Discover Holst

Object of the Week

A 19th century shell-work picture, chosen by a volunteer

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Every week we will be highlighting an object from our collection. This week’s object has been chosen by Kirsty, a volunteer.

Shellwork picture, 19th century

Last night I was catching up with Grayson Perry’s Art Club last night – a week behind with animals as the inspiration, and as I was watching Perry add stones, shells and old bits of metal to the sculpture inspired by his teddy, Alan Measles, I thought of the shellwork picture in the maid’s room in the museum. This little picture is made up of different kinds of shells, and spells out the motto ‘Think of Me’. In the 19th century, as the railways made it easier for everyone to get to Britain’s growing seaside resorts, souvenirs like this became both cheap and very popular. You can still buy them today. Shellwork wasn’t just bought as a souvenir, though. It was a common hobby, particularly for young girls and women.

Shells had become popular first in the late 17th century, when Dutch trading vessels brought back exotic shells from the distant lands with whom they were now trading – and colonising. Collecting these shells had become a craze by the early 18th century, and the upper classes revived the Roman tradition of creating shell grottos in their grounds. In the early 19th century some incredibly delicate shellwork creations were made, such flower bouquets made entirely out of shells. These fragile pieces were usually shown under the safe cover of a glass dome.

But by the mid-19th century many people were making shellwork. Don’t imagine young Victorian ladies scouring the coast for shells, however! Shops sold pre-prepared packs of shells, just as you would expect today, and there were instruction manuals and patterns to follow. No object was safe from an imaginative crafter – boxes, mirrors, frames, even dolls were made from shells.

It became an industry, too. In seaside places around the world people made shellwork pieces to sell as souvenirs. Our piece looks a lot like a simple sailor’s valentine, an octagonal shellwork picture, with the shells arranged in geometric patterns glued onto a fabric background, then encased in a wooden frame. These were once thought to be made by lonely, bored sailors for their sweethearts, but they were mostly made by women in Barbados and probably on other islands. The shells in the frame are not British shells, so the piece could have come from the Caribbean. Did its original owner have a sailor or whaler sweetheart?

Why do I like it?

In lockdown I have been missing the sea terribly. I love the seaside, and would love to go to a beach, but that’s a little tricky in Gloucestershire! This last weekend some of us may have got to the coast with the easing of restrictions – but not me, sadly. I do, however, have many shells collected from beaches in Britain, Europe and America to remind me of happy holidays. When I was a girl, I had my Mum’s shellwork box – very 1950s, all the shells had been stained bright pink – which I loved and used to keep my most precious things. I find myself wondering what happened to it – and whether I should make another one!