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or click on the museum names for musuem information.
Shells, especially the most colourful of them, have always fascinated humans. If, as is well established, our distant humanoid ancestors evolved on the edges of lakes and rivers, they must have been among the earliest objects to be used decoratively by them, in particular as “gifts” and for bodily adornment. They are in themselves beautiful objects, competing with flowers, birds and butterflies in the spectacular profusion of their colours and shapes. Unlike these competitors they retain shape and colour almost indefinitely; when their former occupants die naturally and no longer have any use for them, no ethical problems arise from collecting them.
In the murky waters of the North Sea, shells mostly occur in shapes and colours which raise little interest, unlike those from warmer seas. When the early navigators and explorers started to bring back seashells to Europe from their voyages in tropical waters, there was an explosion of interest in them. They became much studied, collected and traded (conchology is defined as the scientific study or collection of mollusc shells). Many National Trust properties contain examples from the 18th and 19th centuries of their extensive use in decoration (National Trust Magazine, Summer 2007, p 33) and many examples exist of shell artwork produced by refined Victorian ladies.
This is an unusual art-form, contrasting strongly with most of the modern conceptual and abstract art which receives wide coverage in the media. Like all art, it will not appeal to everyone, but no-one could dispute its visual impact and technical brilliance. There are very few practitioners of this art-form in Britain, though some are to be found in the United States where there is a more active market in the shells themselves and in objects decorated with them. It will probably become increasingly rare as time progresses, partly because of difficulties in sourcing the shells.
Peter Coke's shell art
Peter Coke, through his extensive knowledge of shells and the shell-art techniques used by earlier generations, has built on these traditions and taken them to levels of sophistication not previously seen. The quantity and variety of his output are amazing and it is incredible that work of such delicacy can be produced by a man of advanced years. His work ranges from two-dimensional geometric arrangements, such as the Sailor Valentines on which he began, to shell pictures in the Chinese style, to shell encrusted boxes, obelisks and figures and finely detailed model garden scenes in three dimensions. His principal output, however, and that to which the art-form is arguably most suited, is in the representation of floral subjects, sometimes as individual blooms and occasionally as complex arrangements in a profusion of colours and forms. All the colours are natural – unlike many Victorian predecessors he does not artificially colour his shells.
Reviews of Peter Coke’s work
The following are reviews of and comments on Peter Coke’s exhibitions in London.
Numerous pieces of exquisite shell work. His flower arrangements are undisputedly the most popular and rank among the finest in the world. Country Homes and Interiors
Decorative objects each encrusted with fabulously coloured shells. The Times
A National Living Treasure…… We decided to celebrate some of Britain’s great craftsmen of which Peter Coke is one. Country Life
Wonderful art. The Daily Telegraph
Rococo treasures. Interiors
Superb delicate creations. Eastern Daily Press
The most exquisite decorative objects…. He creates a stream of shell masterpieces. Home Antiques
Shells of unimaginably glorious hues of orange, purple, mauve, green and apple blossom pink. Weekend Telegraph
Went to Mount Street to see Peter Coke’s remarkable shell work; the flower arrangements are superb, his patience and skill are staggering. Sir Alec Guinness in his autobiography, “My Name Escapes Me”
For a specialist review of the exhibits on display in the Peter Coke Shell Gallery, Sheringham, with illustrations, refer to www.britishshellclub.org.uk, click on Articles, then select the one headed Peter Coke Shell Museum by Selina Williams (but for current opening time, remember to refer to details in this website).
Examples of Shell Art
Theme: Sailors' Crafts
Exhibition: SHELL ART
A peach coloured rose made from shells
A bouquet of flowers made from a variety of natural coloured shells
A grotesque mask in the style of Guiseppe Arcimboldo which uses shells instead of fruits
An elaborate model of a garden composed of hundreds of tiny shells
A pair of obelisks decorated with dramatically coloured shells