You need look no further than books to gauge how popular shellwork has become in recent years – for collecting, for crafting, for decorating. The 1988 Neptune’s Treasures, with its focus on Victorian shell collectibles, has achieved cult status, so hard-to-find, in fact, that it’s selling on the Internet for $250. The newer Shell Chic and two books about sailors valentines have all found general readerships.
But sailors valentines are just one of many sought-after shell categories. The current fad is even stronger than that of the 1950s when the emphasis was on kitschy crafts, not collecting (remember those shell-cum-flamingo TV lamps?).
In fact, the history of Western shellwork travels a path from shell collecting to shell crafting, from the creation of large shell objects to small ones as shellwork moved from the 17th to the 19th centuries, from the aristocracy to the middle class, from France to Italy to England to the USA. They went from revered symbols of nature to mass-produced vacation souvenirs.
The first big shell boom occurred in the 1600s when demand became so great that Dutch merchants opened a central shell market to supply connoisseurs with rare species for their “cabinets of curiosities” and architects with enough shells for the “grottoes” that were sprouting up on noble estates.
These shell-decked grottoes began as 1500s Italian adaptations of ancient Roman ones and were meant to complement Italian Renaissance gardens. In 1551, Claude d’Urfe, French ambassador to the Holy See, returned with a grotto for his chateau in the Loire.
By 1600, Queen Margot had commissioned a grotto at Issy-les-Moulineaux; the “Grotto of Thetis”, at Louis XIV’s Versailles, was built in 1665. A century later, Louis XVI had a shell cottage erected for Marie Antoinette at Rambouillet.
Although Woburn Abbey boasted a shell grotto as early as 1630, grotto mania only hit Britain in the 1730s. Even writer Alexander Pope revelled in shell structures (Pope’s was a “shell temple”). At Goodwood Park, the Duchess of Richmond and her two daughters spent two years completing their grotto. In Ireland, famed craftswoman Mary Delaney did grottoes for the Bishop of Killala and at Delville.
At Exmouth, in western England, the Parminter sisters created “a la Ronde,” an interior so fragile that it must be viewed via CCTV monitors today. No one knows who designed Margate’s shell grotto, darkened by centuries of candle dust, but it is also too fragile to be cleaned. The shells for Lord Shaftsbury’s 1751 grotto cost ten thousand pounds but the oyster shells compensated somewhat by containing pearls.
In Germany, at Sans Soucci outside Berlin, Frederick the Great filled a vast shell-decorated room with shell-replica furniture. Although Louis XV had turned real giant clam shells into basins, monarchs like Frederick and England’s Prince Regent preferred reproductions of giant shells as grotto furniture. For the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the Prince Regent commissioned a set of chairs and tables carved from wood and painted to imitate outsized shells.
The majority of shell furniture, however, dates from the late 1800s and was mostly made by two Venetian companies, Remi and Pauli. These pieces are highly valued because they fit into the “fantasy furniture” mold –like rustic furniture with carved bears.
With some aristocrats commissioning sea captains to bring back entire cargoes of shells, it’s not surprising that ladies of the manor soon moved from covering grotto walls to embellishing smaller objects with shells, too. A British aunt-and-niece team, Mrs. Beale and Miss Harvey Bonnell, filled a two-foot-tall shell-covered vase with 300 shell flowers between 1779-1781.
By the early 1800s, Mrs. Hannah Robertson was selling shellwork supplies in her shop on London’s Grosvenor Square. By mid-century, would-be crafters could buy their shells already sorted into sets along with printed patterns for forming shell flowers. An especially popular end use for them was the “shell trophy”, a high tree- or arch-like structure of shell flowers towering above a tiny figure or ship.
In 1845 Londoners could visit Madame Le Lacheur’s “Fancy Shell-Work Exhibition, open daily from 10 till Dusk.” For a shilling admission, they saw Madame L’s shell figures, birds, animals, flowers, “endless devices surpassing anything of the kind ever brought before the Public.”
Also very popular in this period were baskets composed of tiny rice shells. Used as card holders, bridal cake toppers, and table decorations, they might also be carried to a ball by a young woman wearing a matching rice shell wreath or tiara. Crafters coated cardboard boxes with plaster of Paris and pressed small shells all over the surface while the plaster was still wet.
One Englishman may well have been single handedly responsible for unleashing the shell souvenir on the world. Marcus Samuel, an inveterate shell collector even as a child, grew up to become the biggest importer of shells and shell novelties from Barbados.
Possibly the most famous shell import from Barbados was the sailors valentine. For many years, accepted wisdom was that these hexagonally shaped boxed collages really were made by sailors. But, in 1970, Judith Coolidge Hughes determined that the wood of their boxes, the newspapers of their sectioning, and all 35 shell species found in them were indigenous to Barbados – and that their rigid patterns were a sure sign of mass production.
Sailors valentines were a direct descendant of partitioned wood workboxes. While early workboxes were made for needlework tools, special ones soon became available for shellcrafting. The compartments – sometimes in moveable trays – were meant to keep the shells separated by category. The most extravagant contained a shell collage in the lid for milady to copy. So it’s easy to see how the lid collage combined with the compartments to become the sailors valentine.
Early ones were often individually commissioned. For example, an extant “double” valentine has lettering around the left center saying, “A Gift From a Friend, A.R.R.”, lettering around the right saying, “Barbados, Jan. 1847”. (Commercial sailors valentines sported generic sayings like “Truly Thine,” “Think of Me,” “Forget Me Not.” Commissioned sailors valentines might also be personalized with a cabinet photo.
The world’s largest collection of sailors valentines is housed in the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y. It which also has a wide selection of smaller Victorian shell souvenirs. These include shell dolls, bouquets, baskets and miniature shell-decked furniture: sofas, chairs, tables and many kinds of cabinets
Among the shell cabinets that American wholesaler Butler Brothers featured in its 1908 catalog were mini bookcases, chiffoniers, corner cupboards, and wardrobes. Closely related were boxes, sometimes sporting a tiny pincushion.
Pincushion novelties shaped like anchors or chairs, fell into Butler Brothers’ “utility” category along with shell-decorated paperweights, toothpick holders, and thermometers (hanging or glued to a base). There were also wall and hand mirrors. Oddly, the catalog copy emphasizes the practical and decorative sides of shell novelties, citing their souvenir status only at the very end. Even odder, the “utility assortment” sounds anything but – with hand painting, fancy tinting, gold decoration, jewels, and velvet pincushions alongside the shellwork!
More casual shellwork displayed a Native American influence – including painted scenes, jewelry, and constructions. Those TV lamps, for example, have as their ancestors circa 1900 arrangements of large shells replicating cliffs, with a tiny figure, boat, or lighthouse for perspective. Seascapes of shells, seaweed, and coral were found under the glass roundels that centered shell-encrusted star- and heart-shaped souvenirs.
While shell dolls constructed from large white shells enjoyed a 1950s fling, the truly collectible kind are from Brittany, made with tiny shells glued onto stiffened canvas costumes or wooden bodies. Most ’50s dolls represent women but French ones include men in their Breton best.
Today there are artists turning out new sailors valentines, and others creating not-so-honest fakes. But amassing shell-decorated collectibles truly from summers past may well be worth your while, for aesthetic, sentimental, and investment reasons.