Opening of a new exhibition at the Redwood Library – “Gifts from the Sea: Sailors’ Valentines by Happy van Beuren”
Gifts of the sea: Valentine’s Day for sailors by Happy van Beuren opened in the Van Alen Gallery of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. Showcasing over 30 creations by Newport Dean Hope “Happy” van Beuren, the show introduces Newport audiences for the first time to this remarkable art form and her exceptional skill in making these magnificent and extremely laborious creations.
The richly decorated works on display are the fruit of Happy van Beuren’s devotion to an art that is as meticulous as it is historic. Originally initiated on Sailors’ Valentine’s Day in Boca Grande, Florida, her journey began with lessons from a series of internationally renowned teachers. We can assume that it was from the late Sandra Moran, widely regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of the genre, that van Beuren first absorbed the craftsmanship and meticulous design that characterizes her Valentine’s Day. In fact, despite their cleanliness, his designs often begin with his own more abstract intuitions, based on his attraction to the distinct colors of particular seashells, their shape and size. While this sort of aesthetic clairvoyance precedes reasoned calculations of patterns, the former must in turn be adapted to the octagonal format and design conventions of a valentine. Van Beuren has always loved working with his hands, matching his enjoyment of doing things with his various artistic inclinations: his practice has included drawing, watercolor painting, and embroidery. However, it was the color and the challenge of ordering her intricacies that drew her to Sailors’ Valentine’s Day.
They are made by arranging shells, seeds, small marine animals (sea urchins, crabs and seahorses), marine flora, small stones, as well as sand, and placing them on an octagonal cardboard support. While early practitioners created relatively simple designs using an additive method of “stacking” seeds or shells, most Valentine’s Day artists today start with a printed pattern to guide their design. Discreet sections can be bounded by twine, fabric or thread (rope), which also guides the adjustment of the elements while giving an extra level of finish to the finished job. All sailors’ valentines are mounted in an octagonal hardwood frame – the signature format of the art form – most often in mahogany, cherry or walnut finished with various wood inlays
The show also includes four examples from the 19th century in a section devoted to the history of the genre. The emergence of Sailors’ Valentine’s Day as a distinct art form dates back to the turn of the 19th century, when the exploration of the Pacific and the return to the West of merchant ships laden with curiosities coincided with two pre-existing trends: the taste for exoticism and the fashion of scientific research, in particular in natural history. Arguably the catalyst for the sailors’ Valentine’s Day story that followed is modernity itself, fueled by technological advancements and the concomitant rise in consumerism and tourism. By the 1820s, what had been the collection of eerie objects in the 18th century was now driven by modern merchandising. Seashells became the commodity of an entire commercial industry, sold in curiosity shops in port cities in England, the United States and the Caribbean to fuel the scientific interests and decorative imagination of a growing middle class. Barbados, particularly its main port city of Bridgetown, has long been seen as the historical epicenter of sailors’ Valentine’s Day production.
In a statement, Benedict Leca, Executive Director of Redwood, said: “These are remarkable creations that demonstrate refined aesthetic sensibility as well as first-rate technical mastery. I would like 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 exhibition is visible until March 6, 2022.