Many a maitre d’ has rolled his eyes at Linda Fenwick, despite her charm and impeccable manners. If there are mussels on the menu, then Linda orders them with one proviso: she gets to keep the shells.
Although she grew up in land-locked Texas, she has been shell obsessed from an early age and spent most of her childhood holidays on Sanibel Island in Florida gathering conch and other washed up sea treasures.
Rather than put them on shelves to collect dust, as most collectors do, she has always used them for crafting and making. She started by decorating mirrors and boxes but while most of us stopped at that, she continued developing ever more sophisticated designs that have culminated in one of Britain’s most imaginative and inspiring properties.
Her Shell House is a sensational folly in the garden of her country home, near Castle Howard. It is decorated from floor to ceiling with hundreds of shells arranged in Georgian inspired patterns.
The fairytale building combines her love of shells and her knowledge of art, interior design and architecture.
Her initial plan was to build it in the grounds of her Victorian rectory, but husband James persuaded her to locate it close to the house.
“He thought it would be used more and he was right. We use it for lunches and dinners and the children often have parties there. It’s the coolest bar ever,” says Linda, who moved to Britain after meeting and marrying James in America.
The couple lived in London before moving to Yorkshire 16 years ago, where James runs the York branch of the family department store, Fenwicks. Linda managed Grape Lane Art Gallery before launching her own invitation card printing business.
“The children were growing up and I had a little more time to myself, so I decided it was time to return to my love of interiors and architecture and create a shell house in my garden. Using all the experience and skills developed throughout my career, I felt I had the knowledge and expertise to build and decorate something very special and individual,” she says.
She designed the building herself and planning permission wasn’t a problem. It looks like a fairytale cottage made from rendered breeze block with a timber roof. Inside, gifted joiner Colin Thomas, built and fitted panels to the walls and ceiling.
Before being screwed into place, they were decorated with shells stuck with swimming pool adhesive to create intricate designs inspired by a love of Georgian architecture and symmetry.
“My head is constantly full of ideas and I use my sketchbook all the time to record patterns, motifs and architectural fragments that could be used in future designs. I find it best to sketch several ideas for each panel and then draw the best one to scale while keeping in mind which shells to use,” says Linda, an artist who has designed fabric for Sanderson.
She asked James and their children, Edward, Nick and Arabella, to design their own panels, which include their initials. Crumble, the family’s pet cocker spaniel has one too, featuring his paw print.
Among the shells used are dog conch, abalone mussels, razor clams for a lattice effect and star limpets. Around 500 LED pin lights have been installed in the panels to shine like tiny stars.
“That took some time and half way through I decided I wanted windows in the roof to bring in more daylight so that set us back but and there was no great rush,” she says.
The Shell House took four years to complete and has sparked a new creative business. Friends were so impressed they asked her to make shell art fort them and she now takes commissions.
She is designing panels for a restored loggia at a nearby stately home and a bar/dining area in a house on the island of Mustique. Meanwhile, she produces mirrors and pictures, whose frames are made by Colin. Her studio is in a cottage annexe next the house, while her shell store is in the adjoining tack room.
It is full of thousands of shells including her own, many of which come from holidays on the West Coast of Scotland.
“I have carrier bags stuffed in my pockets when I go to the beach because there are some great razor clam shells there. James and the children get a carrier bag too,” she says.
“I have collected shells all of my life and have always been amazed at the form and pattern of each one. Their unsurpassed natural beauty in all their myriad shapes and sizes and subtle colours lend themselves to textural patterns for walls, panels, alcoves, arches, mirrors and picture frames.”
She goes to great lengths to make sure they are from sustainable sources. Many are bought from the Bridlington Beach Comber shop and the rarest are pricey.
“Clams are about £10 each, which adds up, though I have seen a giant clam on eBay for £3,000,” she says.
Others are from friends and arrive in a raw state. She washes them before polishing with olive oil and nothing goes to waste, as broken and dirty ones have been used to create a shell path in her herb garden.
It’s another great idea from Linda, who is busy working on fresh designs and products.
“I’m doing shell tables, which have turned out really well and Jane Churchill called me out of the blue and asked if she could use some of my work in her shop window,” she says.
“I am thrilled that my lifelong passion for shells is now my business.”
See a slideshow and video of the Shell House at www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/property
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