Esther Lafferty talks to an acknowledged expert who uses shells as an art form

Hidden in the heart of Oxford, miles from the coast, conchologist Ingrid Thomas has a studio lined wall-to-wall with jars of shells, as temptingly colourful as an old-fashioned sweet shop.

Ingrid spent her wartime childhood in Devon and her earliest memory is playing with fistfuls of shells and the childish pleasure of feeling their many shapes and sizes between her fingers.

As a toddler, she spent hours on the beaches gathering shells with her mother, who was as passionate about them as her daughter, and who, when times were hard during the war, crafted them into beautiful necklaces to sell.

“I come from an artistic family,” explains Ingrid.

As she grew up, Ingrid’s interest left the beach and she had an eclectic career in London and Oxford in publishing, retail and academia.

It wasn’t until 30 years later, on holiday in Herm – a tiny ‘cast-away’ island off the coast of Guernsey –with her family including her parents and her own children (a magic moment in itself), that her love for shells was reawakened.

She recalls: “We were walking along Shell Beach, where hundreds of seashells accumulated with the tides and I felt as if I’d fallen into Aladdin’s cave.

“I was entranced by the shells, and how amazing they were – the perfect aesthetics of each one, with a natural geometry created by a tiny creature. It was incredible. I virtually abandoned the children to the waves, I was so captivated!’ Ingrid was fascinated by the variety and was lucky enough to find a booklet on shell classification in the local post office.

This was the moment she became scientifically interested in molluscs, seeing beyond their beauty.

It wasn’t until 15 years later after her children had left home and two long, cold Oxfordshire winters, that Ingrid decided it was time for a global escapade.

Taking a sabbatical from Oxford University’s Zoology department, and letting her house out for a year to pay for the trip, she set off into the unknown with just a rucksack on her back.

“Over the years I’d been in touch with collectors around the world and I decided to go and visit them and the beaches on which they’d found such amazing specimens,” she says, but stresses: “I’d only take those that have washed ashore, however. You should never touch or take a living animal.”

A member of the Marine Conservation Society, Ingrid is passionate about the conservation of the marine environment and molluscs which are at risk from global climate change and the alteration of the ocean’s pH level.

Increasingly, acidic water reduces the calcium carbonate levels in the seas from which marine molluscs make their shells, and as their shells are their protection from predators, a weak shell reduces the life-span of their inhabitants.

Ingrid’s journey took her, via Fiji and the US, to Australia and New Zealand where she lived for nine months, travelling the coast, gathering hundreds of different types of shell, and marvelling at how different they were from the European varieties.

“I probably looked like something out of Robinson Crusoe because I just couldn’t stop collecting!” Ingrid says, laughing. “I slept on beaches and under rocks gathering every type I could find. One day when I was hopping from rock to rock, I accidentally leapt on to the back of a sleeping seal who woke with a roar and gave chase. It must have been quite a sight!

“Everyone knows that there are thousands of types of insect, but people are much less aware that there are over 100,000 species of sea mollusc – they’re the second biggest class of animal on the planet, so there’s an almost infinite variety of shapes, colours, textures and patterns of shell, from smooth mother-of-pearl almonds to the big coral-coloured snail shells from the Indian Ocean Islands, milky green tubes to exquisite star shapes.

“In warmer tropical waters, where the temperature is warmer and molluscs have more food, there’s a wider range of colours.”

When it was time to come home, Ingrid parcelled up a crate of specimens and shipped them home to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Her colleagues, however, were less excited to see the wondrous variety than they might have been because part of a rotting penguin had accidentally been included in the package and the smell was unbearable!

Ingrid continued to study conchology researching the cultural history of their use, and the ways they have been used by humans over the centuries, to compile the definitive book in the field, The Shell, A World of Decoration and Ornament, published by Thames & Hudson.

She explains: “Shells are the jewels of the sea: they’ve captivated us through the ages, entered our mythologies and been put to a wide range of uses – sharpened into tools, ground to make medicines, blown to make music, worn as jewellery and used to signal leadership.

“They were used as currency on several continents and as amulets to bring fertility, good fortune, or protection from the evil eye.”

Shells were also among the exotic treasures brought back from the voyages of discovery, and by 1796, Ingrid tells me, the mania for shells was such that a single shell raised six times the sum paid for a Vermeer painting.

Shells are natural works of art and alongside her continuing research and preparing for a TV series (which is still in the early stages), Ingrid creates ornamental framed studies of collections that come from far flung beaches.

These finished creations vary from contemporary to antique in style, and will be on show to the public during Oxfordshire Artweeks (from May 7) when Ingrid opens her studio to welcome you in.

“Each selection highlights the different mood or character of different types of shell.

“Some are chosen for their subtlety and gentle beauty, or femininity; others lend themselves to a geometric design that’s almost formal, while others are far more dramatic, with unusual shapes or texture, bold colours or breath-taking markings.”

And Ingrid promises: “Most people will never have seen or be likely to see many of the shells I use and there’ll be one to appeal to everybody’s personality!”