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A Set of Three 19th Century Floral Shellwork Ornaments
England, circa 1840

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. Shells were also one of the principal emblems of the Rococo movement in the mid-18th century.

Pair — Height: 24 in (61 cm), Diameter: 9½ in (24 cm)
Single — Height: 30¼ in (77 cm), Diameter: 12¾ in (32 cm)

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.’ The value of these shells could be immense, as William Shenstone wrote in 1743 to a friend, ‘I saw Lady Fane’s grotto which they say cost her five thousand pounds, about three times as much as her house is worth, it is a very beautiful disposition of the finest collection of shells I ever saw.’

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.

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.

Height 77.00cm (30.31 inches)
Diameter 32.00cm (12.60 inches)


Comparative Literature
R. Edwards & P. Macquoid, Dictionary of English Furniture, 1954 rev. ed., Vol. III, p. 116, fig. 1.

Reference - AD.92