Why we’re all falling for sailor’s Valentines
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“‘To the one I love.’ Isn’t that lovely?” Alexandra Tolstoy reads out the message on one of her most treasured possessions, a double sailor’s Valentine she bought at The Lacquer Chest in Kensington many years ago. Housed in octagonal mahogany frames, these intricate shell-work creations often spell out romantic mottos – “Ever Thine”, “Remember Me” or “Forget Me Not”.
The story goes that they were made by lovesick sailors – but that’s not quite true, says Dr Sarah Johnson, who curated the Cahoon Museum’s 2019 exhibition Exquisite Shells. “From 1830 to 1880 their production was a cottage industry in Barbados. They would have been made by local craftspeople and sold at the New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown.” Sailors would pick them up as souvenirs on their final port of call after months at sea. They were easy to transport home, and opening up the box to find pink, turquoise and emerald shells from far-flung shores would no doubt have delighted the recipients, just as it does today.
Indeed, with folk art in vogue, there’s been a surge in demand for sailor’s Valentines. “Prices have rocketed,” says antiques dealer Marc Kitchen-Smith. “While you might have picked one up for £500-£800 a few years ago, they now fetch £2,500-£5,000.” That’s if you’re lucky enough to find one. His mailing list shares details of new stock on a Sunday night – by Monday morning it’s all been snapped up.
Collectors look out for original double-hinged Bajan sailor’s Valentines, with size, condition, intricacy of pattern, colour palette and sentimental mottos increasing value. Bonhams had several good examples in its Marine Sale on 27 April, with lots selling from £1,020 to £2,550, while a large single Valentine with unusual shell roses and daisies is listed on 1stdibs for $12,500. But it’s not only these that are desirable. Kitchen-Smith also stocks Victorian shellwork souvenirs made in British coastal towns in the 1840s and 1850s, when railways opened the seaside up to holidaymakers. These feature dioramas with shells around the edge and now cost £150-£350, whereas they might have been £20-£50 a few years ago.
Tolstoy has a collection of 14 of these too, which hang in her bedroom alongside a new set of four made for The Tolstoy Edit in collaboration with the artist Sarah-Jane Axelby. The pair connected on Instagram when Axelby asked to paint one of Tolstoy’s rooms where the Valentines were hanging. They soon decided to make a more versatile, affordable version that could be displayed in a contemporary setting. Axelby’s mixed-media designs are available as prints and best framed as a set. Tolstoy shows how they can be combined with antiques and eBay finds to create a playful look – “it’s good not to be too serious”, she adds.
This sense of play is fitting, for shells bring out a childlike wonder in us all. As shellwork artist Tess Morley puts it, “Everyone has collected shells on the beach at some point. It’s so exciting – ‘there’s a good one! There’s another!’ And suddenly you have 10 and you can make something.” Morley’s finds might make their way onto a bespoke shellwork mirror – popular with American clients – or her restoration projects that include Goodwood’s Shell House.
“When you restore you learn,” she explains. Her knowledge enabled her to create her own exquisite collection of sailor’s Valentines. They are not for sale – Morley loves them too much – and they hang in a cluster in her bedroom. Those looking to commission one would need at least a four-figure budget due to the labour and the difficulty in sourcing shells; sailor’s Valentines require small varieties that are hard to find on British beaches.
As a result of climate change, many of the shells in the original models would not be found today. This only adds to the rarity of the art form and gives cause for a new wave of collectors to cherish their examples. Homeware designer Matilda Goad has one hanging in the bathroom, a gift from her husband, Tom. “I like to have it in a bright room, where I can look at it up close and observe the pearlised beauty of it,” she says. These precious love tokens show no sign of losing their charm.