Discover a rare and beautiful object made by one of Scotland’s most significant female artists.

Pāua shell bowl fact file



Made by

Phoebe Anna Traquair and JM Talbot


Height 348mm

Museum reference


On display

Design for Living, Level 5, National Museum of Scotland

Did you know?

Pāua shells are native to New Zealand and are often used in Maori art.

Paua shell cup by Phoebe Traquair

This unusual decorative piece was created in 1906 using a pāua shell. It is decorated with exquisite enamelled plaquettes by the Edinburgh artist Phoebe Traquair (1852-1936), showing scenes from the mythological story of Cupid and Psyche.

The silver and moonstone stand was designed by Phoebe Traquair’s son, the architect Ramsay Traquair, and was made by the Edinburgh silversmith JM Talbot.

Phoebe Traquair kept this bowl on its stand along with another very similar one, dating from 1918-19. Both passed down within her family and were acquired, with many other items, directly from her grandchildren in 1989.

Detail of the paua shell cup

Who was Phoebe Traquair?

Phoebe TraquairPhoebe Traquair (left) was an important figure in the history of Scottish art and design. An eminent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, she was also the first well-known professional female artist working in Scotland and the first woman to be made a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, in 1920.

Born Phoebe Anna Moss in Ireland, Traquair studied art in Dublin but came to Scotland at the time of her marriage to the palaeontologist Dr Ramsay Traquair, Keeper of Natural History at the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (an earlier name for the National Museum of Scotland).

In the 1880s, Phoebe Traquair turned again to the profession she had set aside in order to care for her children. She undertook commissions for friends and clients, and soon gained a reputation as an embroiderer, jeweller, mural painter and illuminator of manuscripts.

Influenced by the poet, artist and visionary William Blake, by the Pre-Raphaelites and by her travels in Italy, her work was detailed and romantic, and her subjects often allegorical, religious or mythical. The murals she created for the Catholic Apostolic Church (now the Mansfield Traquair Centre) are perhaps her greatest achievement, earning the building the nickname ‘Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel’.

At the turn of the century, Traquair took up enamelling. She was attracted by the rich colours, and, as well as making small plaques for jewellery, caskets and chalices, executed larger works in this medium. Five of the six enamels for the pāua chalice are dated 1906 (on their backs). The four enamels around the stem show scenes from the famous Classical love story of Cupid and Psyche, with the figures delicately outlined in gilt.

Silver writing casket with enamels by Phoebe Traquair

Above: Silver writing casket, with enamel plaques by Phoebe Traquair. You can also see Phoebe Traquair’s work in the Industry and Empire and Inspired by Nature galleries. Phoebe Traquair photo © National Library of Scotland.

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