Gifts from the Sea: Sailors’ Valentines by Happy van Beuren has opened in the Van Alen Gallery at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. Featuring over 30  creations by Newport doyenne Hope “Happy” van Beuren the show introduces for the first time Newport audiences to this remarkable art form and her exceptional skill in making these beautiful and supremely labor-intensive creations.  

The richly decorated works on display are the fruits of Happy van Beuren’s devotion to an art form that is as painstaking as it is historic. Originally introduced to sailors’ valentines in Boca Grande, Florida, her journey began first with lessons from a series of internationally known teachers. We can speculate that it is from the late Sandra Moran, widely held to be one of the greatest practitioners in the genre, that van Beuren first absorbed the craftsmanship and meticulous design that characterize her valentines. In fact, for all of their tidiness, her creations often begin with her own more abstract intuitions, grounded in her attraction to the distinct colors of particular shells, their shape, and size. While this sort of aesthetic clairvoyance precedes the reasoned calculations of pattern, the former must in turn be adapted to the octagonal format and design conventions of a valentine. Van Beuren has always enjoyed working with her hands, matching her pleasure in making things to her varied artistic inclinations: her practice has included drawing, watercolor painting, and needlepoint. However, it is color and the challenge of ordering its complexities that have drawn her to sailors’  valentines. 

They are made by arranging shells, seeds, small marine animals (urchins, crabs, and seahorses), marine flora, small stones, as well as sand, and affixing them to an octagonal cardboard backing. Whereas early practitioners created comparatively simple designs by way of an additive method of ‘stacking’ the seeds or shells, today most valentine artists begin with a printed pattern to guide their design. Discrete sections may be delimited by string, fabric, or wire (cording), which also guides the setting of elements while giving an added level of finish to the completed work. All sailors’ valentines are mounted within an octagonal hardwood  frame—the signature format of the art form— most often made of mahogany, cherry, or walnut finished with  various wood inlays 

The show also includes four 19-century examples in a dedicated section treating the history of the genre.  The emergence of the sailors’ valentine as a distinct art form can be traced back to the turn of the nineteenth century when exploration of the Pacific and the return to the West of trade ships laden with curiosities coincided with two pre-existing trends: the 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 modernity itself,  fueled by technological advances and the coincident rise of consumerism and tourism. By the 1820s, what had been the gentlemanly collecting of oddities in the eighteenth century was now driven by modern merchandising. Seashells became the stock-in-trade of an entire commercial industry, sold in the curiosity shops of port cities in England, the US, and the Caribbean to supply the scientific interests and decorative imagination of an expanding middle class. Barbados, particularly its main port city of Bridgetown, has long been viewed as the historic epicenter of sailors’ valentine production. 

Said Benedict Leca, Redwood Executive Director in a statement, “These are remarkable creations that evidence a refined aesthetic sensibility as well as a technical proficiency of the first order. I want to thank Mrs.van Beuren for her kind willingness to share this hidden talent. Their beauty and the materials are indeed very appropriate  to the City by the Sea.” 

The exhibit is on view now through March 6, 2022.  

Sailors Valentine #2 by Han van Beuren


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