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Seashells in Art

Seashells have been used in various art forms throughout history. Shells have been collected and coveted- they used to be considered exotic. The slave trade was greatly linked to the collection of shell specimen, people often endangering themselves to get a particular example.

Today, finding a shell on a beach is as if you are finding a little treasure. From childhood we are delighted by shells, pressing your ear against its cavity to listen to the sound of the sea. We appreciate the sheen, the colours and the variety of their sculptural forms.

 In the 17th century, seashells became popular collectible objects and were often used as subjects for still-life paintings known as Vanitas, which symbolically represent the transience of life. Here is the modern version- representing a day of beach combing.

York artist Mark Azopardi collects his beach finds and displays them on a plate before painting them.
Pink shells is a finished watercolour and a memory of a particular North Yorkshire beach

In the 17th and 18th centuries the "Wunderkammers", wonder rooms or curiosity cabinets were places where the wealthy displayed natural specimens from around the world. They formed part of a proper art collection.

why not use a vintage printers tray to display a collection?
Seashells have also  been used in decorative arts such as sculpture, painting, and architecture. During the Renaissance, seashells were incorporated into decorative arts, and in particular, seashells were often used to decorate grottoes, which were popular garden features at the time. These grottoes were adorned with shells, coral, and other marine objects to create a naturalistic environment. In the 18th century, seashells became a popular motif in Rococo art, a style which originated in France and was characterized by its ornate and decorative qualities.

Linda Fenwick shell pavilion 


Seashells have been used as subjects in paintings throughout history. One of the most recognisable painting is the "The Birth of Venus," by Sandro Botticelli- it features Venus standing on an open clam shell, the symbol of beauty. It was most probably commissioned by one of the members of the Medici family and was controversial at the time.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Uffizi galleries, Florence


Seashells have been used in home decor for centuries. They have been used to create unique and custom-made pieces of wall decor, among other things as well as being style amongst other belongings.

A collection of shells displayed in a footed pot

Use a glass tray to display your shell collection


Further reading that might interest you

Why Early Modern European Artists Were Obsessed With ShellsFrom Leonardo to Rembrandt, artists were drawn to these soft and glowing forms.

Shells through time- Princeton Art gallery

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