She Sells Sea Shells

06th August 2020

Intricate, inventive and each completely unique, artist Tess Morley’s shellwork creations are a fantastical feast for the eyes.

Words by Bethan Ryder

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Visitors to the beaches of Sussex might well spot artist Tess Morley “walking with a stoop and a jar”, combing the shore, seeking out unusual crustaceous gems to haul back to her Worthing studio. Raised by the sea, Morley grew up a habitual beachcomber, but it was only after studying fine art at the University of Brighton that her obsessive collecting found a creative outlet. Now one of Britain’s leading shellwork artists, over the past 20 years she has carved out her own particular niche in this decorative art, dividing her time between restoring historic shell grottos and creating covetable ornamental objects, mirrors and accessories.

“I like the old-fashioned look of cabinets of curiosities,” she says, explaining her broad range of inspirations. “My nautilus cups are based on rococo objects, but I also like to have a more contemporary twist to my work – like the oversized mirrors with white shell frames that American customers love for their bathrooms.” This organic, sculptural form of mosaic, the roots of which can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, has stood the test of time. It resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance and swept into Britain soon after. By the Georgian era, shellwork was all the rage: no self-respecting country seat was complete without its own fairy tale grotto intricately embellished with beautiful shells, often imported to order from the colonies.

By the Georgian era, shellwork was all the rage: no self-respecting country seat was complete without its own fairy tale grotto intricately embellished with beautiful shells, often imported to order from the colonies.

In recent years Morley has been regularly tending her local grotto, the Goodwood Shell House, built in the 1740s by the 2nd Duke of Richmond for his wife and daughters to decorate. “I’ve been involved for about 10 years,” she says. “It’s very fragile and requires careful specialist cleaning. More serious restoration work was done a little while ago.” Those repairs included the Tympanum Arch, where a section of shellwork decoration had detached from the wooden panelling exposing an open space behind. Morley installed a hardwood batten, sealing it with shellac before applying conservation putty and reattaching the fallen limpet shells.

She is clearly meticulous about both materials and methodology. “For Goodwood, I use a recipe which I thoroughly researched from some original putty that I had analysed,” she explains. “It’s completely natural, contains lime, and is quite slow to cure, allowing you more freedom to alter a design.” For her own pieces, often with tighter deadlines, modern mastics are more appropriate. The creative process involves Morley painstakingly laying out her design, flat, shell by shell – many obtained from local restaurants (after their bivalve occupants have been consumed), or donated by friends. Photographs are taken for reference and only when she’s happy with the design are the shells affixed to whatever the object is – such as a frame or lamp base. A small casket, like the octagonal one sold via Mayfair’s The New Craftsmen, can take several weeks to complete, which explains its £1,800 price tag.

Catherine Lock, co-founder of The New Craftsmen, believes the shellwork revival is connected to a wider trend. “There’s a definite move towards decorative ornamentation,” she says. “We’re rediscovering the neoclassical era when all the greats – Robert Adam, Capability Brown and Josiah Wedgwood – were at their height. Shells are objects of great wonder and curiosity. And there’s something quite fantastical about shellwork – the idea of finding a piece of nature’s own craftsmanship on a beach and turning it into something of great beauty.” Couple this with the design world’s current emphasis on sustainability and the respectful use of natural materials and it seems the interiors world will continue to be, quite literally, Morley’s oyster.

  • sea

  • coast

  • summer

  • estate

  • nature

  • estate news

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