Working with Shells


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Watch recorded sessions on the Material and Visual Culture Seminar Series channel >

Session Chair: Richard Oosterhoff

Isabella Rosner (King’s College London) 

‘Delightful Bower of Bliss!’: Examining Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia Wax and Shellwork Shadow Boxes Through a Quaker Lens

My paper, abridged from my PhD, focuses on three wax and shell work shadow boxes made by eighteenth-century Philadelphia Quaker women. My PhD examines six shadow boxes which can be easily divided into two groups. The earlier group consists of older women – Rebecca Evans, Ann Reckless Emlen, and Mary Sandwith – who made shell-based landscapes in vertically-dominant rectangular boxes and the later group consists of teenaged girls – Sarah Morris, Abigail Harrison, and Mary Morrison – who created narrative scenes all featuring similar wax figures and shell compositions in horizontally-dominant boxes. This paper will focus on the Evans, Emlen, and Sandwith examples.

The paper will involve a thorough visual analysis of the boxes, as well as an exploration of who the makers were, how they knew each other, where they obtained their materials, where they got their artistic inspiration, and how the boxes fit into the larger trend of wax and shell work in the mid-eighteenth century. There will also be a discussion about how these objects were allowed to be made by members of a religious group that devoted itself to plainness and community surveillance.

These objects are the crux of my PhD dissertation, as they stand in stark contrast with Quaker plainness, which affected Friends’ speech, dress, behaviour, architecture, and art making. This dissertation grapples with the question ‘What was plain and simple to Quaker women?’ in order to understand how women’s art making within Quakerism, specifically needle, wax, and shell work, was allowed to be so decorative.

René Winkler (University of Edinburgh) 

Collecting Scottish nature – Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722) and the goose barnacle myth

The barnacle goose myth has a long and convoluted history in medieval and early modern European naturalist writing. The birds, called ‘Claik geese’ in Scots, were purported to be either growing from trees or to emerge fully formed from goose barnacles clinging onto driftwood floating in northern seas. The tale was a persistent one, even though it seemed to raise fundamental questions surrounding the division of birds, sea creatures and plants and touched on the issue of the spontaneous generation of life. Consequently, goose barnacles, held a prominent place in natural history collections, including the one kept at the university of Edinburgh and described by the Scottish virtuoso Robert Sibbald (1641-1722) in his Auctarium Musaei Balfouriani (1697). Sibbald argued forcefully against the myth with philosophical, experimental, and observational arguments, but one of his crucial epistemic tools was a goose barnacle specimen collected from the Fife coast, and meticulously described in the catalogue. This paper will explore the reasons why Sibbald was so interested in goose barnacles and how he saw the material specimen as a crucial element in the creating and teaching of natural historical knowledge, even though the desiccated mollusc exhibit was very different from the live animal. Addressing these questions will aid in understanding how early modern museum catalogues, animal images and, the natural object itself helped naturalists like Sibbald to claim expertise over a contested area of marine nature.