Heart of the Sea

Victorian Homes - - Contents - By Lidy Baars

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.


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.


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.


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...

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