A Most Curious Natural Art: The History of Shellwork

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A set of three 19th century floral shellwork ornaments 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

Shellwork pieces first appeared in the 17th century on boxes and caskets of the late Stuart period with decoration of rolled paper, and by the 18th century shellwork had become a popular craft often carried out by women.   Shellwork represented the growing fascination with discoveries of the natural world which fueled the Age of Enlightenment.  Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist living in the 18th century, is known as the ‘father of modern taxidermy’ who developed the modern binomial naming system for plants and animals.  His work helped spur the interest of both amateurs and professionals in collecting shells for their scientific interest.  Linnaeus’ collection of shells is currently held with the Linnean Society of London.

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Detail of a set of three 19th century floral shellwork ornaments 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

In addition to their scientific interest, shells were also one of the principal emblems of the Rococo movement in the mid-18th century.  The shell’s fusion of geometry and irregularity was tantalizing to contemporary designers who championed the shell prominently on frontispieces, furniture designs, and architectural renderings.  Francois Boucher, one of the champions of this style, amassed a large personal collection of shells.

Mrs. Delaney, one of the leading shell artists of the 18th century summed up her craft as follows, ‘I have got a new madness, I am running wild after shells… the beauty of shells is as infinite as flowers, and to consider how they are inhabited enlarges a field of wonder that leads one insensibly to the great Director and author of these works.’

In 1703, the Edinburgh Gazette was advertising the services of a woman in London teaching shellwork techniques, which included ‘Shell-work in sconces, rocks or flowers.’  The Scottish diarist James Boswell refers to a Miss McLean as ‘the most accomplished lady I have found in the Highlands.  She knows French, musick [sic], and drawing, sews neatly, makes shellwork, and can milk cows; in short, she can do everything.’

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One of a set of three 19th century floral shellwork ornaments 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

One of the most famous examples of shell work is the Sharpham Shellwork dating to circa 1775.  It comprises of a golden ‘Venus’ temple with garlands of waxed paper leaves and shellwork flowers encircling the columns.  The temple celebrates ‘love’s triumph’  and was likely commissioned in 1762 for the marriage of Captain Philemon Pownall and Jane Pownall.  The rare West Indian shells used on this piece may have been personally collected by Pownall when he served as a naval privateer in the West-Indies.

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One of a set of three 19th century floral shellwork ornaments 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

The Penrose Irish shell cabinet from the early 19th century is another virtuoso display of the fantasy and intricacy of shell work designs.  Elizabeth Penrose was an accomplished needleworker and craftswoman, and she spent several years creating and completing this elaborate cabinet.  The fantasy grotto is lined with sea shells collected from the beaches around Tramore and the banks of the River Suir.

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