James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, Baron of Offaly (1722-1773), son of Robert, Earl of Kildare and his wife Mary, eldest daughter of William O'Brien, 3rd Earl of Inchiquin, was born on 29 May 1722, and styled Lord Offaly until 1744, when he succeeded to the peerage as Earl of Kildare. He served as Member of Parliament for Athy in 1741-44 while underage. On 21 February 1746 he was created Viscount Leinster of Taplow, co. Buckingham. Two weeks previously he had married, at her father's house in Whitehall Place, St Margaret's Westminster, Emilia Mary (1731-1832), god-daughter of King George II and second surviving daughter of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, and his wife Sarah, daughter and co-heiress of William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan. James and Emilia had no less than nine sons and eight daughters.
These shell dishes form part of the Leinster Dinner Service, an extensive table-service made for the Duke of Leinster between 1745 and 1747, when he was the Earl of Kildare. The Wickes Ledgers, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum list the entire service, the present dishes being listed as:
1747 The Rt. Hon. Earl of Kildare, Debtor
May 22 oz dwt Cost per oz £ s d
to 6 Escallop'd Shells 22 5 6/1 6 15 4
to making 15/- each 4 10
to Graving 6 letters and Corts 4 6
Although the convention is to refer to such dishes as butter-shells, there is some evidence that these were used for a dish of seafood. Elaine Barr in George Wickes, Royal Goldsmith 1698-1761, 1980, p. 199 in her detailed discussion of this service suggests, 'Oysters baked in natural scallop shells with breadcrumbs, cream and butter were popular delicacies in the eighteenth century. Whilst these silver scallop shells make ideal dishes for butter served in the elegant curls favoured today, basins appear to have been used for butter in Wickes' time and two such were traded in by a client in 1738.... it is possible that the sugar basins purchased in such quantities served a dual purpose.'