Art History: Sailors’ Valentines: Shell Mosaics from the Victorian Caribbean
Sailors’ Valentines: Shell Mosaics from the Victorian Caribbean
Octagonal shell mosaics – colloquially known as sailors’ valentines – were produced in a cottage industry in Barbados for the burgeoning Caribbean tourism industry in the Victorian era. As a commercial colonial craft, sailors’ valentines are occluded in art historical discourse. Nevertheless, these vibrant, textured collages embody the legacy of European aesthetic responses to the natural environment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; their multivalent forms are inflected with Enlightenment natural philosophy, rococo design, and the picturesque envisioning of an industrialising, natural landscape. This paper will trace the material evolution of sailors’ valentines from their origins in conchology and craft to the rise of modern seaside leisure and its adaptation in the Victorian Caribbean. It will argue that sailors’ valentines were object emissaries of a post-emancipation island identity enlisted in rebranding the Caribbean from a plantation to a paradise.
Image caption: ‘Souvenir from Barbados’, 1884–1889, Barbados, seashells, seeds, cedarwood, glass and bronze, 23.2 x 45.0 x 3.5 cm. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Virginia. 1987.07.01.
Dr Molly Duggins is a lecturer in the Department of Art History and Theory at the National Art School, Sydney.