Shelter from the Sea: Wedgwood’s art and the science of the paper nautilus

Peter Kaellgren and Janet Waddington. Janet Waddington is an assistant curator in the Palaeontology section of the ROM’s Department of Natural History. Peter Kaellgren is the author of Wedgwood: Artistry and Innovation, published by the Royal Ontario Museum Press.

Celebrated potter Josiah Wedgwood I (1730–1795) took great interest in the latest science and technology. His enthusiasm for conchology, the study of shells, inspired designs for a dessert service introduced by Wedgwood around 1790, including the bowl on which this one is based. Periodically, the Wedgwood Factory has revived models from the original service. This version of the "Nautilus Footed Bowl," with its coral stem and shell foot, was redesigned for Wedgwood in the 1930s by architect Keith Murray.

But its name has always been deceiving. The 21.5-cm-tall bowl does not actually represent the shell of a chambered nautilus, but that of the so-called paper nautilus. Neither true nautilus, nor paper, and not even technically a shell, the paper nautilus shell is actually the egg case of a tropical-to-subtropical octopus called Argonauta. The female Argonauta uses specially adapted tentacles to secrete a paper-thin case or brood pouch of calcite to hold and protect her eggs. She also lives inside the case for her own protection and buoyancy control. Argonauta is the only genus of octopus known to produce such an egg case. While other octopi live on the seafloor near shore, Argonauta lives in the open ocean.

Unlike its namesake the chambered nautilus, which is permanently attached within its shell, the paper nautilus uses its specialized tentacles to hold onto its "shell" and keep it from washing away. Wedgwood's bowl appears most closely to resemble the egg case of Argonauta hians, which averages just 8 to 12 cm long, although a fair amount of artistic license is evident, including a considerable increase in size. Combining inspiration from natural history with design and ceramic technology, this bowl is a perfect embodiment of Wedgwood's fascinations—and a worthy representative of the varied collections of the Royal Ontario Museum.

JANET WADDINGTON is an assistant curator in the Paleontology section of the ROM's Department of Natural History.

PETER KAELLGREN is a retired curator from the European section of the ROM's Department of World Cultures. He is the author of Wedgwood: Artistry and Innovation, published by the Royal Ontario Museum Press.