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Today we have a special mystery:  a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons.  Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells).  The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.”  The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.

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The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since.   Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly.  The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction.  My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.

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Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded.  Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis).  Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive.  It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex.  Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own.  The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.

For Saint Valentine’s Day here is a collection of “sailor’s valentines”.  These were ostensibly a form of nautical art—like scrimshaw–created by old sea dogs in the days of canvas and manilla.  On the long voyages the grizzled sailors would tenderly glue shells together in wooden (particularly octagonal cases) to give to their family and sweethearts when they returned to port.  There is something appealing about this picture–but seashells come from shore.  Additionally one wonders how much craft space sailors were allowed in the age of wind.

A counter narrative has arisen that sailors would buy these shell designs from a merchant in Barbados who was responsible for most of the early examples.  Once the idea became popular, artisans began to make the little seashell mosaics at home. To be honest, I can picture my great-grandmother at a table filled with shells and glue much more easily than I can sea Captain Haddock putting together something like this. Whatever the case, the carefully arranged shells create delicate and lovely little artworks.  Even if they were not made by sailors or given at Valentine’s Day, I am repurposing them as a valentine to all of my readers!

To reiterate: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sealife Mosaic from "the House of the Dancing Faun" in Pompeii (ca. 1st century AD)

So much of Roman artwork is lost.  Except in remarkable circumstances, Roman paintings, textiles, and drawings were too fragile to survive the long centuries of neglect.  Almost all are now long gone.  Fortunately the Romans were masterful mosaic artists and mosaics are durable. Many mosaics concerning all sorts of aspects of classical life have lasted through the millennia.  Some of these tile artworks present the loves of gods or the wars of men but quite a few are more humble and show the aftermath of a banquet or fishermen hauling in a day’s catch .  Since Romans ate a huge amount of seafood, it is no surprise that many mosaics showcase mollusks of one sort of another.  Here is a gallery of Roman mosaics featuring octopuses, squids, bivalves, or snails.  I have tried to add as much information as I could but some of the photos I found were poorly labeled

Marine Life Mosaic from House viii in Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique (ca. 2nd century BC)

Detail of a Roman bath mosaic depicting a murex. (ca. late second to early first century BC)

Floor mosaic from "House of the Faun" Pompeii: Cat with bird, ducks, and sea life.

Ancient Roman Mosaic Prtraying Sealife from the British Museum

Triton with an octopus and squid (Forum Baths, Herculaneum)

Roman Mosaic of an Octopus

Modern mosaic makers were inspired by the Roman example and flamboyant cephalopods are a major theme of contemporary mosaics as well as ancient ones.  Here are some modern octopus and squid mosaics for millionaires’ swimming pools, elementary schools, or even everyday bathrooms.  Enjoy!

Modern copy of a Roman era mosaic from Milreu, Portugal

A Kraken for the bottom of a swimming pool (by Laurel Studios)

Octopus Mosaic for a public school

Contemporary Octopus Mosaic

A squid mosaic in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Octopus Mosaic from Seattle Country Day School

Navigation Mosaic by Mia Tavonatti

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