, or if they do cease to exist in the flesh, the ‘real’, they continue to exist in the translated medium of paint, which is artificial, but not exactly ‘fake’ either, so far as the values-system of the Cabinet collection is concerned. Nor does the painting suggest the complete obliteration of memory in death that a memento mori implies is the fate of all earthly things. The specific metalwork objects in this painting cannot be traced, but many other such objects survive to this day, and in the case of the pronk stillleven crossover-style Paston Treasure painting, we can still handle the many specific cups, jewelry, and other luxury goods depicted. The real-fake ontological dialectic of the still life is troubled by the Cabinet and its contents—in this case beginning with oysters, and expanding to the precious material beyond pearls and the pearly surface of shells.

[10] In the Chicago example, a branch of coral dangles downward, and in yet another V&A Roestraten, a silver encrusted nautilus cup similarly represents the specific bounty of marine treasures dredged up. These are natural objects, enhanced by the means of art to appear in collections, and then by further art still, depicted in collection still lifes, which might in turn hang in those very same collections. These shells, pearls, and other sea objects are key examples of a kind of nature made art made art-as-depiction-of-nature, which is in turn hung as a sort of meta-art, a third-order ‘real’ that is either extreme artifice in some sense, or extreme reality — an encounter with modes of seeing and beholding — in another.

[11] The pearl and its oyster are biological accretions of calcified, membranous mollusk slime, but in their lives as collected and depicted objects, they become figurative accretions too. They enter the boundary territory not only between art and nature, between land and sea, air and water, but also between depiction, description, and collection. They are realfakes and fakereals, accreting ontologies and categories, as they make their way in the Early Modern world. Shucking these kinds of oysters also means turning the knife between membranes of both the material and the fundamentally abstract layers of the Cabinet and its constructions. What does it mean to peel back how the Early Modern Cabinet intends us to look?

III. Liquidities

[12] The Dutch-style still life has much to reveal about the nature of English collecting in the seventeenth century. As a form, it has been characterised by Alpers (2009) as mimicking the scientific gaze of the Dutch ambassador to England in the period, Constantin Huygens. For Honig (1983: esp. pp.175-6), the Dutch still life is a font of descriptive information, a way to transmit knowledge in multiple, sometimes conflicting material forms, with objects serving both literal and allegorical purposes. None of this would matter so much were it not for two crucial factors: the high number of Dutch genre artists abroad in England depicting Cabinet contents (especially those of Royalist patrons), and the incompleteness of surviving English Cabinet collections today in terms of material objects.[7] Although we have collection lists (like that of the Tradescants, compiled by Elias Ashmole[8]) many objects disappeared during the Interregnum or were accumulated into later museum holdings, without persistent recordings of their provenance. The shells that Hans Sloane collected in the Bahamas for Martin Lister, for instance, may have made it into Nehemiah Grew’s initial catalogue of the Royal Society’s own collections and Lister’s own books, but disappeared for several centuries until they were identified by Guy Wilkins in the existing collections of the Museum of Natural History in London in 1953.[9] Sloane’s carved and engraved nautilus shell, it should be noted, is an exception to this rule, and has been displayed fairly continuously and identified as Sloane’s—likely due to its status not merely as a natural specimen, but also as a biographical and art object.

[13] The nautilus, with its mother of pearl surface and association with mollusks, lies at the intersection of Dutch still life in the seventeenth-century English milieu and the pearl and its accreted relatives in natural-historical collections and books.[10] Not only is the nautilus cup a kind of stock object in the still life, it occurs in the same emerging visual sources as the pearl oyster. While Hollar’s illustrations of shells stand out as a singular focus for his genre painting, other still life drew on a wide repertoire of shell images and specimens in circulation.[11] Fossilised ammonites also spur Continental interest in the nautilus, as early as 1565 in Gessner’s De Rerum Fossilium Lapidum, which depicts the nautilus right after the ammonite fossil, and right next to the scallop and mussel (on pp.164-5). Other depictions for comparison, which can be found in Aldrovandi’s De Reliquis Animalibus [1606] and Michael Rupert Besler’s Gazophylacium Rerum Naturalium E Regno Vegetabili, Animali Et Minerali Depromptarumi [1642], show that a collector with any interest in shells or sea life would have been familiar, at least, with their illustrations, as these were widely purchased volumes for natural historians in both England and the Continent.[12]

Figure 2. Anonymous, ‘The Paston Treasure’, ca.1670. Norwich Castle Museum.

[14] The multiple nautilus cups of the Paston Treasure Painting (Figure 2) speak to both the still life as observational device for the collection, and the scientific gaze on the shell, which I will expand at length upon in my discussion of the Frewen Cup (Figure 3). This engraved nautilus cup in the Paston’s closet holdings can also be directly linked to the tradition of depicting and re-depicting natural-historical subjects—particularly marine ones. Exploring these linkages is a mode of understanding their multitudes. The Paston Treasure Painting as a whole, recently re-evaluated in an exhibition that re-united many of its objects and produced an accompanying catalogue on the painting, is somewhere between still life and portraiture, collection display as literal value, and material as allegory for other, moral values. The nautilus cups, various shells, and pearls in the Paston Treasure, along with the other numerous treasures, animals, and people, mark an uncertain point for the still life as metaphysical depiction versus the still life as a catalogue embodied in paint.

[15] To understand the more immediate oceanic liquidities of the collected pearl and its accretions, one must think through both the liquidity of capital as depicted in Dutch still life in Early Modern England, and the liquidity of metal itself. Metal is liquid capital in the sense that it can be melted down and sold. It is also liquid in that it is initially subterranean, formed as molten streams near the magma-heated mantle of the Earth. The gold or silver applied to a nautilus cup is, in a sense, just as strange and unworldly as the shell itself. From the practical manuals of mining like De Re Metallica, to Kircher’s more imaginative (and explicitly oceanic) Mundus Subterreaneus, to circulating Naturbücher and encyclopedias, these links were made manifest in illustrated books about mining as well as metalwork itself. The metals are also linked to the movements of planets and stars, making each part of the macrocosm—and the microcosm of the Cabinet—a mirror for the other. Just as Early Modern scientists often mapped the sub-marine world onto the world of the surface, so too does the submarine map onto the underground, as well as the cosmos above.[13]

[16] As crystals or minerals accrete in mines and caverns invisible to the eye of the surface, so too do new and puzzling catagories of materials accrete in the ocean. In his work on collecting and exploring the submarine in the period, James Delbourgo (2011: 149-50, 164-7) notes that Early Modern naturalists often sought out barnacle-encrusted wood, and coral that had grown over man-made shipwrecks, in order to understand where nature ended and artifice began (whether barnacles were alive was an open question). Liquidities and liquidity also mapped on to each other in the form of shipwrecks, recoveries of which were profitable enterprises. In his account of these wracks and their diving, Delbourgo acknowledges, through the work of Dawson and others, that these profits were also very much at the expense of indigenous lives and resources (see Dawson 2006: 1327-55). The pearl on the earring of the black servant or slave in The Paston Treasure, as well as the ‘Moor’s Head’ stopper of the shell cup she touches, speak directly to this link between bodies, rare objects, and metallic riches or profit (see Chadwick 2018). The Tempest’s Ariel, whose line about sunken eyes transformed by the alchemy of the sea into pearls (1.2.476) has become perhaps the most iconic use of the material in Early Modern English, is also enslaved—first by Sycorax, and then by Prospero, himself often read as a stand-in for the wonder-making of knowledge production. Hans Sloane, a pioneer of the plantation slavery system in the Bahamas, also traded in bodies as liquid capital, shuttled across the sea by many of the same shipping routes that on return legs to England often brought his objects, including shells specifically, back to Cabinets and their collectors.[14]

[17] The literary period use of pearl and sea material as collection and object is far more about pearl as metaphor for the world in which the colonial user dwells than the one from which it is dredged up and extracted by force. These texts, circulating in the same circles of Early Modern English society as scientific books, prints, and mercantile collections, give us some sense of what period viewers read about pearls and their meanings in depiction and substance. Playing on the trope of pearl as symbol of both virginity and purity, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella has a beloved whose lips are sealed by pearls, as Shakespeare’s mistress in Sonnet 130 has lips redder than coral, whereas Milton reserves pearls for the sybaritic ornaments of Asia—paralleling the use of exotic materials to symbolize foreign accretion of capital in the physical Cabinet (see Paradise Lost, Book 2, ll.3-4). In a sermon delivered in 1627, Donne agonises about bodily presence and reconstruction after the apocalypse by linking the undersea and the underground, specifically though the device of pearls in the collecting Cabinet:

Where be all the atoms of that flesh, which a corrosive hath eat away, or a consumption hath breathed, and exhaled away from our arms, and other limbs? In what wrinkle, in what furrow, in what bowel of the earth, lie all the grains of the ashes of a body burnt a thousand years since? In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a body drowned in the general flood? […] One humour of our dead body produces worms, and those worms suck and exhaust all other humour, and then all dies, and all dries, and moulders into dust, and that dust is blown into the river, and that puddled water tumbled into the sea, and that ebbs and flows in infinite revolutions, and still, still God knows in what cabinet every seed-pearl lies, in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies[.] (Donne 1987: 287; see also Greteman 2010)

Ironically, on Donne’s own theological terms, nothing buried in human time can truly be completed until after the resurrection, whatever the categorical completeness and splendor of the cabinet in which tiny seed pearls are kept en masse. For Donne, the totality of turban and strombus cups, of coral spoons, and of all crafted metal things cannot stand in for the body lost in this life, until that body is resurrected by the all-knowing God. Whatever the liquidity of capital in the still life, or the liquid objects transported to air in the scientific miraculous, the dust of the body in infinite theological time, and a certain obsessive uncertainty about that dust, remains. The cabinet and its depictions in genre painting remind us of the power to be leveraged by man and the bodies at his disposal against the elements, especially the water of the sea. Donne, read as a rejoinder, is a reminder that even the life of the collector is dissolvable, liquid, and ultimately borne away by the currents of time. The Cabinet does not exist in a vacuum without sermons and vanitas poems that reiterate this conclusion in its parallel library.

[18] But what do literary period sources mean for how we consider the pearl and the Cabinet as theological things? Does this mean that the Cabinet is a kind of artificial salvational balm, promising mastery when earthly life is by nature only temporary? Or is it a real escape from the ravages of time in that it exists as preserved objects? When the pearls turn to dust, after the men, usually in 90-150 years, when the monarchy falls or the Cotton library burns, what then? Perhaps the pearl, the shell cup, and its cabinet don’t promise mastery at all. Its depiction in genre painting, after all, both cements and subverts its ontological status as both ‘real’ and ‘fake’, somehow simultaneously both permanent-seeming and imbued with historical and material contingency.

[19] Perhaps knowing this, we look at still life and pearl objects anyway, imagining the jellied dust of our bodies in the floods and ventricles of the Mariana Trench or the Gulf stream. Donne is good at uncertainty, at begging to be battered bodily by the truth while doubting and circling around it. But it is not just Donne who is uncertain; the sea brought into the Cabinet by way of the oyster and its pearl is in a middle space, between surety and doubt. Tides make us good at certainty, at thinking we can predict what comes next. Tsunamis make us doubt that same ability. After Charles I was executed, the single pearl drop earring he wore was taken from his ear by a bystander. It survives today, in the collection of the Dukes of Portland. The pearl is shaped like a tear, that smallest of salted seas.

IV. Handworks

[20] The Frewen Cup (Figures 3 and 4), a mounted nautilus with gold-plated ornament and foot, came into the collection of John Frewen by 1667, and was subsequently listed in the inventory of the Paston Closet, one of the sources for the objects in the Paston Treasure painting above (Vanke 2018). The cup is larger than the hand can grasp, and cool to the touch on both nacre and metal surfaces. Cups similar to this one are depicted in both the AIC Roestraten, the Roestraten in the Royal Collection that depicts the collection of Charles I, and in numerous other paintings of the period, including that of the Pastons’ objects. The metal was re-done by Yorkshire goldsmith John Plummer, including the strapwork, sometime after its transit to England from the Netherlands. Although Early Modern scientific observation found the nautilus or ‘boat shell’ interesting for its ability to pressurise and re-pressurise its successive chambers with air and water, and thus serve as a diving machine, this nautilus is filled internally mostly with gold.[15] It is thus serviceable, at least, as an actual cup, although the frequency with which it would have been put to this practical use is likely low. The cup could hold a small ocean of water that drained into the mustachioed mouth of the fanciful, gilt monstrum marinum on the topmost curve of the shell.

Figure 3. John Plummer, ‘The Frewen Cup’, ca. 1650 (engraved), 1658-1660 (repaired). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 4. ‘The Frewen Cup’, reverse side. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[21] The cup is small, and kept specifically in a treasure closet space (Vanke 2018), and so encourages a both haptic and visual intimacy. The shell is inscribed with marine motifs, to which I shall return shortly, but first I draw attention to perhaps its single flaw (visible in figure 3). There is a crack running up the middle of the wide face of the nautilus shell that has been re-sealed and filled with wax, then subsequently set against metal. You can see it only with close attention, as it was refilled before goldwork was added, and the best way to find it is to run one’s hands across the shell. The crack leads directly to the one part of the outer shell of the nautilus that hasn’t been stripped, a piece with striated brown marks that nestles the cup’s curve. This fracture in turn leads to the visibility of the cup’s both facture and manufacture. It shows a careful viewer how cups of this kind are made generally, but also the specific hand and choices of the artist who made this one in particular.

[22] Manufacture is typically defined as a less sensuous concept than the term ‘facture’, which is more often applied to the stroke of a brush than the casting of a cup in metal. The pseudo-indigenous female figures on the strap-work of the cup are common to this type of vessel, and at first seem an object of manufacture independent from this particular thing, and then subsequently applied by a goldsmith who did not necessarily purpose-make them. Yet, these figures, topless and crowned in feathers, are themselves wearing ornamental necklaces, irregular and ovoid in shape, suggesting mussel shells or drilled pearls.[16] To juxtapose the commodified body of an indigenous person with the nautilus body itself (likely recovered by a non-European diver from the Indo-Pacific) is provocative in a way that lends itself to a reading of the pronkstilleven that depicts such a cup, and indeed the Paston Treasure painting itself, as perhaps having an implicit question built into its material fabric. Manufacture has here superficially allowed, for a modern viewer, a crack into the colonial façade, allowing access into a postcolonial critique of the Cabinet’s global materialities and their human costs.

[23] Yet, pronkstilleven is not a period term (Honig 1998: 170). Overmuchness, superfluity, and indeed the idea of the decorative itself, are categories projected onto Kunstkammer and Cabinet objects by the world after modernism and the minimalist aesthetic that is now largely the province of the wealthy collector. Whatever the form’s associations with seventeenth-century Dutch mercantilism, and its triumphs or Calvinist religious pitfalls, these are mitigated by types and times of later viewership. Layers of accreted gold, engraving, and invented artificial life replaced the scraped away natural surface of the nautilus that forms the cup. The visible nacre is itself a wonder, but also a sort of inverse pearl, made visible by the removal of biological material formed in the ocean rather than by its accretion. What does accrete is goldwork, visual images, and depictions, layered on top of each other. The cup both as an object itself, then, even if some of its parts or co-objects in still life paintings are ready-made, is also a product of facture — conscious artisanal choice that reflects particular stylistic aims. Even if critique of its brutal colonial origins is possible on this level, any reading of the cup is also personal, intimate, and complicated with respect to its position in historical time, like the thing itself. The presence of facture, a very intentional artifice, along with nature, breeds uncertainties in looking and reading both for period actors and for modern ones.

[24] The form of the luxury cup even aside from this consideration is, to borrow Honig’s terms for still life objects, a ‘container for knowledge’ and taxonomic interplay (Honig 1998: 173). This is as much a product of artistic facture as any other aspect of the cup’s material being, and as significant. Material accretions reflect and refract phenomenological and ontological accretions in the Cabinet at large. That the English Cabinet is again at another degree of remove from Dutch objects, in Dutch cabinets with Dutch still lifes on the walls, creates even more space for negotiating meaning. Both separated and connected by the North Sea geographically, the Netherlands and England as proto-nation-states stand in the same physical and ontological relation to the nautilus cup as object. A liquid ocean, contained in the cup’s gilded shell, links and buffers both. Depictions of nautilus cups also depict this connecting and dividing North Sea relation by extension. The inscribed geography of the Cabinet is also worked into the nautilus cup as object.

[25] The engraved eyes on the cup’s surfaces (on the monstrum marinum, on all the bird-like hinges, on the women of the strapwork, and on the fish) all gaze outward at the viewer. These are ornaments, on an ornament, to an ornament—which is then painted as an ornament. The fourth order of ornamentation is also neither ‘fake’ nor ‘real’ per se but something that purposefully calls into question this ontological binary in the Cabinet. This is uncertainty lavishly embodied: like the oyster, the nautilus cup is an object that does not invite easy answers, and indeed invites rather more questions. It is rooted, heavy to lift because it is silver-plated gold. It is also fragile because it is biological, and additionally because its status as a bearer of meanings is fluid. It is nature artificed beyond easy recognition, or artifice shaped to the natural so that it elides what naturalness can be. As many eyes look out at us from the Frewen Cup as there are ways we can look back at them. Oysters and pearls can’t look back at their viewers. The engraved and ornamented nautilus cup can in some sense, being endowed with faces and eyes, giving it an agency both in and of itself, and as it is represented in the collection still life.

[26] The cup is inscribed with fish, shells, and looping acanthus; the realistic specimens in particular are closely associated with scientific fish books, such as Johnston’s Historise Naturalis de Piscibus (1650-3) (see Vanke 2018; for the history of the Bellekin family as makers of these cups, see Van Seters 1958). While the Frewen Cup predates Ray and Willoughby’s magnum opus on fish for the English Royal Society, and Lister’s Conchyliorum, it depicts many species with an accuracy that borders on illustration intended for classification purposes (on the nature drawing as means of classification, see Swan 2002). There is a possible murex, the source of Tyrian red (within Figure 3), carved into the surface, and then buffed with wax and black coal to make it visible. As I shall shortly elaborate, engraving printed illustrations of the ‘book of nature’ was the mode of representational choice of natural history in the early English Royal Society. Engraving directly on the pages of nature’s book—which is to say on natural objects themselves like the nautilus — is a second order act of knowledge production and a metaphysical conceit at once. Objects such as shells become, through this doubling inscription, treatises of knowledge about themselves, functioning as both the depicted thing and its ‘real’ counterpart in the Cabinet.

[27] There is also a strombus shell engraved on the surface of the Frewen Cup (see figure 4). This is the same type of mounted conch that is also depicted as engraved on the surface with tiny figures in the Paston Treasure Painting (see figure 2 detail). This strombus is a decoration depicting a shell, on a decorative shell as art, that may indeed derive from scientific depictions of shells, but that also crucially links circularly back to shells as objects that themselves serve as surfaces for depiction. (It may also derive from Collaert, shell still lives, and other sources. Still life paintings of shells are themselves a genre, particularly in the Netherlandish context.) The idea of drawing a shell on a shell, which in turn refers to shells as things to draw upon, and then encasing that drawing in a meta-depiction of the sea made of gold, is a kind of perfect nexus of baroque maximalism as structure for thinking, a kind of multiplication of wonder that provokes interrogation by the eye and mind. This depiction of shells on shells also layers places: a Pacific shell, from a Dutch workshop, worked by an English goldsmith, is kept in an English treasure closet, and then depicted in paintings by Dutch immigrants in England.[17] The nacre may be scraped down to make the mother of pearl visible, but everything else is built up, re-weighted not only with a baroque sensibility for mirroring real-fake conundra, but one in which geographic origin is also a sort of accreted multiple ornament in turn.

[28] The mother of pearl surface of the cup is of interest to both collectors and painters of pronkstilleven partly for its remarkable colour. In 1611, von Borsselen, quoted in Segal, notes of one nautilus:

Here follows a silver Hulck, the net of shell which holds the pearl, that is placed on the table on a golden foot, so that one can drink from a clean cup the joyful wine. The costly cup reflects the sun on man’s face and miraculously shows the rainbow, painted so often, which crowns the earth. (Segal 1989: 92)

The Neptune figure on the top of the Frewen Cup, like that on many similar objects, masters a gigantic fish, and in doing so, on the surface represents mastery over the element of the marine.[18] So too does the netted encasement of the mother of pearl nautilus in man-made goldwork, torn from the depths of the earth just as the shell is from the depths of the sea. Yet it is the rainbow, not of man’s doing but of God’s, that is the ultimate shining idiom the nautilus reflects in von Borsselen’s description. It is a wonder that cannot be captured, just yet, in a cabinet (or indeed in a modern photograph). The nacre evokes it, mirrors it, but cannot catch it. The rainbow is utterly free, momentary, and unembodied. It defies both the Cabinet and its still life, both the boundaries of art and that of nature. The nautilus cup engraved with all the bounty of the sea also reminds us of that which we cannot possibly have or make permanent. It is a paradox poured out.

V. Printings

[29] The Frewen Cup, and other nautilus shells engraved by Cornelius Bellekin for the collecting market, can easily be linked to sources of representation of natural abundance in Dutch period prints in general, from emblem books to allegories of the four elements. Bellekin produced at least one other cup currently in the collections of the V&A, this one adorned with morphologically distinct insects. This second cup is also mounted far more delicately, and parts of the shell are cut away like vaulting to suggest a ribbed structure. It is possible that this cup is representative of air as an element in the way that the Frewen Cup represents water, but they are not part of any set that we know of.

[30] Still, the hybrid method of using both ‘artistic’ and natural historical source material in tandem has many parallels, including in the books of marine life both cited directly in, and in turn influenced by, the presence of objects like the Paston Cup. One such example is the frontispiece to Francis Willoughby’s Ichthyographia (Figure 5). The Ichthyographia is more commonly referred to as the second volume to the work posthumously completed by its co-author, John Ray. The whole two volume work, known as the Historia Piscium of 1686, is discussed at length by Sachiko Kusukawa (2000) in an article of the same name, where she notes that the book had at least eleven engravers, that the sources included new specimens, illustrations, and written and verbal accounts from all over Europe, and that it was a collaboratively produced volume of the Royal Society. She traces not only John Ray’s use of illustration as a convincing proof of seventeenth-century scientific faith in images for classification, but also the near disastrous cost of the two volumes to the Society, for which they are possibly more famous than for their content, given that they almost inhibited the publication of Newton on gravitation.

Paul van Somer's 'Frontispiece' to Francis Willoughby's Icthyographia

Figure 5. Paul van Somer II, ‘Frontispiece’ to Francis Willoughby’s Icthyographia (Oxford, 1686). © The Trustees of the British Museum

[31] Nonetheless, the much-maligned fish books are here of interest not for their costly content, but for the frontispiece to the second volume, engraved by Paul Von Somer II for a then-large sum of £4 (Kusukawa 2000: 191). Paul II’s older brother Jan was also an immigrant to England (Curd 2010: 129-130). Paul von Somer I was a portrait painter of some renown in court circles of James I about generation earlier. He was apparently not directly related to the later two brothers, who are also notable for their early use of mezzotint. Thus, the engraver we now call ‘Paul Von Somer II’ signs the elaborate frontispiece to the figures of De Piscibus, a volume titled the Ichtyographia in its own right, with the phrase ‘Paul von Somer invent et fecit Londini’ in an oar on the frontispiece’s lower right-hand corner.

[32] This signature is just one part of a multi-level, multiply encrusted and depicted, frontispiece. Like the Frewen Cup, or indeed the Paston collections in which it was contained, Von Somer II’s frontispiece contains multiple accreted layers of images that speak to its status both as art and as a depiction of nature intended for natural historians. The first of these layers, in descending perspectival order from the viewer, is the outer architectonic ‘frame’ of the page. Against this structure, fish specimens—some as depicted in the internal plates to follow—hang encircling the centre images. The sheer diversity and close detail of each of these species, including sharks, pufferfish, and flatfish among others, attest to the value attached to illustrations of morphology in the book’s instructive plates.

[33] The bottom of the first frontispiece layer, however, conflates the mythological and naturalistic. A typical monstrum marinum, much like the one on the Frewen Cup, rests at the feet of a nereid crowned in shells and bearing a trident. Behind her Poseidon blows into a conch shell (much like those set into gold and fashioned into cups), presumably to summon the bounty of the ship on the section of the plate positioned behind him in space. The two nereids to the fore frame a gigantic fish, whose mouth violates the scheme (and in some sense, the constructed reality) of the rest of the plate by opening onto blank white paper, and a text acknowledgement of the Royal Society as printer-funder, and the date (‘Sumptibus Societas Regalis Londinesis 1685’). This device reminds us that even though the frontispiece (and the book’s many plates) depicts nature accurately and in detail, printed images themselves are an illusionistic device that represents a step between the reader and observation of nature in the field. They aren’t fakes, per se, but neither are they real–that is, nature in the flesh. While this isn’t Donne’s explicitly theological and bodily uncertainty, it does raise questions about the status of the illustrated book as an epistemological device. The book juxtaposed with the nautilus cups in the Cabinet once again troubles the status of the ‘real’ as reference, whether in artistic or scientific knowledge production.

[34] Van Somer II continues to draw attention to this discomforting ontological doubling with a figure of Athena sketching the section of the plate that is in front of her gaze and set back with respect to the frontispiece’s first section. She renders the fish in front of her from life on a square board, angled so as to be visible to the frontispiece’s audience. A finished sketch rests on the shelf below, on a long, curling sheet of paper. Knowledge herself works, as the Dutch would have it, naer het leven, drawing the flopping body of the gigantic fish in front of her, again visible at the same time to the reader-viewer, who sees both the depiction of the fish, and the depiction of its depiction. The interaction between the two layers of the frontispiece is thus a crash course in the layers of natural historical methodology and its many mediations through initial drawing, print, and reception. That this book would have itself been shelved in a Cabinet next to, say, an engraved nautilus cup, and again next to specimens of taxidermied fish, further problematizes making and looking at images as modes of knowing.[19]

[35] The second layer of the frontispiece features what at first seems to be a fairly normal scene of working fishermen. The sail the men raise in the background, flush against a sky decorated with flying fish, disrupts the illusion of the image as a realistic scene once again by being a paper space for the title of the volume. For all the nets, boats, and buckets, this portion of the plate, however real it seems, is twice-removed from the world—encased in the first layer where the mythological figures dwell, which is itself evidently part of a book, teased into existence by the open mouth of the central fish.

[36] Nothing is what it seems, even though the premise of Ray and Willoughby’s two volumes is that everything labeled and described therein is exactly what it seems, making it useful for the scientists of the Royal Society. Fish engraved onto the surface of a shell carry with them less expectation of physiological accuracy (because they are ornament in this context), and the same shell engravings as depicted in pronkstilleven examples are even further removed from the account of the scientific gaze in the seventeenth century. Yet Van Somer II’s frontispiece reminds us that this accretion of looking, the ways in which we are distanced from nature through art that also purports to bring us closer to it, is just as much a part of the seventeenth -century scientific collection as the plates that follow it of isolated, seemingly sterile and unproblematic specimens. The frontispiece to Willoughby’s Icthyographia and the Frewen Cup share both possible print sources of inspiration, but they also share a mode of visual dialectic that opens up the English Cabinet.

[37] Another crucial aspect of the frontispiece (and the book it introduces) is that it exists, in virtue of being a printed object, multiply. Natural objects resist this kind of reproducibility — after all, every nautilus shell is uniquely grown in the depths of the sea, and every pearl formed in what is often allegorically portrayed as the miraculously sealed womb of the oyster. The problem of reproducing the singular specimen to diffuse knowledge across a wide range of readers and places is one the Royal Society, its mostly expatriate Dutch printmakers, and the presses on the Continent, were keen to address. Martin Lister was an English antiquarian and scientist and friend to Ray and Willoughby, as well as a member of the same formative Royal Society cohort. He attacked the reproduction problem in two ways. First, he resisted importing a Dutch printer or engraver to manufacture his treatise on shells, instead training his own teenage daughters as limners and engravers (Roos 2019). The volumes were conceived and printed in England by English hands. The illustrations of the species of pearl oysters, one of which is a particularly full page, were completed by Anna and Susanna Lister in their father’s study, and the family retained the plates for further printings. This is not the case for Robert Hooke and Waller’s drawings of fossils and related shells, for instance, which were sent off to an engraver to copy for the publication of Hooke’s posthumous works in 1705 (Kusukawa 2013). That the acts of both drawing and engraving scientific images played crucial mediating roles in the transmission of knowledge was, however, duly noted by Hooke while he was alive, and he famously retained architect Christopher Wren for the plates of the Micrographia. Similarly, Wenceslas Hollar’s studies of shells, for which a mysterious patron remains unidentified, were etched by the artist himself from his own drawings (for a more detailed account, see Leonhard & Leuker 2013).

[38] Lister did not limit the problem of reproducibility to printed images, however. He was similarly interested in how one might reproduce mother-of-pearl, or pearls, either by mimicking nature or by other laboratory procedures. In his published accounts of his travels in France in 1698, he discusses the manufacture of artificial pearl from stripped-down shells:

Amongst the Bïoux made at Paris, a great quantity of Artificial Pearl is to be had, of divers sorts but the best are those which are made with Scales of Bleakes. These Bleaks they find in the River Seine at Paris and sell them to the Pearl-makers for that purpose[.] (Lister 1699: 142)

Lister then describes how the shells or scales of fish are beaten down to a powder, and then reconstructed with glass and cast into beads in the shape of natural pearls:

Enquiring of a Goldsmith a great Dealer in Pearl about those which were made the Scales of Fishes he told me that it is so: That the Scales were beat to Powder and that made into a Liquid Paste with Izing-glass and cast into the hollow Glass beads, and so gave colour by way of the foil from the inside. (Lister 1699: 142)

This is less about how nature makes pearls than how they might be credibly imitated for the purpose of commerce, but Lister is interested nonetheless in how art might form a plausible nature. The liquidity of pearls as capital is inseparable from the quiddity of the pearl as a thing, one which might in fact be merely an illusion of a ‘real’ pearl. The illusion interests Lister as much as the real pearl because it also relies on generation by (al)chemical process, albeit not the same process as forms the pearl inside the oyster.

[39] From ‘fake’ nature, Lister still learns something about the structure of minerals and accreted stones like pearls in the ‘real’ world. After the pearl merchants, Lister visits a manufacturer of false eyeballs, Hubins, who confirms that some of the same processes apply to his goods, which must match nature exactly – ‘this being a Case where Mis-matching is intolerable’. The process used to accrete fake pearls that do indeed perform the decorative function of pearls is also used to accrete eyes that perform the decorative (but not of course, anatomical) function of eyes. The replicability of nature depends on whether the artificial substitute is meant to been merely seen, or truly used in some way that would reveal its non-functionality. Then again, the purpose of a false eye or false pearl is in this case, to be looked at, so the artificial replica succeeds almost or as well as the real in fulfilling the function of a visual stand-in. The ontologies of the ‘fake’ shed light here on the similarly problematic category of the ‘real’.

[40] Of course, not all glass or paste replicas of nature last as long as prints of nature usually do, which in their durability often form our contemporary general impression of Early Modern collections. Most Cabinet objects, from the bodies of specimens to the delicate hybrid wares fashioned from them, do not survive. Since the prints outlast the bodies and often the other treasures, it is from the reproducible and multiple that we learn about the singular and irreplaceable. Further, Dutch printers and painters in England, as well as other expatriate artists and their representations, mediate what is superficially called the ‘English’ Cabinet in our reconstructed schemata. We are, as it were, looking through our own kind of pearlised glass eyes at the past—tinted by the inner foil of the reproductive media we tend to see more often and with more primacy. The encrustation and accretion of gazes in the period Cabinet extends forward to the modern gaze backward at that same Cabinet.

VI. Conclusions

[41] The line between real and fake is well and truly blurred just as intentionally as that between nature and its reproductions. Consider another engraving on a shell, by the same Cornelius Bellekin that engraved the Frewen Cup, this one created in late seventeenth-century Amsterdam (Figure 6). This little box is in the shape of a scallop or bivalve oyster, and was made to contain the original piece by Louis Métayer. It is in the same stylised oyster form: it opens on delicate hinges like an oyster, and it is even made out of the same materials (the shell itself) as an oyster. It plays on its oyster-ness even as it is manifestly not an oyster. It relies on the viewer’s knowledge or the origin of the then doubly-artificed shell in the ocean and organism to make the play on oyster/not-oyster work.

Figure 6. Cornelis Bellekin & Louis Métayer, ‘Engraved shell box’, late seventeenth century.  Image made available under a CC 1.0 license by the Amsterdam Museum: see <>

[42] Such objects pleased the collector’s sensibility because they also innately commented on the ontological status of the collection and its in-betweeness. The topic of the engraving is the allegorical figure of the element water, again drawing on several likely print sources. Bellekin’s central female nude is draped against a rocky shore, and stands out particularly because the lines she is made of were not later filled with blackened wax like the rest of the shell, but have a white-on-white softness. Like a similar nude of Marten de Vos from the same period that was likely a source for this depiction, she is surrounded by both the danger and bounty of the sea. The monstrous fish in the background of both the print and the shell, as well as the litoral pile of creatures at Aqua’s feet, are stereotypical elements of these depictions of water as element. Hieronymous Cock and Collaert treat the subject similarly. De Bruyn’s engraving after De Vos (ca. 1645-1665) of ‘Aqua’ also recalls Van Somer II’s frontispiece, with a bounty of natural diversity laid out in a didactic frame that suggests specimen display just as much as general oceanic fertility. The idea that scientific illustration exists separately from both viewers and makers of this kind of nominally decorative scheme is exploded both by scientific books and by these kinds of prints and objects.

[43] Bellekin’s box features a particularly striking example of where scientific, bibliographic, and artistic interests collide, in a detail of the shell pile at Aqua’s feet. Next to an oyster and a scallop is a shell that is a particular favourite of Early Modern collectors. It is a pointed, round conch found in the Pacific, known as Conus Litteratus or Conus Arabicus in the period and in early Linnean coinage, because its organised, linear striping and spotting looks like letters, or Arabic script. The enduring popularity of these shells in Early Modern cabinets is such that one even appears in a 1636 painting by Frans Francken the Younger of a Continental Kunstkammer. They were sold at auction in the Netherlands to collectors across Europe after they were imported on VoC ships coming back from the Pacific. Next to the portrait of Ortelius in this same cabinet, this shell—actually a closely related species called Conus Marmoreus—embodies the accretions of both depictions and multiple spaces spanning the early modern globe, whether literally, or with the hand across a newly bound world map.

[44] As Roos carefully explains, a Codex Marmoreus was one of the shells which Anna Lister engraved for her father, although not without knowing about the most famous representation of it, a drypoint by none other than Rembrandt. Anna corrects Rembrandt though, because she and her sister, along with their father, were interested in the left- or right-handedness of shells, and Rembrandt’s is, in fact, a mirror-image when printed (Roos 2019: 115). The biological specimen engraving requires the additional accuracy, but retains the aim of beauty. The Lister sisters ultimately engraved both shells with the name of books as well as the name of marble.

Anna Lister’s engraving of Conus Marmoreus next to Rembrandt’s print of the same shell

Figure 7. Anna Lister’s engraving of Conus Marmoreus  next to Rembrandt’s print of the same shell (Rijksmuseum)

[45] Known by the vernacular name of the ‘alphabet cone snail’ this creature—whether painted in the Netherlands or engraved in England—is indeed part of a larger metaphorical alphabet. In natural historical encyclopaediae like Willoughby’s Icthyographia and Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum (1685/92), each letter is a fish or a shell, a single species among a plethora in the language of the natural world. The alphabet cone snail also works in translation, from the shoals of the Pacific to the then newly-established headquarters of the Royal Society in Holborn, London. Each related object of the natural historical collection is too a letter, a volume perhaps in a shell library that could tell the whole history and composition of the sea if one could only read it. The oyster, like the book, opens in two halves when shucked; a bifolium.

[46] Bellekin’s engraved oyster box can also be read as a layering of meanings, places and substances around the pearl and nautilus—from Anglo-Dutch still life, to Cabinet objects from global networks, and finally to depictions of the marine life in scientific books that both the paintings and objects gesture towards. These literal and figurative encrustations ask what it means to look in the seventeenth-century English collection, and what looking allows us to know about the Cabinet and the world. Shucking the oyster of the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ via oceanic accretions in collections is not as easy as the deft slice of the knife. In their various intersecting media, and as mediations, the nautilus, oyster, and pearl interact with one another, the period viewer, and the modern art historian, to suggest that thinking with the Early Modern English Cabinet is as much a question of the deep ontology of depiction and source, as it is of materiality and origin. This Cabinet of sea things is itself certain and uncertain, briny and bitter, accreted and stripped, showing and shown.


​[1] The use of Pliny in Continental Wunderkammern, including specifically with respect to nautilus and mother of pearl, as well as other natural exotica associated with the four elements and Continents, is well documented. For a particularly relevant case here, see Baadj 2012, especially pages 221-3.​[back to text]​

​[2] ‘Of the Calamarie, Cuttles, Polypes, and Boat-fishes called Nautils’ (Holland 1634: Ch. XXIX). The (inaccurate) description, following Pliny, reads: But among the greatest wonders of Nature, is that fish, which of some is called Nautilos, of others Pompilos. This fish, for to come aloft above the water, turneth upon his backe, and raiseth or heaveth himselfe up by little and little: and to the end he might swim with more ease, as disburdened of a sinke, he dischargeth all the water within him at a pipe. After this, turning up his two foremost clawes or armes, hee displaieth and stretcheth out betweene them, a membrane or skin of a wonderfull thinnesse: this serveth him in stead of a saile in the aire above water: with the rest of his armes or clawes, he roweth and laboureth under water; and with his taile in the mids, hee directeth his course, and steereth as it were with an helme. Thus holdeth he on and maketh way in the sea, with a faire shew of a foist or galley under saile. Now if he be afraid of any thing in the way, hee makes no more adoe but draweth in water to ballaise his bodie, and so plungeth himselfe downe and sinketh to the bottome.​[back to text]​

​[3] A good, brief overview of Roestraten’s still life in England that informs this short summary and later sections is to be found in Shaw 1990.​[back to text]​

​[4] The account of shucking methods comes both from a visit to the market and Smith 2016.​[back to text]​

​[5] The provenance of many of these objects is identified by their makers’ marks, and listed in the V&A’s description of the painting, item P.3-1939.​[back to text]​

​[6] ‘Still Life with Ostrich Egg Cup and the Whitfield Heirlooms’ at the AIC, and ‘A Vanitas c.1666-1700’ in the Royal Collection Trust.​[back to text]​

​[7] On the nature of Dutch artists working in England in the long term and the relatively low status of still life in England under Charles II, see Curd 2010. For period accounts of still life versus other types of painting see Talley 1983.​[back to text]​

​[8] This eventually made it into print under Tradescant’s name, even though Ashmole may have written most of the source material: see Tradescant 1656.​[back to text]​

​[9] See Wilkins 1953. This find was brought to my attention by the Sloane Letters Project and historian Anna Marie Roos.​[back to text]​

​[10] The nautilus is, of course, a cephalopod, but Early Modern natural historians associated the shape of the animal’s shell with the snail.​[back to text]​

​[11] For an overview of the shell still life in the Netherlands (including examples by Linard and Kalf) and its emblematic origins, see Segal & Jordan 1989, esp. Chapter 5, ‘The Shell Still Life’, pp.77-92.​[back to text]​

​[12] These volumes were part of a long natural-historical argument that also concerned the relation of the nautilus to fossil ammonites: see Findlen 2015: 238.​[back to text]​

​[13] The correspondence between these cosmoi, and especially between ocean and macrocosm on earth, is briefly drawn out in Delbourgo (2011: 152-3, 156), but I expand and allegorise the concept.​[back to text]​

​[14] A full exploration of Sloane’s slavery and his collections, as well as his books, is currently being spearheaded by the ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ consortium at the British Museum, British Library, and Natural History Museum in London.​[back to text]​

​[15] Once again, Early Modern sources here evoke Pliny’s description, or Holland’s English translation of it.​[back to text]​

​[16] Provocatively, this toplessness, and the woman’s body as an object in parts, might be suggested by the form of the shell itself, as it is in Nuremberg examples of goldworking (see Grasskamp 2017).​[back to text]​

​[17] The accretion of nationalities present in the cup, even for Dutch viewers right after its manufacture, is also significant (Kehoe 2011).​[back to text]​

​[18] For more on this genre of Neptune figure in general on nautilus cups, see Zuroski 2017. Zuroski argues that the monstrous figures on the cups can be read in light of ambivalence about Dutch nautical power in particular (7). For Zuroski, it is the monstrous and grotesque aspects of these cups’ decoration that trigger their formal fluidity as meaningful signifiers. She also describes the presence of the cups in Dutch still lives, including Kalf and the Paston Treasure Painting, in terms of excess and instability in a culture of plenty.​[back to text]​

​[19] One such example resembles the surviving taxidermied pufferfish of Tradescant that hangs in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford today.​[back to text]​


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