Big Travel – then Locked into Little Travel
The cusp of 2019-20 saw us in Poole, Dorset photographing shell carvings, returning to lectures in Gloucester and Wiltshire before flying for a reprise visit to Naples and the Amalfi region (including Paestum). Always with new eyes. Two considerations: In Pompeii, the Casa Dellia Venere, the Venus Room and its extraordinary Venus on the regenerative scallop shell, naked with coronet and bracelet, putti and dolphin.
That bewitching oval face and large eyes remind one curiously of Branwell Bronte’s paintings of his sisters Anne and Emily. This was wonderful. Von Kloeber with his Venus Emerging from the Sea (Marmor Palace, Potsdam) had learnt little in 1800 years.
We were reminded by Venus here, uncannily, of some potent Stella Maris images. The legend of the Madonna of the Sea washed up on the beach at Minori by the Gulf of Salerno (where we stayed) is appealing. In the 7th century the body of Santa Trofimena arrived on the shores of the village. She was originally martyred in AD304 after Roman persecution. A Basilica in Minori is dedicated to her today, where her body lies. Earlier than this, the drowned Siren Partenope was washed up from the 3 islands nearby. The image of regenerative life is represented today by Amalfi’s fountain, where the breasts of a young woman spout water.
Back to the popular Venus image – on the shores of Cyprus – we had been reminded of this at the Misericorda Museum in Oporto with a painting of Our Lady of Mercy on a cloud-shell, rising above, arms outstretched. Our Lady of Conception (Mary) is patron saint of Portugal and yes, port (door) gal/ Gaia (earth/nature) = Galicia.
A recommendation – see what you think of the drowned ‘Lady in the Lake’ at the Villa Mateus – also in northern Portugal.
We returned for a Welsh lecture, then cruised to the Caribbean after a necessary (for us) tour of Santiago di Compostela – despite heavy rain. The West Indies, Bermuda, Florida and New Orleans are a different blog – no Venus, but a million shells.
But then, all hell broke loose. Covid. We just got home to Bath and have spent the last 9 months – being creative - reprising our visits across the country when we could, and writing. We found ourselves winners of the Central England Prestige Awards 2020-21 for our research into 18th century grottoes and bathhouses in England’s landscape gardens.
Our new research and writing concentrated, yes, on Venus, but also Neptune (Dyrham, Cheltenham, Bristol, Clifton) and Cliveden's shell fountain.
We enjoyed the various Venus narratives at the National Gallery in London – Reni, Velazquez, Bronzino, Leonardo and the usual suspects along with the older Aphrodite artefacts at the British Museum; the Crouching Venus at the V & A; Susini’s bronze Crouching Venus at the Holburne Museum, up the road from us in Bathwick.
Candace Bahouth’s ‘modern shell rococo’ shellwork was on exhibition there.
Where else? The amazing boat decked with carved scallop shells at Roman Verulamium, along with the giant shell floor mosaic.
A day when we also saw Scott’s subterranean shell grotto at Ware for the first time (something of the Margate Grotto there) and the Hatfield Forest Shell House with its complex emblems on the Essex/Hertfordshire border.
We were massively surprised by the Garden Museum at Lambeth Palace - the Tredescants’ collection of curios with original shells - one of the earliest in Britain. A real find and a mere walk across the Thames from Westminster. Across the way Tate Modern had extended its ‘Transformed Venus’ Exhibition in the Engine Room.
Margaret continued her Mary Delany investigations in Warwickshire and St James/Mayfair areas of London. (Snitterfield and Spring Gardens were fascinating). Studying old maps with obscure letters to discover whiled away the time easily.
Near home we explored the forgotten spa houses of Lyncombe Vale.
Our last day of the year saw us photographing the Thermal Spa buildings in Bath in the early morning sun and frost - frequently visited by Patrick and Mary Delany. Below 14 South Parade, where Fanny Burney stayed, by the old ferry station we found the new Mary, Queen of Bath. Not Mary Delany, but the Virgin Mary statue facing the west, on the Avon. This was moving.
And there also, by Pulteney Bridge and the Museum was Queen Victoria, 1901, backed by a giant shell hood – as she had been at the head of the Mall, and in Dublin, in Belfast. That imperial, protective and, yes, generative reach – not Mary, not Aphrodite – but that, surely, is not such a facile correlation.
Wishing all of our followers of Shell House Talks a Shellicious New Year!
Margaret and Gerald.