This casting bottle, with its pierced domed cover was for the sprinkling or ‘casting‘ of scented water, usually rosewater, in order to mask the many unpleasant odours which a Tudor or Jacobean lady would have had to endure. They not only masked unpleasant smells but also guarded against illness, as the medical thinking at the time believed in the miasmatic theory of contagion and spread of disease. It was thought that infections and diseases passed from person to person transmitted by foul air and evil vapours. In 1674 Robert Boyle published his Suspicions about the Hidden Realities of the Air, which expounded on the theory, the belief of the medical establishment thorughout the Middle Ages. Therefore, as discussed in the catalogue entry for the pomander, scented herbs and scented waters were carried on the person to ward against illness.
Casting bottles such as this, which would have had suspension chains, were carried on the body in the same manner as a pomander. A related silver-gilt example in the Gilbert Collection is discussed by Timothy Schroder in, The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, Los Angeles, 1988, cat. no. 5, pp. 44-47. He notes that casting bottles at this time appear in two distinct forms, examples such as this, pear-shaped and ovoid in section, originally fitted with suspension chains, and circular examples without chains. The 1574 inventory of the Jewel House lists ‘IItem oone Casting bottell guilt with a Chaine’ and ‘Item oone Casting bottell of siluer and gullt being rounde withowte Cheine.’ He notes that they were popular gifts at Christmas in the court of King Henry VIII, quoting from the archives of the Royal Jewel House, which record the gift of two casting bottles, each weighing 6 ½ ounces, given to the King by Sir John Hussey (1465/6–1536/7), later first Baron Hussey, Chief Butler of England. Later in 1523 Richard, 3rd Earl of Kent (1481–1524) presented the King with ‘a little botell with a Cheyne of silver and gilte for rose water’, which weighed 11 ounces.
Charles Jackson in his Illustrated History of English Plate, London, 1911, vol. 2, p. 575, describes the use of rosewater for the washing of hands, being sprinkled at the conclusion of a dinner or banquet. He comments that the floral essences were not poured from ewers but from small vase shaped sprinklers, such as the present lot. Schroder comments that Jackson cites no reference for this account, but concludes that casting bottles such as this, were classed as toilet plate rather than dining plate, as listed in a 1540 inventory of Edward Seymour’s toilet plate listing ‘a casting flagon gilt’. It is evident that such casting bottles were rare as contemporary inventories of the Royal Jewel House in 1575 and Hardwick Hall in 1601 record only 13 and 3 casting bottles respectively, whilst the same inventories record 116 and 15 salt cellars. The Gilbert Collection casting bottle is in silver gilt and retains its original chains. It is of pilgrim flask form and Is hallmarked for 1553. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a similar silver casting bottle dated circa 1540 and another of mounted Fatimid rock crystal, the mounts circa 1540. A further silver example of 1563 is also found in the collection.
The body of this casting bottle is constructed from two sections of cowrie shell, almost certainly from the Indian Ocean. In common with the Fatimid crystal mounted casting bottle cited above, the silversmith has employed an unusual material to create a more costly object. However, the Fatimid crystal would have been a much rarer and more unusual material at the time, as cowrie shells were not so highly prized and more readily available. The Paston Treasure, immortalised in the anonymous Dutch still life painting of circa 1670, now in the collection of the Norwich Castle Museum, includes a silver-gilt mounted cowrie shell flask. This now lost object is described in the inventory of ‘Curiosities, in Lady Paston’s closet, at Oxnead – Hall temp. of Cha.2’, where it is described as ‘specled shell bottle set in sill[ver]’. Wolfram Koeppe in his catalogue entry in A. Moore, A. Flis and F. Vanka ed., The Paston Treasure, Microcosm of the Known World, London, 2018, cat. no. 28, p.300, comments that cowrie shells of this type were ‘a must have in the Kunstkammer’. He also comments on the difference in colour between the mounts which hold the shell and the stem and base of the flask, formed as a grotesque crouching figure. Could the upper silver-gilt mounted section with its shell body have been a casting bottle, perhaps later mounted in the second half of the 17th century?