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A Shell House Arcadianza!

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

Bowden Hall Shell House, 1796, Wiltshire

In our extensive travels we have assessed and photographed over 300 authentic Shell Houses and Grottoes in Britain, Ireland and Europe.

The concept of shell houses within a landscape garden can be seen as a British development from a European influence understood on the Grand Tour from the late 17th century.

Let us list and assess features within some of Britain’s shell houses :

  • Walton Bathhouse, Warwickshire

  • Goodwood shell house

  • Sussex; Oatlands riverside ‘cottage’

  • Surrey; Sherborne (School) shell house

  • Merlin’s Mound, Marlborough College, Wiltshire

  • The secret garden retreat at Holkham Hall, Norfolk

  • Hampton Court House, Middlesex

  • Newby Hall gate lodges, Yorkshire – all but the last ‘period’ and all but Oatlands extant.

One of the earliest is located at Goodwood, Sussex. Built in 1739 and decorated over 7 years by the Lennox sisters. These photos show the full ceiling and a single ceiling panel.

Such buildings are external, separate from the main house, constructed for and decorated mainly by women. The shell house was a garden retreat in which to entertain and was often sited with panoramic views of the estate as seen in this photo of Endsleigh, Tavistock, Devon -created in 1810 for Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford.

18th and 19th century Interior decoration used many exotic shells and minerals. Some shell artists such as Mary Delany collected native shells from local beaches. She is the only 18th century woman known to have been commissioned to design and decorate an interior with shell swags. Her work can be seen at the Bath House, Walton, nr. Stratford-on-Avon. These photographs show her use of both exotic and native shells in free-flowing designs.

Shell Houses were divorced from religious, even cultural context: they were a private world best summed up by Anne, Countess of Winchelsea,

“Give me Oh indulgent fate. Give me yet before I die a sweet but absolute retreat"

These ‘Fabriques’ were associated with the aristocracy or nouveau riche and constructed on a wave of eighteenth/ nineteenth century enthusiasm for- and confidence in-grandiloquence and individuality.

Some interiors introduced mythological statuary associated with the maritime world such as Neptune at Goldney, Bristol.

Another example is Venus in Hampton Court Shell House, 1757, built for Opera singer, Anne Marie – Donaldson.

A few Shell Houses were created by Merchants within town gardens such as in the walled garden at Sherborne (College), Dorset. The intricate ceiling decoration of 8 panels use mainly native shells from the Dorset coast.

Contemporary British Shell Artists

Today, Britain’s Shell Artists continue to restore and create garden features.

  • Belinda Eade at Milverton Court, Somerset and Leeds Castle, Kent

  • Blott Kerr-Wilson at a family home near Denbigh

  • Diana Reynell at Goodwood

  • Linda Fenwick at Newby Hall ( with Lucinda Compton) and at Terrington

  • Kathryn Lloyd at Pitshill, Sussex

  • Elizabeth Cartwright at Iford Manor, Wiltshire

  • Sarah Greenall at ‘The Shooting Box’, Norfolk

  • Ginny Ottewill at Willsbridge, Somerset

Both professional and amateur they are keeping alive an important part of our decorative heritage.

This great history of Britain’s shell artistry is acknowledged by French author, Patrick Mauries in his book, “Shell Shock”.

Shell House decoration within British landscape gardens

Newby Hall, Yorkshire

Ince Castle, Cornwall

Iford Manor, Wiltshire
Willsbridge, Wiltshire

Bromsberrow Place, Gloucestershire

Our next Blog for will examine these artists and many more in detail …… between SHELLING -OUT around the world looking for new material in Europe for our next publication.

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