I went to a fascinating talk yesterday by Margaret and Gerald Hull on shell houses and grottoes, and it got me looking through the ones I've shot, one historic and a handful of contemporary versions.
The original example dates from around 1814, tucked away in the grounds of Hotel Endsleigh in Devon. This modest hexagonal structure, with its triangular yellow top lights complete with leaded spider's webs, central pool and pebbled floor has seen better days but still gives a sense of otherworldliness, the dark disc of water at its centre a portal into the underworld, a glimpse of the Styx. I'd love to see some more, particularly those that give some sense of the glittering strangeness they once presented to the world, like the Goodwood shell house dating from 1739 with its intricate repeat patterns clothing the walls like sprigged muslin, adorned with swags, urns and crowned by an extraordinary 'coffered' ceiling.
Both amateurs and professionals created shellwork in the C18th. Top of the professional tree were Joseph and Josiah Lane, a father and son team from Tisbury in Wiltshire, who created the grotto in the grounds of the Earl of Shaftesbury at Wimborne St Giles, amongst many others. Contemporary equivalents creating flights of fancy in the grand gardens of the aristocracy these days might be the Bannermans, Isabel and Julian. Their playful buildings in the Collector Earl's garden at Arundel Castle, mimic C17th and C18th tufa and rock work with green oak, and the largest, Oberon's Palace contains a shell encrusted interior complete with a vertical spout of water that joyfully spins a gold crown.
It's difficult to imagine how strange and magical shell grottoes and houses would have seemed to the eyes of the eighteenth century; the undersea world is familiar to us all now through countless TV programmes. Two centuries ago imagining what lay beneath the surface of the sea must have been like imagining deep space nowadays.
Contemporary versions I've photographed include Rosemary and Peter Fitzgerald's exotic, free-standing domed tea house in their rural Somerset garden, the delicately patterned walls broken up with lozenges and mirrors; Ian Willis' gloriously kitsch homage to the god Pan, a shell shrine built into his small garden behind a terraced house in Wimborne; and Blott Kerr-Wilson's exquisitely coloured and textured shell house in the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, one of her earliest commissions, and made largely using shells from the kitchen.
What a refreshing dip it was, listening to Margaret and Gerald, visiting times when there were just shells to collect on the beach and the sea was dark, deep, unknowable and rather thrilling.