A very similar slightly larger shellwork ornament recorded in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is illustrated in Ralph Edwards and Percy Macquoid, The Dictionary of English Furniture, 1954, rev. ed., 3 vols., vol. III, p. 116, fig 1.
This pair of shellwork floral bouquets represent a rare survival, many having been separated or only conceived as individuals due to the exhaustive time needed to complete such pieces. It is interesting to note the design of the vases of this pair of shellworks and the mottled decoration of the body which would appear to reflect the late 18th century taste for blue-john and the work of Matthew Boulton, from whom the maker of these pieces has almost undoubtedly drawn inspiration. The current vases with their looped handles and the swag and tassle decoration represent various elements of Boulton's candle vases of the mid-1770s. Another sophisticated shellwork creation, the importance of which is notable by the remarkable stand on which it rests, is the Sharpham Shellwork, sold Christie's London, 4 June 2009, lot 70.
Certainly one of the earliest surviving examples of English shellwork which dates from the late 17th century, is a work box also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Edwards and Macquoid op. cit., vol. I, p. 109, fig. 24). It bears the date 1687 and initials M.W. (for Mary Wright) and features designs incorporating partly gilded coloured cut paperwork. This decorative medium was adopted as an amateur pursuit during the 18th century and applied to a range of items including mirror frames, stands and cabinets. An advert in the Edinburgh Gazette in December 1703 promoted the services of a gentlewoman from London who offered to teach `Shell-work in sconces, rocks or flowers.' Other indications of the popularity of this pastime are born out by a letter from the Duchess of Portland in 1733, bragging that she had killed `a thousand snails' in her quest for raw materials. Clearly her interest in shellwork had not diminished by 1754 when she mentioned a friend's shell collection selling for `five and twenty hundred pounds.' The diarist Boswell makes also makes an allusion to the practice in 1773 in a reference to a Miss McLean who was the `most accomplished lady that I found in the Highlands. She knows French, musick and drawing, sews neatly, makes shell-work and can milk cows, in short she can do everything.' (see Edwards and Macquoid, op. cit., pp. 115-117).
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