Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Georgian Shell House at Hatfield Forest

A few weeks ago we visited Hatfield Forest, which is a rare survival of a medieval royal hunting forest. I love woods and forests because they so often have a real sense of history; the ancient trees like living sculptures, the sense of timelessness that you get when you walk between them.

Hatfield Forest was in existence at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. Fallow deer were introduced in 1100 from Europe and their descendents still roam the woods today. Rabbits were another “foreign” introduction and a warren was set up in the woods to provide meat and fur.

In the 18th century the forest was sold to the Houblon family, wealthy merchants and financiers from
the City of London. In keeping with the fashions of the day, Jacob Houblon had a part of the forest landscaped. He built the Georgian Shell House and the lake, surrounding it with exotic, non-native trees.

The Shell House is now the exhibition centre for the estate. It was originally built as a picnic house overlooking the lake and was decorated with flints and with British and tropical shells. Most of the shells were from the West Indies as these were used as ballast in the holds of slave ships. The decoration includes a bird sculpted out of oyster shells and blue glass, coral and coloured sands.

At this time there was a craze for collecting and purchasing shells and using them to decorate grottoes and garden features. The building of a picnic house was also a part of the 18th century fashion for elaborate buildings in the landscape whether they were fishing temples, cold plunge baths, pavilions or grand arches. In the summer the Shell House provided a wonderful place for the family to picnic, fish and go boating. Grand parties were also held
there. It offers an insight into the leisured lifestyle of the Georgian upper classes. It is rumoured that the ghost of Laeticia Houblon, who decorated the Shell House, can sometimes be seen in and around the property! It must have taken her months to create such a detailed piece of art.

I actually found the shell decoration rather dark and not particularly appealing although I think that may be because after 250 years it has been very worn by the weather, and the bird motif was a bit sinister to my eyes! So I don't think I will be decorating my house like that any time soon, but as an example of the fashion for shell decorations in the 18th century it was well worth a visit.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoyed this, Nicola. It's not too far from where I live and Hatfield Forest and the Shell House will now go on my 'to visit' list. I loved the photo of the trees in winter.

I'm interested in the name Houblon. Were they a Huguenot family, I wonder.

Nicola Cornick said...

They were indeed Huguenots, Elizabeth! It was a super place to visit. The forest itself is fascinating for its history and landscape and to discover the Shell House was an extra nice surprise. Oh, and they do great snacks at the Forest cafe as well!

mackyton said...

The Georgian Shell House is very pretty. This is a must visit place and I’ll visit there quite soon with my family. The SF event venues are also very beautiful. I always reserve these local venues for my personal events but I would love to celebrate this birthday at Georgian Shell House.