Newport This Week

Sailors’ Valentines

History in a Seashell

Happy van Beuren at the show opening at the Redwood Library. (Photo by David Hansen)

Happy van Beuren at the show opening at the Redwood Library. (Photo by David Hansen)

Seeing intricate artworks made of shells, seeds, small stones and sand spread across Hope “Happy” van Beuren’s dining room table inspired both Kathy Irving and David Thalmann to curate an exhibition of sailors’ valentines created by their friend.

“We said, ‘This is something people should see,’” Thalmann recalled.

“Gifts from the Sea: Sailors’ Valentines by Happy van Beuren” is at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum’s Van Alen Gallery until March 6. Irving and Thalmann co-curated the exhibit with the Redwood Library’s executive director, Benedict Leca.

Over the years, van Beuren has designed and constructed many sailors’ valentines as gifts to family and friends. Last year, she and Irving decided to collect all her creations so that Irving, a photographer, could catalog them into a book. It was during that process that Irving and Thalmann envisioned an exhibition at the library, where Thalmann is director of finance and administration.

Hope “Happy” van Beuren working on her art.

Hope “Happy” van Beuren working on her art.

But convincing van Beuren, a local philanthropist who founded the van Beuren Charitable Foundation in 1986, was another matter.

“Happy likes her privacy. We were all dumbfounded that she has been very modest and had made almost 30 of these valentines,” said Thalmann.

“She’s a humble person, so she was hesitant,” added Irving. “She doesn’t like to be on display. She is very generous; she loves her friends and family and being part of our community. She’s an artist at heart and it’s expressed in the sailors’ valentines. David and I encouraged her to share them with the community and family and friends. Many people didn’t know about [her art]. At the [exhibit’s] opening, some people thought she’d collected [the valentines], not that she had made them.”

Besides the 29 valentines made by van Beuren, there are large photographs, wall text by Leca about the art and the artist, and four antique sailors’ valentines as examples of the art form’s origins. Irving notes that these older valentines were loaned by two local collectors, Nicole Limbocker and Dory Hamilton, who is the granddaughter of van Beuren’s late sister, Dodo Hamilton.

Sailors’ valentine with floral detail. (Photo by David Thallman

Sailors’ valentine with floral detail. (Photo by David Thallman

Thalmann researched the history of sailors’ valentines in preparation for the exhibit.

“I’ve seen them around New England but never knew much about the history,” he said.

He said shell craft goes back to 1830s Barbados, which was an important seaport during this period. Women on Barbados made the valentines using local shells or shells imported from Indonesia, then sold them to sailors.

“Sailors at sea went through Barbados and they’d take them home to their sweethearts. You find the valentines in New England because of its sailing and whaling [history],” said Thalmann. “I went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and a Nantucket museum, and [both] had some books about it. The largest collection of sailors’ valentines is at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, which had a major exhibition a few years ago.”

Sailors' valentine with ship detail. (Photo by David Hansen)

Sailors’ valentine with ship detail. (Photo by David Hansen)

Leca said that the exhibit is an important link to Newport’s maritime history.

“Sailors’ valentines come out of the maritime crafts tradition of the Caribbean islands, thus thematically and historically are very appropriate to our ‘City by the Sea’,” Leca said.” In that sense, too, the show is a bit of summer sunshine in mid-winter. Sailors’ valentines are also a highly specialized niche art form that is as exacting as it is historic. Newport has a long history as a city of makers and craftspeople. And with our belief that the Redwood should serve as a municipal venue as well as an archive, this show was ideal to highlight the continuity in Newport of the highly skilled artistic productions of its citizens, in this case Mrs. van Beuren.”

But where early sailors’ valentines are mostly simple patterns of seeds and shells mounted within the art form’s signature octagonal hardwood frame, van Beuren’s valentines are far more intricate, inventive and elaborate in her use of color and texture. In his wall text for the exhibit, Leca writes that while van Beuren “might initially be drawn to certain shells and their color to initiate the creative process, the art of her sailors’ valentines is in the coordination of color, design, and theme. “The latter is most often established by the central motif, which can include a variety of things: an exceptional shell, a miniature painting, a shell flower, a piece of scrimshaw, or even a photograph,” he writes. “A valentine’s most time-intensive step is finding 10, 20, or more shells of a single type that match in size, shape and color. It is to have the greatest variety of shells at her disposal that van Beuren, like many makers of sailors’ valentines, is a collector of shells.”

Irving and Thalmann said they’re pleased that the Redwood Library exhibit gives van Beuren her due as an artist. “It is rewarding for us to do something for Happy. Her humility is attractive, but it’s also nice [for her] to be getting this recognition that she would never seek for herself,” Thalmann said. “At the opening, even her children and grandchildren were lauding her, saying, ‘We didn’t know you were so talented!’”

The Story Behind Sailors’ Valentines

The emergence of the sailors’ valentine as a distinct art form can be traced back to the turn of the 19th century when exploration of the Pacific and the return to the West of trade ships laden with curiosities coincided with a taste for exotica and the fashion for scientific inquiry, especially in natural history.

The catalyst in the ensuing history of sailors’ valentines can be said to be fueled by technological advances and the rise of consumerism and tourism.

By the 1820s, what had been the gentlemanly collecting of oddities was now driven by modern merchandising. Seashells became the stock-in-trade of an entire commercial industry, sold in the curiosity shops of London’s St. Katherine’s Dock and those of Atlantic port cities to supply the scientific interests and decorative imagination of an expanding middle class.

For example, the only book of Edgar Allen Poe’s that sold well in his lifetime was a seashell guide he wrote for hire: “The Conchologist’s First Book.” Likewise, seashells were used to decorate countless household goods, such as boxes, mirrors, picture frames, clothing and furniture. With the advent of steamship travel, which by the 1880s had entirely supplanted sailing ships, seashells and items decorated with them were now common tourist souvenirs, a mania that endures to this day.

Barbados, particularly its main port city of Bridgetown, has long been viewed as the historic epicenter of sailors’ valentine production. Situated on the Caribbean’s easternmost island, and thus often the first and last port visited by travelers, Bridgetown was geographically and culturally the nexus that tied Anglo-American fashions to the marine-based cultures of the Caribbean islands.

Historians have specifically identified the famous New Curiosity Shop, opened in the early 19th century by the English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, as the vendor that established the conventional form of the sailors’ valentine. While the shop’s wares included the gamut of seashell necklaces and coral brooches, it also stocked an assortment of early sailors’ valentines.

One can speculate that it is in this shop, the meeting point of Continental craft traditions and marine wares, where two distinct box types might have conjoined to yield the partitioned decoration and octagonal format that define sailor’s valentines. On one hand, the fancywork boxes made for wealthy European women featured geometric compartments, which housed sewing implements and decorative elements, such as beads and seashells. On the other hand, the eight-sided valentine boxes were almost certainly adapted from those of the same design used to encase a ship’s compass.

In any case, if we can only surmise the evolution of their form, we can speculate with more certainty about who might have made sailors’ valentines and for what purpose. One thing is sure: lonely sailors at sea never made sailors’ valentines, the latter term being a misnomer that has obscured the likely truth regarding their manufacture. If early on in Barbados they were the product of skilled artisans supplying the tourist trade, their revival in the mid-20th century is almost entirely due to the accomplished artistry of feminine devotees. The present exhibition proves that sailors’ valentines are a significant art form far beyond sentimental utility. – Benedict Leca

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