Ostrich Cup

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John Spilman (English, born Bavaria, died 1626)
England, London

Ostrich Cup, 1590

Silver gilt and ostrich egg
32 cm (12 1/2 in.)
Mary Swissler Oldberg Memorial Fund, 2009.113

This elegant cup was made in England in 1590. Its elaborate silver-gilt cover and stem enhance the surface of an unexpected material: an ostrich egg. Ostriches and their eggs were very rare in Europe at the time, and not much has changed—when the cup was sold to the Art Institute, it had to go before the British export review board to obtain a separate license for the egg itself, because ostriches are now an endangered species.

Eighty years after the cup was made by John Spilman, Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraeten painted it for the grandson of John Whitfield, the original owner of the cup. The painting prominently features the cup, along with other objects that were being recorded for posterity. In much the same way as we might videotape items in our home to make a record for an insurance company, the painting records the cup’s existence, as does the will of Whitfield’s grandson (also named John Whitfield), which details the items in the painting: “a large medal of the King of Sweden, his mother’s locket of diamonds in three parts, his grandfather’s sealed ring, his stricking [sic] watch, the Estrich [sic] cup, and Queen Elizabeth’s Glass, which was his grandfather’s.

— Permanent collection label