One of the greatest of ancient philosophers, Aristotle, was utterly fascinated by seashells–so fascinated that he devoted many early textbooks to the study of their form and function. Meanwhile, the titan of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, collected seashells and used them as models for his feats of design, most notably the Guggenheim Museum. Wright’s regard was so great, he told his students, “Certainly Divinity is manifest here in these shells in their humble form of life, such greatness with such simplicity.” The admiration of such intellectual giants, along with the exquisite artwork that many collectors create with their booty from the beach, should explode the myth that seashell collecting is strictly for the legions of preschoolers armed with plastic pails and shovels at the seashore.
A Timeless Tradition of Collecting Seashells
“One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach; one can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.”- Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The Dutch East India Company’s trade routes took them to many exotic ports, which sparked widespread interest in collecting shells when they returned with these curiosities in their cargo. The shell trade became a prosperous business in London in 1835, when Marcus Samuel, Sr. opened a store of curios and shells on the Thames River. Marcus Samuel, Jr. expanded the business when he launched the Shell Trading and Oil Company, with the iconic gold shell logo, in 1892.
Women made important contributions to natural history with their interest in conchology. Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, made shellwork fashionable in the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, Mary Delaney created elaborate shell art at her home in Ireland and also designed the grotto for the park at the Duchess of Richmond’s home in West Sussex, England. In the nineteenth century, women such as Lucy Way Sistare Say and Helen Winchester made immense contributions to conchology with their scientifically accurate illustrations of shells. In the 1950s, Virginia Orr Maes illustrated her own photographs of mollusks, which increased the specimen collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Today, scientists, scholars and the average beachcomber still passionately collect and study seashells. According to Shell Chic by Marlene Hurley Marshall (Storey Publishing, 2002), the mecca for U.S. shell collectors is Sanibel Island in Florida, where approximately 250 shell varieties are found. But sandy shores throughout the world offer a bounty of riches for the seashell collectors who keep their eyes fixed to the sand as it is tossed and turned by the waves washing ashore.
The Seashell Odyssey of Artist Peggy Green
Avid shell collector Peggy Green is a Houston-based artist whose intricate shellwork is world-renowned and sought after by decorators, designers, and collectors. Green was originally a photo stylist working with Fortune 500 companies, but the scarcity of Victorian shellwork pieces caused her to embark on her own journey into the ethereal world of shell art.
“Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination for sea shells,” says Green. “From a young age, living on Galveston Island and spending summers walking the beaches, my eyes were trained on the shoreline, looking for the endless assortment of nature’s best”
Then, over ten years ago, Green happened upon several pieces of antique European and American shell art. “The latter being one of a kind pieces more closely related to folk art, explains Green, “versus the European pieces being mass-produced in the late 1800s and shipped to the U.S. to be sold as tourist souvenirs.”
Green resold the first pieces she found but then realized how rare this shell art was. She decided to keep this lost art form alive by creating her own shellwork. “I had no idea how difficult it would be to find the elements used by the Victorian artisans,” says Green. “After many months of experimenting with different shells and glues, I knew I would have to find the tiny turbo shells the Victorian artisans used.” Luckily, Green stumbled upon an astonishing 80 pounds of these shells sitting forgotten in a Texas warehouse. “With a friend’s encouragement, I invested in all they had,” recounts Green. “I made my money back within the first six months of selling my art. While I try to find more tiny turbo shells, it looks as if there will be very few, if any, available in the future. It seems as if no one knows about these shells or how to find them.”
Green has been producing what she calls her Reproduction Victorian Shell Art for the past eight years and believes that she will be able to produce art with her precious turbo shells for at least another eight years. “As far as I know,” says Green, “I am one of a very few artists who are aware of the details that went into making these late Victorian collectibles. Having this knowledge enables me to restore old and damaged pieces, bringing them back to life.”
Green uses vintage boxes and covers them with a combination of new shells ordered from wholesalers and old shells, which she uses on top of the boxes. “I am always looking for more shells as I use up my supply,” explains Green. “Antique dealer friends try to keep an eye out, and I shop estate sales when I can. There’s something about the older shells the newer ones don’t have. The older shells are thicker and develop warmer and softer coloring with age.”
The difficulty in finding antique shells prompted Green to create unique designs using contemporary shells. “I now cut out my own crosses and photo frames from paper goods,” says Green, “so not only can I duplicate a Victorian piece for collectors but also offer my own sturdy pieces for everyday use. The older pieces that have become fragile with age should be kept behind glass for safekeeping.”
When Green began to create shell art, she produced five boxes per week and employed a full-time assistant. But the need to conserve her inventory has led Green to reduce her output to two or three boxes per month. “Planning the designs can take the longest amount of time, especially with large custom mirror work. I like laying the shells out on the pieces I am designing, so I am able to tweak the design before beginning the gluing down process. My designs depend entirely on the shells I have available at the time.”
One of Green’s favorite shellwork pieces is a large nineteenth-century French wall mirror, which hangs in her studio. This piece and over 25 other antique shellwork creations have kept her inspired to create elegant, sculptural art that continues to enchant individual collectors from coast to coast.
Peggy Green’s shell art is available for sale at Twenty Six Twenty Antiques. Ms. Green may also be reached at 713-301-1980 (Houston) and 936-825-8708 (Navasota) or via email at [email protected]
The Shell Grotto at Margate
Grottos were mystical caves thought by the ancients to house the nymphs of mythology. The Greeks and Romans so revered the grotto that artificial examples were built and dedicated to the Muses, the nymphs who represented the arts and sciences. Beginning in the Renaissance, art and nature were married in the shell grotto, which became a feature of elaborate gardens. The shell grotto reached its apex in the eighteenth century, when Rococo style, a French invention that highlights highly ornamental shellwork, reigned supreme. Sadly, most of these garden grottos have been lost. Among the few survivors are Alexander Pope’s shell grotto, built around 1720 in Twickenham, England and the enigmatic Shell Grotto in Margate, Kent.
Wonder and mystery have surrounded the shell grotto at Margate since its discovery by James Newlove in 1835. It had never appeared on any maps, and no earlier evidence of its construction has been found. Newlove opened the Shell Grotto to the public, and to raging debate about its origins, in 1837. Experts have speculated that it may be an ancient temple, and others believe it may have been a meeting place for a secret society. Whatever its arcane provenance, the Shell Grotto at Margate stands as an alluring testament to the everlasting appeal of the seashell, one of nature’s most exotic and mesmerizing ornaments.