Miss O’Shea’s shell cabinet

Our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, shares one of her latest conservation projects.

Elizabeth Mary O’Shea (1910-1986) was born in Sheffield on Christmas Day, the daughter of Lucius Trant O’Shea (1858-1920) and Mary Annie Elizabeth Tindall (1875-1958). Her father Lucius was a Professor of Applied Chemistry at Sheffield University as well as a mining engineer and he made several contributions to the study of mining problems, particularly in connection with explosions and explosives. After his death, Elizabeth and her mother came to settle in Sherborne, later living at Whitely, The Avenue. Elizabeth was a founder member of the Museum and on its Council; she was also quite a collector – I have already displayed her tiny glass animals in the case in the Gardner Room reserved for other people’s passions.

Elizabeth gave several lovely things to the Museum, including the shell cabinet; perhaps this reflected her taste for the miniature. For some years past I had noticed a dusty cabinet under a weighted sheet of paper on the windowsill on the staircase leading to the top floor. I once pulled a drawer partially open and found a grubby assortment of tiny shells inside, but I hastily mentally shelved it as I knew that I could not at that point devote any real time to it. With the creation of the Natural History room, however, the cabinet became more prominent in my thoughts.  In the summer of last year I determined to restore it.

Shells 1

Detail from Miss O’Shea’s shell cabinet

I still have no real idea of its date, provenance or how it would have looked but it seemed to me that I could detect patterns and blocks of colour created by the different species. The shells were hopelessly jumbled, some were so small they had to be shifted about with tweezers, one of those impossible tasks reserved for the very wicked in Hades. Some were so coated in grime they were unrecognisable but after a careful soaking in tepid water and cleaning with an infant’s toothbrush their jewel-like colours were slowly revealed.  The shells were nested in beds of dirty cotton wooI which needed removing to discourage pests and each small compartment within the drawers had to be cleaned with a special conservation vacuum. I discovered tusk shells, jujube topshells, freshwater cowries, harp shells, periwinkles,  arc shells, dog whelks, scallops, oysters, pieces of coral, sharks’ teeth, tellins, a mermaid’s purse and some sea horses, although many are still to be identified. Most seem to come from the Atlantic coast, in a region from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico.

Shells 3

The collection contains a wide range of shells

The box itself is interesting with a simple but attractive marquetry veneer which responded well to treatment with a beeswax polish. The whole project took around seven months and now my colleague Linda Atkinson has painstakingly lined some of the drawers with thin black Foamex which sets the shells off beautifully. She has taken some photographs and is having a couple professionally made up into greetings cards to sell in the shop. I hope now the cabinet will take its place in the Ruth Gervis (natural history) room and be newly appreciated by our visitors, now and for years to come.

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