Thursday, 1 September 2005

Like the Victorians, we collect seashells by the seashore

by Christopher Proudlove©
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sailor's valentine low res
Just back from our annual holiday lugging home with us the usual bag of shells which we collected from the beach. The same has been happening since the beginning of time and it wasn't long, in some countries, where seashells – so-called Money Cowries – were themselves used as currency in places as far apart as Africa and North America, where East Coast Indians called them Wampum.

Since prehistoric times, some civilisations regarded seashells as important religious symbols, and for others they became musical instruments to call worshippers to prayer or soldiers to prepare for attack. In the case of a victory, a shell horn would be sounded to mark the triumph.

Seashells have also played an important part in fine art. In the Middle Ages, Christ's Apostle James, the fisherman, was given a scallop shell as an attribute by early Christians, promoting a flood of sculpture, paintings, and illuminated manuscripts across Europe featuring the same symbol.

Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" showing the goddess of love standing on a scallop shell is one of the most celebrated. Now in the Ufizi Gallery, Florence, the work was painted in about 1480.

The shell found new admirers among Renaissance scientists and architects for the perfection of its structure, the latter often using shell shapes and designs in their buildings.

Leonardo da Vinci studied and made drawings of the perfect spiral construction of some shells which are said to have been the inspiration for the famous spiral staircase of the Chateau de Blois in France.

Throughout the Baroque period, gold and silversmiths incorporated shells in lavish table centrepieces, either using the natural shell itself or cast in precious metal and encrusted with jewels.

The era was one of adventure and exploration and many previously unseen exotic shells were brought back from the New World. They were immediately featured in three-dimensional works of art and most importantly, in paintings by Old Masters, particularly the Dutch, whose inveterate traders brought them home from their voyages.

The fashion for shells reached its zenith towards the end of the 18th century.

The courts of European royalty, notably the Louis X1V and Louis XV, saw a frivolous extravagance of fantastic paintings, sculpture, furniture and landscaping all decorated with a rock and shell design which the French called "rocaille".

The term produced the word Rococo which was adopted as the name of the period.

It was as if good taste had been forgotten. Even the simplest domestic objects -- ceramics, tableware and boxes -- were positively encrusted with the wildest type of shells, either actual or invented, while the dignity and religious meaning of the motif was forgotten.

Instead, the shell was reduced to a simple yet charming and fanciful design element which the Georgians embraced to the full in England.

Shell design in his repertoire

From the father of English ceramics, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) onwards, every potter of note used the shell design in his repertoire and the same can be said of furniture designers such as Robert Adam (1728-1792) and silversmiths such as the Huguenot Nicholas Sprimont (1716-1771).

Nowhere is the trend better seen than in the construction of the Royal Pavilion built at Brighton by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1853) for the Prince Regent.

The Victorians were at least as frivolous but more sentimental. Seashells were widely appreciated with the growth of interest in natural history of the world but more importantly, the spread of the of the railways, the ease of travel and the idea of day-tripping and holidays at the seaside meant it was only natural for people to collect souvenirs from the beach.

Soon, small cottage industries sprang up producing all manner of boxes, ornaments and knickknacks decorated with shells stuck to them.

Alternatively, specialist shops sold plain boxes and such knickknacks as vases, picture frames, pocket watch holders and so on together with small bags of miscellaneous shells so that customers could decorate them at home. This was pre-TV remember.

As the craze grew, exotic shells were imported from abroad and sold either plain, polished or with engraved decoration, while cameo brooches -- shells carved with scenes and portrait busts and set into mounts with pins and safety chains -- also became popular.

The newly enriched middle classes filled their homes to the point of clutter with such fripperies, while the serious Victorian naturalist owned a collectors' cabinet, usually in rich mahogany, into which his shells were carefully stored, labelled with their Latin names and studied in depth.

A particularly attractive Victorian shell creation is the so-called sailor’s Valentine which by tradition was a touching souvenir brought home to loved ones by Jack tars from their voyages in the South Seas.

Usually comprising a wooden box, often hexagonal in shape, and hinged so that it opened in two halves, the Valentines were decorated with intricate patterns of tropical shells usually containing a shell-shaped heart or some endearing message such as "Remember Me" or "Love the Giver".

Folk lore aside, it is more likely that most of the Valentines were made by backstreet workers in the Pacific Islands and sold to visitors, whether they were sailors or tourists.

Particularly grand were the "floral arrangements" made entirely from shells and kept dust free under magnificent but scarily fragile glass domes.

Equally sought after today are 19th century framed pictures, again made entirely from shells, which must have taken many hours to produce.

A simple Victorian shell-covered box can be had for a few pounds. In perfect condition, shell Valentines are worth at least £400-600, often more, while shell arrangements under glass domes start at £100 and rise to £300-400 depending on size.

Pictures show, Top, A 19th century sailor’s Valentine worth £400-600.

Below, left to right,
This mid-19th century shell box has a lid centred by a heart-shaped silk plush heart, while the sides are of paper printed with shell designs. It’s worth £60-80

A late Victorian shell anchor meant to be hung on the wall of some seafarer’s cottage. It’s worth £40-60

Queen Victoria started the trend for holidays in Scotland, giving birth to a huge industry producing souvenirs decorated with tartan. This mid-19th century shell-covered box is worth £100-150

shell box low resshell anchor low restartan box low res

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Anonymous William Jordan said...

Thanks Chris for your info one Sailors Valentines. It`s the first time i`ve heard the term "Jack tar". In folk lore stories i`ve read eight sided cases with shells were called "Ladies Fancy Work"stemming from England. To date no one has proven which came first. Jack tar makes me think twice about which description came first. I assume American sailors were not know as Jack tars. Thanks;Bill

1 March 2010 at 15:51  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

William, it's always a pleasure to hear from a reader, so thanks. According to Wikipedia "Jack Tar was a common English term used to refer to seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy, particularly during the period of the British Empire". I don't know about US sailors, but being a Brit, I know I'm a "Limey" (and also great Gilbert and Sullivan fan)! However, Wikipedia also cites the following: A line from the second verse of George M. Cohan's song, "The Grand Old Flag" contains the lyric, "Hurrah! Hurrah! For every Yankee tar".
The "Ladies Fancy Work" issue makes for an interesting debate. I suspect all sorts of craft hobbies evolved out of each other over time. In the end, it boils down to chicken and egg. However, I do believe that visiting ships to South Seas ports started the craze for cased shells, which were made by locals keen to cash in on this blossoming souvenir industry. When they appeared back in Blighty (more slang) they were copied by bored gentlewomen with time on their hands. Certainly they turn up often enough, even today.

3 March 2010 at 04:19  
Anonymous William Jordan said...

So you had Jack tars and we had the Yankee ones. Of all the reading i`ve done on this subject there has never been any comment as to the use of paper dividers. I created two 1800`s style valentines and came to beleve divides were used as an ade for mass production, you do`nt see that in todays contemporary valentines . Thats why some look great and others in some ways look like they were thrown togeather. (I refer to the John Fonds Book on Valentines of the 1800`s). Thanks for the feed back. Bill

16 March 2010 at 18:46  
Anonymous William Jordan said...

Hi Chris : This coming Oct. I will be giving a presentation on the History of Sailors Valentines at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia P.A. I`m wondering if there are any pictures of these cabinets you speak of. "Victorian naturalist owned a collectors’ cabinet, usually in rich mahogany, into which shells were carefully stored". Bill

20 May 2011 at 19:43  
Anonymous Nancy said...

Hi I came across a rare artwork made of tiny sea shells in a set of fours. It seems like no information is out online to help me understand why they were mad. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

30 May 2011 at 12:07  

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