Just as there is a passion to be found within all of us so there is also a madness, subtly different and perhaps a little harder to access due to the fear of what we might find. I realised my own passion or madness had been there since childhood; I was a impatient child perhaps no more than others, no sitting around waiting for eggs to hatch, things had to happen right now and yet I could spend hours model making and painting minute fine detail. So half a century on and I find I’m still able to launch myself headlong into projects that require access to that very same focused and absorbing madness. Working with tiny shells sometimes no larger than a grain of rice I construct fantasy flowers on wire stems wrapped in wool with leather or rexine leaves. One flower alone can contain between twenty and eighty shells and within the arrangement there can be well over a hundred flowers. Under each glass dome there will be on average about 2000 shells, each collected, washed, sorted and selected by me.
I have gathered most of the shells from beaches in Western Australia and the Outer Hebrides simply because it is there that I have done most of my coastal walking. My own interest in shells started on the Mull of Kintyre where our arable farm land hugged the coast road south of Campbeltown. Countless days as a child spent with my brother John peering into rock pools, popping seaweed, drawing in the sand, sifting through a pebble shoreline and coming home pockets bulging with winkles for mother to boil up extracting and eating the little lumps of grisly snot with the aid of a pin. Forty years on in the south west corner of Western Australia I once again found myself with limitless time to gather shells but now I had some idea of what I wanted to do with them. Shells with such wonderful names; abalone, limpet, turban, periwinkles, sundials, mud whelks, creepers, murex, dove shells, do whelks, spindle and tulip shells, olive, mitre and cone shells, turrids, augers, cowries and moon shells, ark, mussels, scallops and fan shells, cockles, cardita and trough clams, pipe or surf clams, angel wing borers, Venus shells, wenletraps and violet snails.
Perhaps my own first recollection of the use of the shell form in art is the scallop in "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli painted in 1478. Venus emerges pearl like in her nakedness born landward poised on a shell.
Collection has been with us from the earliest of times and how we have chosen to display these collections has been as diverse as the collections themselves. While some people will find during a walk along a beach they have almost involuntarily picked up a selection of pebbles, seaweed, driftwood or shells their collection may end right there, displayed or not. While I can fully understand that when constructing a large grotto there is perhaps a need to purchase large quantities in bulk for me the collecting is an integral and fundamental part of the creation as it is my eye that has spotted amongst all the rest that particular shell on the beach.
In the nineteen eighties while living in Frome I discovered the delights of grottos, the well known such as at Stour Head and lesser well known in many abandoned gardens throughout Somerset, Wilshire and Dorset. The use of shells as a method of wall decoration had a revival during the 18th century from that used in Roman times and was taken to even greater heights with the elaborate use of encrusted work. A popular pastime during the 19th century for those wives and sweethearts of sailors was the shell valentine.
Shells collected by the sailors during their travels would be delicately arranged into octagonal boxes and later even incorporated photographs of the loved ones. Floral arrangements executed in shells under glass domes marked perhaps the pinnacle of this skill. Each flower could contain fifty to a hundred minute shells all uniform in colour and size. The work is mind boggling as to how anyone had such patience.
My own arrangements range from 20 to 80 shells per flower with arround 2000 shells in each domes. These were the days long before television (I've never had the time or inclination to watch the box) when we were particularly intrigued by what could be created by the human hand. While some wrote in the tiniest script the Lords prayer in the size of a six penny piece others stitched delicate silk pictures or worked with bone, feathers, sand, shells or even butterfly and beetle wings. At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th century there was a fascination with the fabric and new discoveries of our planet as well as everything that had existed. The discoveries and advancement of knowledge were immense resulting in large natural history sections in every museum as well as the appearance of zoos in all major cities. Man had discovered the vastness of the natural resources within planet earth and was not about to hold back on making every possible use of them. With a new age of tourism and holidays by the sea came the mass produced and kitsch all manner of objects were being covered with shells from bunnies to tissue boxes for a new breed of souvenir hunters.
Picking up shells from a beach can provoke strange reactions in some people, one such person I encountered on Middleton beach in Albany WA. On seeing me bent double carefully selecting shells strewn along the high water mark of this vast beach a striding female walker and her friend made a point of following the band of shells and on passing me of stamping her feet hard down on the firm sand in an effort to crush as many as possible.
When I pick up any individual shell on a beach I may not have a fixed idea of how I will later use it but I do have the knowledge that from this seemingly valueless detritus of nature I will be able to recreate something extraordinary. The work is indeed time consuming and after a few hours or days doing this I find a break is essential, a short walk for a coffee and a laugh with friends and I’m revived ready for another creative concentration stint.