The Romance of the Seashell

By Sandra d’Angelo Spring 2021 | ISSUE 79

In the 17th century, the exotic shells brought back by the Dutch East India Company stimulated an infatuation for shells that took hold of European collectors, writes Sandra d’Angelo.

The very wealthy, along with royalty, collected the prized rare shells with great passion. Dutch merchants opened a market specifically to sell these exotic rarities and newly discovered shell specimens. Archduke Ferdinand II devoted four rooms of his castle in Austria to shells, fossils, amber and coral, and the upper classes of Europe collected the shells in their ‘cabinets of curiosity’, a room outfitted with display shelves and cases, to showcase a costly collection.

Architects designed and created grand grottos covered in shells in many of the noble estates on the continent. Intended as an enhancement to Italian Renaissance gardens that were so in favour at the time, the shell-covered grottos often copied ancient Roman examples.

The most famous shell room in England was created by the fourth earl of Bedford, at Woburn Abbey, in the early 17th century; it’s been described as: ‘a magnificent baroque conceit with bold architectural motifs, decorative panels and three-dimensional figures in niches all worked in shells.’ The French Queen Margaret, first wife of Henry IV of France, commissioned a shell grotto at Issy-les-Moulineaux and the Grotto of Tethys at Louis XIV’s Versailles was built in 1665 as an under-the-sea retreat for the king, with precious stones, shells and mirrors. A century later, Louis XVI had a shell cottage built at Rambouillet for Marie Antoinette.

During the early 18th century, the collecting craze for shells in Holland rivalled the Dutch madness for collecting tulip bulbs. The shells were so expensive they were regarded as investments; records show that at least once, a shell sold for more than had been paid for the now-revered painting by Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. ‘Shells on the beach that used to be the playthings for children now have the price of jewels,’ wrote Dutch author Roemer Visscher. ‘It is bizarre what a madman spends his money on.’

Indeed… one Amsterdam collector who died in 1844 had 2389 shells in his collection. Several days before his death, he had the collection stored in a chest with three separate locks. The three executors of his estate were each given a key, in order that the collection could only be shown to a potential buyer when all three were present.

Shellwork, grottos and grand scale furniture either covered with shells or meant to imitate shells remained popular throughout royal houses during the next century, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that shellwork truly came into vogue for the upper and middle classes.

As ships brought back entire cargoes of shells for the whims of the aristocracy, covering smaller objects with shells soon became fashionable for upper class ladies of leisure. Conchology was easily accessible to everyone, and shell collecting required no specialist equipment. One conchologist who visited the British island of Herm reported seeing ‘at least two hundred excursionists, who were busily engaged in picking up shells on the famous beach there; some of them on their hands and knees, others in various recumbent attitudes, and all provided with bags and baskets.’ In the 1840s, a British magazine recommended that shell collecting was ‘peculiarly suited to ladies’ because ‘there is no cruelty in the pursuit and the shells are so brightly clean, so ornamental to a boudoir’. By the 1860s some of Britain’s well-known locations had been stripped clean of specimens.

Victorian ladies could also purchase shellwork supplies in Mrs Hannah Robertson’s shop on London’s Grosvenor Square, along with The Ladies School of Arts which contained a number of techniques for shellwork. First of all the boxes were constructed using heavy pasteboard. They were lined with absorbent cotton and covered with velvet or silk, and the sides were sewn together using strong thread. Muslin was pasted over the seams and fixed with strong glue, and then a cushion was attached to the top and covered with shells. Pre-made plain boxes were also available. Little packets were sold with shells already sorted and accompanied by printed patterns for forming shell flowers, boxes and frames. Many of the boxes contained mirrors inside the lid and had heart-shaped pincushions attached, and some designs incorporated paper scraps.

To attach shells to a decorative object, they were first soaked in fresh water for a few hours. To restore a lost lustre, they were washed in clear water with a small amount of dissolved glue. The periwinkle needed special treatment with acetic acid to remove the outer scale and reveal the pearly iridescence beneath.

After the shells were categorised according to size and colour, they were laid out to form a design before being dipped into a white wax and glue that adhered them to the cotton batting. Many ladies also put together imitation bouquets using various miniature shells to create the desired flower. Even Queen Victoria was fond of shell art; she often commissioned gifts of shell work portraits for her court favourites.

In 1703, the Edinburgh Gazette was advertising the services of a woman in London teaching shellwork techniques which included ‘Shell-work in sconces, rocks or flowers.’ The Scottish diarist James Boswell refers to a Miss McLean as ‘the most accomplished lady I have found in the Highlands. She knows French, musick [sic], and drawing, sews neatly, makes shellwork, and can milk cows; in short, she can do everything.’

At the same time, enterprising working-class men and women who populated the port towns of France, Holland and England found a way to craft and sell their handmade little ‘shell souvenirs’ to bring much-needed income to their households.

While it’s true that some sailors might have created shellwork items, it was more common for them to purchase shellwork souvenirs in a port where their vessel stopped. After spending months away from their girlfriends, wives and mothers, sailors were eager to purchase a small souvenir for their loved ones and most of the shellwork souvenirs were designed for women: small boxes, sewing drawers, little frames, small mementoes that a sailor could tuck into his kit to bring back home.

A shellwork industry sprang up worldwide in many busy ports. The port of Barbados is thought to be the place where the Sailor’s Valentine, a two-sided wood case filled with shell work, originated.

Collecting this charming Victorian shell craft is steadily gaining popularity today. Shell covered boxes are still being made, and are beautiful in their own right. But if you wish to collect true antiques, heed the following advice.

A telltale way to detect if you are purchasing a true antique is to look at the shells. Are they a little worn, do they have some patina? Is the box covered in shells that are not as common as those you can find anywhere today? Pelican’s feet shells, for instance, were favourites in the 1800s and plentiful; these days they are extremely rare to find.

Among the most popular shell souvenirs made and bought in the 19th century were Sailor’s Valentines, two octagonal wood frames joined by a hinge, filled with complementary or matching shell artworks under glass. Other favourites, shell roundels, sometimes called bull’s eyes, or portholes, have coloured prints of clipper ships and fishing boats under domed glass coverings. Authentic antique shell art is most often made with wood, or paper covered carton boxes.

Victorians had a great sense of whimsy. True antique shell boxes were often made in the shape of miniature pieces of furniture. Boxes may have a mirror inside the lid if it was intended as a jewellery casket, or a divided interior if meant as a sewing box. Especially sweet are the boxes that feature a seaside chromolithograph scrap on the top, or a silk covered heart pincushion. Collectors value the boxes made in the form of miniature furniture the most, as these are rare and were made in lesser quantities.

The shell encrusted frames, boxes and miniature pieces of furniture were created with delicate shells. It is acceptable, almost desirable, to see some damage on a few shells. The shell art boxes created with paper or board will have bent corners; these treasures are, after all, more than 100 years old. Many boxes have had one or two small shell repairs, but are not diminished in beauty or value because of it.

Sandra d’Angelo is a regular contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine.
Some information adapted from a feature published in Victorian Homes magazine April 2017 (USA)