The Wallace Collection

Museum number XII A112
Museum number XII A112
Detail of lid
Detail of lid
Treasure of the Month - September 2007

An enamelled cup from Augsburg

Standing only a few inches high, this stunningly beautiful cup is a classic Renaissance Treasury (Kunstkammer, literally ‘Art room’) object.

It is in one sense an ordinary footed cup and could actually be used to drink from, but it has been made so precious by the extraordinary basse taille enamels with which its surfaces are covered, that it is difficult to imagine even its first owner daring to use it. Thus, like many Kunstkammer objects, a wonderful array of which can be seen in Renaissance Silver from the Schroder Collection, the cup was probably made primarily to be displayed and to be admired for its intricate workmanship and witty, teasing designs. It has been chosen as the September Treasure of the Month as a unique opportunity for it be seen alongside a very similar cup in the Schroder Collection. The cup consists of a simple conical bowl with a baluster stem and simple foot, and with a detachable cover surmounted by a spherical finial. Almost the entire surface is covered with coloured enamels, made in a technique known as basse taille or shallow cutting. The designs are first cut into the surface of the metal and then enamel, a glass-like compound, is applied to the areas of design and fixed by firing. Different metallic oxides are mixed in to the enamel to provide the array of blue, green and red colours. Some of the enamel has been lost in parts of the Wallace Collection cup, revealing how carefully the surface underneath was carefully patterned before the translucent enamel was laid over it, which helps to explain why the surviving areas of enamel are so vibrant. This type of enamel work was pioneered in Augsburg, the great metal-working centre in Southern Germany, by the goldsmith David Altenstetter (c.1547-1617), who became a master in the Augsburg goldsmiths’ guild in 1573. Altenstetter was renowned for the artistic and technical quality of his basse taille enamels. Although other goldsmiths imitated him, one contemporary wrote on his death in 1617 of ‘How many times I warned him that his art, by which the enamel does not spring out of the metal, has been mastered by no one else and he would take it to the grave.’ Altenstetter probably made the enamels for both the Schroder and Wallace Collection cups. Based on ornament books published in Augsburg by Daniel Mignot, the designs present a delightful world of miniature fantasy, filled with animals, birds, flowers, musical instruments and insects, including on the Wallace cup a charming line of butterflies balancing on a rail at the top of the central section. Altenstetter worked on the two cups with another Augsburg goldsmith, Jeremias Michael (c.1575-1640), who was probably responsible for the basic form of the cups and for assembling them and finishing them, and who applied his makers’ mark. They were probably made c.1610.

We do not know when the Wallace Collection cup was acquired, but it was probably bought by Sir Richard Wallace, who had a great love for the arts of the Renaissance.

Further Reading

  • John Hayward, Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumph of Mannerism 1540-1620, London 1976
  • Philippa Glanville, Silver, London 1996*
  • Timothy Schroder, Renaissance Silver from the Schroder Collection, London 2007*

(*Available from the Museum shop)