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28 Aug 2020

Why do we collect shells?

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
A black and white photo of four people looking for shells on a sandy beach. Three sit or crouch on the beach, running their hands through the sand. The fourth woman stands and leans over the man closest to the foreground.
Gathering cowrie shells on Little Bernera, off the coast of the Isle of Lewis – Margaret Fay Shaw, 1926, Canna House Collection
Beachcombing is certainly a British tradition. Many a day in my youth I watched my grandparents bending at the waist, sifting through the sand, laser-focused on finding a shell that would suggest it had been a ‘fine day at the beach’. But, I’ve often wondered why do we love seashells so much?

Is it the beauty of their varied shapes and colours? Or their romance, as if they’re treasure washed up after journeying across oceans? Maybe it’s the mystery of their agelessness, having been on Earth for many more millennia than humans? Or their spiral creating the ‘perfect’ natural design (the golden ratio)? Whatever the reason, they seem to cater to our need to collect and categorise objects, and to celebrate and covet beautiful things.

Across National Trust for Scotland properties we have shells everywhere – in the walls, on the furniture and sitting on shelves. From a doll made of limpet shells to a silver butter dish shaped like a scallop shell, these items are the result of humans infusing the simple shell with meaning.

In History of Animals, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle likened the nautilus shell to a boat rising from the depths of the sea to sail upon the ocean. Indeed, the word nautilus derives from the Greek for sailor. In the collection at Brodick Castle, a nautilus shell has been given the royal treatment, lined with gold and turned into a cup. The shell is held up by two tridents (the symbol of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea) and two dolphins (one of his sacred creatures).

A type of cup made from shells and silver is displayed against a plain grey background. The main body of the cup is made from a large brown and white shell, where the lip has been coated in gold. It is supported by a silver stand, shaped like dolphins and tridents. The base appears to be made of coral.
Nautilus shell cup, Brodick Castle, 17th century

The use of shells in western art and design is influenced by designs from classical Greece (and Rome). A fountain at Culzean Castle shows Poseidon perched on top of scallop shells, blowing a conch. The fountain is a centrepiece in terraced gardens built for the Earls of Cassillis, who hired Robert Adam in 1775 to design the castle on the Ayrshire cliffs. The entire estate at Culzean is intended to impress, with a picturesque landscape that demonstrates man’s power over nature while signalling the cultured wealth of an established family. A prerequisite of the picturesque was reference to classical antiquity.

A stone fountain stands in a paved area, with a lawn and stone wall in the background. The sky is a deep blue. The basin of the fountain is shaped like a large shell. In the middle stands a small statue, blowing into a conch shell.
Fountain, Culzean Castle, 18th century

As well as its associations with the sea, the shell was associated with love and beauty. It was a scallop shell that rose to the water’s surface to give birth to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. A small pill box in our collection has a hand-painted scene on its ceramic lid, where Aphrodite rides a shell that has been converted into a carriage. Scenes like this are inspired largely by the Renaissance paintings of artists like Sandro Botticelli, whose 15th-century depiction of the goddess of love established the shell as a symbol of beauty.

A small pill box with a ceramic hinged lid (closed) is displayed against a plain grey background. The picture on the box is of a classical woman riding on a shell, surrounded by two other classical figures.
Small metal box with ceramic lid, 19th century

The scallop shell was especially prized in cultures where symmetry of design was highly valued. An 18th-century stool at Fyive Castle and a chair at Castle Fraser, carved in the 19th century, have the kind of foliage and scallop shells seen in the designs of Daniel Marot (1661–1752), who is credited with bringing the Rococo style to Britain in the 1690s. Marot came to England with William and Mary. From 1694, Marot oversaw the redecoration of the interior and gardens of Hampton Court Palace, designing furniture and tapestries for the new monarchs. Marot established the use of scallop shells as architectural motifs in interiors and on Delftware (he worked with Dutch factories in Delft, providing new intricate and playful designs). Shells became part of the British design lexicon during this period, helping to turn everyday objects into desirable products for families wishing to flaunt (or improve) their social status.

A Scottish family of lawyers and politicians, the Dalrymples would have been familiar with Marot’s designs. James Dalrymple (1st Viscount of Stair from 1690) had five sons. The eldest, John, was one of the key Scottish noblemen who led the rally to support the reign of William and Mary. He was a staunch opponent of the Jacobites and he played an instrumental role in the Glencoe massacre in 1692. He was created 1st Earl of Stair for his efforts in 1703.

In 1708, his youngest brother David purchased the estate of Broughton, upon which was a new Palladian-style villa, built just over a decade before. David and his wife, Janet Rochead, set about improving the estate, renaming it Newhailes. It was their son James (2nd Baronet of Hailes) and his wife Lady Christian Hamilton who completed the interiors after David’s death in 1721. Christian and James chose to adopt Marot’s scallop-shelled rococo motif as a feature throughout the house. Shells abound on frames, walls and chimney pieces. The shells were painted gold both to highlight the Dalrymples’ wealth and for practical reasons: when the sun went down and candles were lit, the gilded and mirrored interiors would flash with light and colour.

A close-up of a gilded shell, set into the corner of a gilded picture frame.
Gilded shell, Newhailes, c1743. This is part of a frame for an oil painting, set into the wall above the Library mantelpiece, designed by William Clayton for Sir James and Lady Christian Dalrymple.

Other shells can also be found at Newhailes. In the State Drawing Room (known now as the Winter Sitting Room), a sea urchin shell sits above the chimney piece, echoing a shell carved into a painting frame below. This room is part of a reception suite, in a wing completed in the 1740s, and was designed to be classically balanced, with triple windows and two pier glasses (mirrors) placed opposite the chimney piece. The pier glasses are topped by perfectly symmetrical scallop shells, which nestle inside broken pediments. The face of Apollo, Greek god of the sun, music and poetry, also appears on these mirrors, reinforcing the shell motif’s ties to classical Greece.

In the 1770s, letters were travelling between Newhailes and Canton (now Guangzhou, in China), one of which mentions a request for a collection of shells to be brought back to Scotland to decorate a grotto. William Dalrymple (son of Sir James and Lady Christian) wrote from Canton in 1774 to his sister Janet (known affectionately as Jenny): ‘So you have really undertaken the arduous task of finishing the Grotto and want my assistance for shells, corals and other things of the kind, but I fear I shall not be able to get you anything this year … I’ll do my best.’ He died 3 years later and it’s not clear if he personally fulfilled his sister’s request.

An essential feature of an estate’s pleasure garden, the grotto was often covered in shells to mimic water lashing against a sea cave. Grottos had been fashionable for the wealthiest estate owners since the mid-17th century, when trade routes began opening between Europe and Asia. Families spent tens of thousands of pounds importing shells from foreign shores.

A close-up of the stone doorway to a stone grotto, with many stones and shells stuck to the walls. The gate is made of delicate metal, with leaf carvings throughout.
Newhailes shell grotto, as seen today. Built in the 1780s, it was decorated with both foreign and local shells.

Newhailes’ grotto did end up being covered in shells, coral, glass and semi-precious stones, all adhered to its interior walls and designed to glow and ripple with light thrown inside by lanterns. In 1781, Sir David (who had inherited Newhailes upon his father’s death in 1751) paid his younger brother Alexander (a shareholder of the East India Company) £11 for the delivery of ‘lime shells’, which arrived between April and December.

Shells not carved into Newhailes’ interiors or stuck onto grotto walls were collected in neat drawers – the fashion for cabinets of curiosities being another 18th-century fad. Drawers were lined with specimens, carefully displayed in a way that would be echoed in Victorian museums. Another shell collection is found at Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire, where an unassuming rosewood chest holds specimens gathered in Sri Lanka (formally known as Ceylon). A handwritten note is pasted to the underside of the lid and reads ‘box of shells given by George & L. Jeffrey – (bought by them in Ceylon 1835) Drum Aug’t ... 1863’.

Shells had been traded by European merchants since the 16th century. They specifically imported large amounts of cowrie shells from South Asia to Europe, often using them to pack china or for ship ballast. The shells were then re-exported, heading to West Africa where they were traded for enslaved people. Cowries were used as currency across Africa to buy local products. They have also been used as emblems of fertility, talismans against evil, and markers of rank and status, sewn into clothing and turned into jewellery. The cowrie has a highly polished, hard shell; it’s sturdy and small; and it’s easy to handle, transport and store – it’s easy to see how it became such a valuable trading commodity.

A 20th-century cowrie and bead necklace in the collection of the artist E A Hornel was likely picked up by the Scot as he travelled through East Asia in the early 1900s. Hornel was gathering inspiration for his paintings of ‘native’ women and girls, and visited Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

A shell and bead necklace is displayed in a circle against a plain grey background. The shells are small white cowrie shells; the beads are brown, orange or yellow.
Cowrie and bead necklace, Broughton House, 19th century.

The trade of shells led to their becoming collectable objects, valued as gifts. The people of Hawaii traditionally give puka necklaces as gestures of good fortune. The small, typically white, puka shells have a hole in the centre that’s carved by the ocean, and are traditionally given to sailors and fishermen to bring them home safely. On the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the Caledonian Society of Hawaii gave our Ayrshire museum a puka necklace as a gesture of goodwill towards the Trust’s efforts in promoting the life and work of the poet.

Shells have both ‘exotic’ appeal and natural beauty – it’s no wonder that artisans and designers found the shell so irresistible. With connections to imperial collecting and the trade of people into slavery, the history of our relationship with shells is complex and adds new meaning to seemingly ordinary objects like spoons, plates and kitchen moulds.

Why do we collect shells? Probably for the same reason people have collected things for millennia: to feel connected to the wider world.

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