John Whitfield (d.1691)
There are a number of branches of the Whitfield family, two of which were based in Kent, the Whitfields of Tenterden and a cadet branch the Whitfields of Canterbury. John Whitfield was a member of the latter family and our knowledge of his him is chiefly based on the details recorded by Edward Hasted (1732-1812) in his History of the County of Kent, published in Canterbury in 1799. The Whitfields of Canterbury descended from John Whitfield (d.1651) to whom one must presume the ostrich egg cup originally belonged. He and his wife Katherine resided at Whitfield House descibed by Hasted as 'a handsome house. His grandson John Whitfield was is possession of this house on his death in 1691. It is in his detailed will that we find the present cup recorded, Hasted, op. cit., p. 427
'By his will, he gave, among other bequests to his son John, a large medal of Arabian gold, of almost 10l in value,; a large medal of the King of Sweden; his mother's locket of diamonds in three parts; his grandfather's sealed ring; his stricking watch ; the Estrich cup, [sic] and Queen Elizabeth's glass, which was his grandfather's'
It appears that a number of the bequests (as noted above in bold) are visible in the still life painting offered with this lot. Presumably the painting was commissioned by Whitfield to record family relics and cabinet objects in his possession as a way of creating a record of both his interests and his family's history. Whitfield had studied law and was a member of the Middle Temple, however Hasted thought he must have had a poor view of his profession as he 'debarred both his sons from following'. He mentions Whitfield's ingenuity and that he had constructed a furnace near his house in which he had produced glasses. He also makes note of a fire engine, which he himself had designed and which is listed in his will. It was later purchased from his executors by the parish of St. Mary Magdalen (Mss. DCb/E/F/Canterbury, St Mary Magdalene/1,1692).
On his death a monument was raised in his memory in the church of St. Mary Magdalen in Canterbury.
Ostrich Egg Cups
This rare and important survival from the reign of Elizabeth I, like the nautilus cup, lot 51, combines one of nature's wonders with silver-gilt mounts of the highest quality. The exquisitely chased and 'tooled' cherub's masks, military trophies and fruit garlands recall vividly François I 'antique' style, associated with the decoration of Fontainbleau Palace and introduced to England by architects such as Nicholas Bellin and Nicasius Roussel.
Constructed by Queen Elizabeth I's jeweller, John Spilman (or Speilman), this cup epitomises the heights that certain London goldsmiths had achieved by the later years of the 16th century to accommodate the demand of dealers in London who specialised, from at least the 16th century, in mostly such exotic materials as shells, coral, pearls, hard-stones, rock crystal and of course ostrich eggs.
This cup and cover forms part of an extremely small group of mounted ostrich egg cups of English manufacture. Often referred to during the medieval period as 'Gryphon eggs', ostrich eggs were highly prized and, like other similar exotica such as mother-of-pearl and coconuts, they were often mounted in richly chased silver or silver-gilt mounts. Their delicate nature however has ensured that few have survived and indeed of the handful of surviving examples most have had the egg replaced with a silver body or new egg. Surviving English examples include:
The Goodricke Cup, 1581, now with silver body, The British Museum
The Robert Ducie Cup, 1584, with replaced egg, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
The Richard Fletcher Cup, 1592, with original leather case, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Burghley Cup, 1594, with replaced silver body and later cover, Burghley House, Lincolnshire
The Exeter College Cup, unmarked, circa 1610, possibly the gift of James Clere, Exeter College, Oxford
Comparisons can also be made with The Hutton Cup, now in the Royal Collection, which was sold from the estate of the late J. T. d'Arcy Hutton, Christie's, 27 November 1957, lot 138, for the then astonishing price of £8,000. Although not a mounted piece, it is also by John Spilman and has a similar profile to present cup and with an identical baluster finial.
John Spilman was one of the many foreign goldsmiths, working in London in the 16th century who evaded the regulations set down by the Goldsmiths' Company. Included in the regulations was the stipulation that only children of English parents should be taken as apprentices. In spite of this Spilman, a native of Lindau on Lake Constance in Bavaria, registered his first mark in 1582 and went on to become the Queen's Jeweller. He was also heavily involved in the setting up of the paper industry in London and a number of Royal grants survive in which he is referred to as 'our beloved John Spylman, Goldsmith of our Jewelles.' He continued to be patronised by the crown after the death of Elizabeth and was knighted by James I in 1605.