Shell artist: Linda Fenwick

From her North Yorkshire studio, this talented maker designs intricate shell panels for interiors, gardens, loggias and follies.

Meet Linda Fenwick

Inspired by the decorative richness of the shell-studded summer house she designed for her own home in 2010, Linda Fenwick set up a studio producing unique shell pieces, from elaborate panelled mirrors to shell-clad garden houses, temples and follies.

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Linda Fenwick

Linda Fenwick in her North Yorkshire studio.

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and moved to Dallas when I was a small child, where I grew up in a creative atmosphere. I studied chemistry at Baylor University in Texas before switching to fashion. After a stint putting together trunk shows all over the US for fashion designer Victor Costa, I moved to London with my husband, James. There, I took a history of art course at the ICA, along with several other classes including painting and drawing. I’ve always been interested in interior design and architecture.

Linda Fenwick

Excess paste is carefully cleaned off a shelled tabletop.

I started collecting when I was very young, during family holidays on Sanibel Island in Florida. I made boxes and mirrors at that stage, but always thought the extraordinary colours and textures of hundreds of shells together might form an amazing textural wall. Then, as an adult staying with friends on Mustique, I saw some beautiful shellwork that really inspired me. My first big project was the shell house in our garden. I designed it, working closely with builder Colin Thomas. It evolved as we worked – I never really pictured the finished result in my head, so when the panels went up it was an astounding moment. I knew that I had found a passion in shelling and decided to take on commissions.

Linda Fenwick

A collection of marine finds has been artfully grouped on the mantelpiece in Linda’s studio.

I’m influenced by architecture and Georgian plasterwork. I also enjoy visiting galleries, museums, houses and gardens, which always spark my creativity. I flick through magazines and see temples, pool houses and spas and I long to shell them. I also enjoy the mythical associations that shells hold. The Greeks and Romans believed they were the symbol of prosperity, fertility and regeneration.

Linda Fenwick

Linda spent 18 months creating the intricate design for her summer house.

I start with a cup of green tea, checking emails and going over approved plans for current projects. Then I go to my studio, picking up a selection of shells from the tack room nearby. Originally a ballet room, it has a lovely sprung wooden floor, lots of light and a wall of mirrors, which helps me view pieces objectively. If there is a team of us working, we’ll have a quick lunch then, at the end of the day, I catch up on correspondence again. Sometimes clients visit to buy panels or mirrors, or to see the shell house, which is open under the National Gardens Scheme in the spring and summer.

Linda Fenwick

The shell house in Linda’s garden, which was the inspiration for her business.

My initial discussion with the client is about what kind of piece they envisage and what style would be appropriate, be it Georgian, Baroque, contemporary or abstract. Then I produce some sketches and a scaled drawing, and sometimes a few layouts incorporating the shells I might be using. I often mock up a 3D model of the area to be shelled, too. Once the design is approved, I estimate how many shells I’ll need, then double it. The sorting process takes time because each shell has to be the right size, shape and colour and often needs to be cleaned and polished. Colin cuts, primes and paints the backing boards for me, making wooden templates for repeat designs to ensure accuracy. I lay out the designs with the sorted shells, then I can begin pasting them on. The piece dries for several days, then I clean off any errant paste before polishing. Panels and mirrors are fitted with wire and a numbered brass plaque on the back.

Linda Fenwick

One of a pair of shell-framed mirror sconces, which are often used in recesses either side of a fireplace.

I source materials from beaches, friends and online companies selling ethically sourced shells. A shell house offers a joyous natural beauty, which is difficult to describe or convey in photographs because it partly comes from the atmosphere that the shells create.

Linda Fenwick

Linda houses thousands of shells, filed by their common names and labelled in clear plastic containers.

I recently worked on a restored loggia in the gardens of Skipwith Hall, owned by Rosalind and Charles Forbes Adam. The project was great to work on because it involved very clean, clear designs set against a yellow backdrop. The loggia incorporated a circle of silvery abalone shells around a marble bust of Homer. The couple have their coffee there every morning and knowing how much they enjoy it is the ultimate reward for me.

Linda Fenwick

Fine paintbrushes and chisels are used to clean the shells before polishing.

I really like working on commissions for private houses and would also like to expand into restaurants and hotels. There is so much scope to create a wonderful talking point.

Linda Fenwick

A hand-rubbed, wax-framed panel with a pearl trochus at its centre and a background of star limpets.

Linda Fenwick, 01653 648470, lindafenwickshelldesign.com.

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