Heart of the Sea
Discover how to begin your own collection of Victorian shell art souvenirs.
Even Queen Victoria was fond of shell art. She often had gifts or shell work portraits commissioned for her court favorites.
If the romance of the sea lures you, 19th- century shell art antiques will stir up warm memories of sand, the soothing sounds of crashing waves and sun-filled holidays.
Reminiscent of majestic sailing ships and long sea voyages to the New World, handcrafted shellwork brings back the romantic notions of sailors’ daydreams of loved ones across the ocean.
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company brought exotic shells back to Europe and stimulated an infatuation for collecting shells. The wealthy and those of royal blood collected the prized shells with great passion. Dutch merchants opened a market specifically to sell these exotic rarities. The upper classes of Europe collected the shells in their “cabinets of curiosity,” rooms they outfitted with display shelves and cases, their private museum to showcase a costly collection.
COLLECTING VICTORIAN SHELL SOUVENIRS
Architects designed grand “grottos” covered in shells in many of the noble estates on the continent. Meant as an enhancement to favored Italian Renaissance gardens, the shell-covered grottos copied those of ancient Rome. 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. 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 rivaled the Dutch madness for collecting tulip bulbs. Records show that at one auction in Amsterdam, a shell sold for more than paintings by Vermeer. The shells were so expensive they were regarded as investments. It wasn’t until the 1800s that shellwork truly came into vogue for the upper and middle classes.
VICTORIAN LADY CRAFTERS
As ships brought back entire cargoes of shells for the whims of the aristocracy, it’s not surprising that covering smaller objects with shells soon became fashionable for upper class ladies of leisure. Victorian ladies could purchase shellwork supplies in Mrs. Roberson’s shop on London’s Grosvenor Square. The shop sold little packets of pre-sorted shells, accompanied by printed patterns for forming shell flowers, boxes and frames. To attach shells to a decorative object, the shells were dipped in hot wax or glue and arranged in fanciful designs. Shell art—or shellwork, as it’s also called—was a pastime many Victorian society ladies enjoyed. Even Queen Victoria was fond of shell art. She often had gifts or shellwork portraits commissioned for her court favorites.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Collecting Victorian shellwork is gaining popularity today. As with all antiques, educate yourself by looking at examples of true antique shellwork boxes in museums and shops if possible.
1. Shells. A telltale way to detect a true antique is to look at the shells themselves. Are they worn, and do they have patina? Is the box covered in shells that are not as common as those you can find today? Pelican’s feet shells, for instance, were favorites in the 1800s, but these days they are extremely rare.
2. Material. Among the most popular shell souvenirs from the 1800s were Sailor’s Valentines, two octagonal wooden frames joined by a hinge, filled with complimentary or
matching shell art works under glass. Other favorites—shell roundels, sometimes called bull’s eyes, or portholes—have colored prints of clipper ships and fishing boats under domed glass coverings.
3. Whimsy. Victorians had a great sense of whimsy, and true antique shell boxes often have miniature furniture shapes. A box may have a mirror inside the lid if it was intended as a jewelry 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.
4. Condition. The shell-encrusted frames, boxes and miniature pieces of furniture were created with delicate shells. It is acceptable, almost desirable, to see damage on a few shells. The shell art boxes with paper or board will have bent corners. These treasures are, after all, more than 100 years old.
5. Price. Never was the adage “you get what you pay for” more true than with Victorian shellwork. The true, antique pieces are valuable, so expect to pay at least $150 for a very small piece and $3,000 and up for a rare find. The average price point for exceptional boxes is $300–$500.
A collection of antique shellwork is an alluring way to bring a touch of summer to your home, and a fascinating reminder of the seafaring sailors who set off on adventures around the world.
The owner of Frenchgardenhouse.com, a popular online antique and home décor store, Lidy Baars has more than 18 years of experience as an antiques dealer and designer. Her home and garden have been featured in national magazines such as Victorian Homes...