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Article by Jennie Buist Brown | 12th August 2019

Antique Shell Works Of Art

Despite the myth that the beautiful shell works of art made in Victorian times were made by sailors, it’s more likely they were the creations of canny working class women who lived in port towns.

Imagine the scene: a rough sea, an 1800’s sailing ship on a far flung mission to the other side of the world. A love sick sailor still many months away from home whiles away the hours – when he’s not scrubbing decks or hoisting sails of course – by making beautiful shell adorned boxes and mirrors for his beloved girl back home. A lovely scene, but sadly an unlikely one.

Despite the myth that the beautiful shell works of art made in Victorian times and now in great demand were made by sailors, it is more likely that they were made by canny working class women who lived in port towns who then sold them to sailors when they came ashore. Not quite as romantic a story perhaps but the true origin of the many beautiful shell works of art made throughout the 1800’s in no way lessens their value.

The fascination with shells began in the 17th century when exotic shells brought back by the Dutch East India Company became highly sought-after by the very wealthy who collected them for display in their “cabinets of curiosity”. Dutch merchants soon began to sell these exotic rarities and newly-discovered shell specimens. Architects were employed to design grand grottoes covered in shells. The French Queen Margaret, first wife of Henry IV of France, commissioned a shell grotto at Issy-les-Moulineaux. 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, and a century later, Louis XVI had a shell cottage built at Rambouillet for Marie Antoinette.

Meanwhile, much closer to home, the amazing shell grotto in Margate is well worth a visit. Almost all the surface area of the walls and roof are covered in mosaics created entirely of seashells – there are about 2,000 square feet of mosaic or an estimated 4.6 million shells. It was discovered in 1835, but there are still conflicting stories and ideas about its age and purpose.

Shell Out

So if you’d like to start a shell art collection what should you look out for?

• Firstly, take a close 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 today? Pelican’s foot shells, for instance, were favourites in the 1800’s when they were plentiful, however these days they are quite rare.

• The most popular shell souvenirs made and bought in the 1800’s were shell boxes, mirrors, sewing boxes, frames – sometimes called roundels, bull’s eyes or portholes – which 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. Boxes may have a mirror inside the lids if they were intended for jewellery or a divided interior if meant as sewing boxes. Especially nice are the boxes that feature an old seaside picture on the top or a silk covered heart pincushion. These antique shell encrusted items were created with delicate shells so some damage or loss of shells is acceptable. Look out for repairs though, especially where most of the shells have been replaced with modern ones. These items are still being made today so always do your research and only buy from a reputable dealer if you’re unsure.

• The true, antique pieces are highly and avidly collected so expect to pay upwards of £50 for small boxes, rarer pieces can – and do – sell for many hundreds.

Image © Thanet Tourism

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