Spotting the Shells: Georgian Furniture with a Shell Motif

George II Japanned and Gilt Chair

Detail of a George II japanned and gilt chair with carved shell on the cresting 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

At first glance, the following selection of furniture may appear to have little in common, besides the shared country of origin and eighteenth century creation date. However, upon closer inspection, you will see each piece incorporates a carved shell.  Today we will look at why the shell appears so frequently on eighteenth century English antiques and what it means.

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Detail of a George II chair attributed to William Hallett with carved shell to the knee  Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The history of the use of shells in art dates back to ancient Greece and Rome.  The shell was a sign of fertility and was associated with the goddess Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty (also Venus, the Roman version of the goddess).

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Detail of a George III Irish mahogany centre table with central carved shell Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

One shell in particular, the scallop shell, became particularly prized because of its symmetry and pleasing arched form. Starting at this time, sea shells were collected and considered rare and beautiful objects of luxury.

L10.52d copy

Detail of a George I gilt gesso bureau bookcase with carved shell to the cresting 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The habit of collecting shells continued through the centuries and became particularly important during the seventeenth century when they would be displayed in cabinets of curiosities.

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Detail of a George III Irish mahogany armchair with carved shell to the knee 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The shell emerged as an important symbol in the lexicon of English decorative arts in the eighteenth century, thanks to the work of William Kent and other Palladian designers at the beginning of the century.  Thomas Chippendale and other craftsmen in the Georigan era continued to incorporate shells into their designs.

K10.100Bc

Detail of a George II giltwood table in the manner of William Kent with carved shell to the knee 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We have put together a Pinterest board with all of the pieces in our collection that feature shells along with famous Georgian interiors and architecture that incorporate the shell motif.  To see the board, click here.

 

 

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