shell5I posted Rembrandt’s shell last week , before I headed off  for a beach holiday at Phillip Island (for anyone who’s not a Victorian, it’s an island connected to the mainland by a bridge, and quite famous as the home of  – take your pick – a colony of fairy penguins or a huge motor sports track). I always like to bring shells home – handfuls of them – and put them in little bowls in the house where I can look at them and remember happy days of salty air and seawater. But really they look best when wet, so they usually end up living among my pot-plants. I’d anticipated spending  hours on the beach looking for shells, but it didn’t happen this time.

I’d been collecting shells since I was a young child – our back gate opened onto the beach, so there were always shells handy. Though I’m short-sighted, I’ve always been good at finding things like beach glass, pebbles, butterfly wings, feathers, dead beetles, beautiful leaves –  and shells. People often gave me shells as presents (and they still do); I have a fine collection of cowries – but this Rembrandt etching is special to me. It makes me think of Chelsea, where I grew up, and my father.

Our back gate opened onto the beach, and nearly every day I used to walk along the beach with my Dad. We were beachcombers together. Port Phillip Bay doesn’t cast up rare and exotic shells like Rembrandt’s; they tend to be little and undramatic. I remember flocks of bivalves like pale butterflies, blue-black mussel shells, fan-shaped scallops; lots of tiny turbans with chequered patterns and rosy tips. I always preferred the mysteriously enclosed whorled ones to the simple, happy bivalves, but they all fascinated me. We used to bring them home to put in a shell garden we made along the side of the outside toilet, along with driftwood, bleached bits of sponges and sea-weed, sea-glass and bottles.

It’s not surprising that the  shell became a bit of a personal symbol for me. I have kitsch shell vases and shell-patterned china and a mirror made by a friend from reclaimed timber surrounded by glued-on shells. I’ve bought shells, too. The first time was when I was about sixteen, on a family holiday in Sydney. My Dad had found a shell shop – until then, I’d had no idea you could buy them – and I chose a flashy green snail-shell and a pearly polished turban… but they’re not dear to me as the found or given shells are. I was in my early teens when my Dad framed a postcard of Rembrandt’s shell for me. Here are some shell words – mysterious, secret world, secret self, secretive, hidden, self-enclosed, indwelling, protected, safe…

Rembrandt’s shell is conus marmoreous or marbled cone shell. They’re found in SE Africa, Polynesia and Hawaii. Rembrandt depicted this exotic thing 1650, in the days of  sailing ships, and it would have had a long and arduous voyage from its home to sit in Rembrandt’s studio in Holland. I wonder if he held it to his ear and listened to the whispering of far away waves? So more shell words – sea-voyage, sea-world, depths and deeps, full fathom five, pearl and coral, waves, tide, moon, whisper, sshhh…


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