5 - SHELLS
Perhaps my own first recollection of the use of the shell form in art is the scallop in "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli painted in 1478. Venus emerges pearl like in her nakedness born landward poised on a shell.
While living in Frome I discovered the delights of the 18th century grottos, the well known as those at Stour Head and others in the many abandoned gardens of Somerset, Wilshire and Dorset. The use of shells as a method of wall decoration had a revival from that used in Roman times and was taken to even greater heights with the elaborate use of encrusted work. A popular pastime during the 19th century for those wives and sweethearts of sailors was the shell valentine. Shells collected by the sailors during their travels would be delicately arranged into octagonal boxes and later even incorporated photographs of the loved ones. Floral arrangements executed in shells under glass domes marked perhaps the pinnacle of this skill. Each flower could contain hundreds of minute shells all uniform in colour and size. The work is mind boggling as to how anyone had such patience. These were the days long before television when we were particularly intrigued by what could be created by the human hand. While some wrote in the tiniest script the Lords prayer in the size of a six penny piece others stitched silk pictures or worked with bone, feathers, sand, shells or even butterfly and beetle wings. At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th century there was a fascination with the fabric of our planet and everything that had or did exist. The discoveries and advancement of knowledge were immense resulting in an expansion of mans use of raw materials. There was also the mass produced and kitsch. All manner of objects were being covered with shells for a new age in tourism where people took holidays by the sea.
My own interest in shells started on the Mull of Kintyre where our arable farm land hugged the coast road south of Campbeltown. Countless days as a child spent peering into rock pools, popping seaweed, drawing in sand, sifting through a pebble shoreline and coming home pockets bulging with winkles for mother to boil up and my brother and me extracting the little lumps of grisly snot with a pin. Forty years on in the south west corner of Western Australia I once again found myself with limitless time to gather shells but now I had some idea of what I wanted to do with them. Collection has been with man from the earliest of times and how man has chosen to display these collections has been as diverse as the collections themselves. While some people will find during a walk along a beach they have almost involuntarily picked up a selection of pebbles, seaweed, driftwood or shells their collection may end right there, displayed or not. For me the collecting is an integral part of the creation and although I may not have a totally fixed idea of how I will use any individual item I do have the enthusiasm of knowing that from this seemingly valueless detritus of nature I will be able to recreate something extraordinary. It is important to note that I still do not have a television.