In medieval Europe the term nef described a vessel in the shape of a boat or a ship.

This superb example served as a salt cellar: a nautilus shell forms the hull of the vessel, which rests on the tail of a mermaid reclining on a hexagonal gilt plinth on six claw-and-ball feet. Both masts have main and top-sails. The stern contains a detachable salt cellar with two sailors holding spears and round bucklers. Two other figures stand on cannons, a third clings to the forecastle and another climbs a ladder to the top of the main mast. At the foot of the mast, seated on a settle are Tristan and Iseult on their fateful journey from Ireland to Cornwall, playing chess. When the work was acquired, advice was sought from the National Maritime Museum to make its rigging more accurate and the ropes are all modern. The date and origin of this exquisite craftsmanship remain unknown; some scholars have connected it with the goldsmith Pierre le Flamand and dated it 1482, but others believe it to be as late as 1527-28, because of its stylistic similarities to French Renaissance silver of the 1530s.


Marquess of Exeter

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