A pair of painted pearl oyster shells (ZBA4546 and ZBA4547)
Many craftwork items involve an appropriate combination of sailors with seashells. The nautilus shells engraved by C.H. Wood turn up quite frequently in the salerooms. Boxed shell valentines made in Jamaica are also well known to collectors. However, when the family of Able Seamen Wright offered us a pair of painted pearl oyster shells, we realised that they were something new to our collections. The shells are quite big and are likely to belong to the largest type of pearl oyster (Pinctada Maxima). These are found in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific and historically were harvested not only as a source of pearls but as the basis of a shell button industry.
The shells commemorate a cruise by HMS Juno in the Indian Ocean during World War I and fit in with the NMM’s current research interests in this part of the world. Although his family believe that Henry Wright painted the shells himself, it is possible that he may have bought them in Sri Lanka as a souvenir of his visit. Displays of national flags featured on many items of popular decorative art at this time, notably on the silk embroideries produced in the Far East for sale to western seamen.
A bonus of these attractive items is that we know a good deal about their owner. Able Seaman Henry Wright was born in Plymouth in 1876 and joined the Navy as a boy 2nd class at the age of twelve. He served on the China Station in HMS Victorious during 1897-1900 and in Amphitrite 1902-1905. His service record describes him as a short, dark man with ‘HW’ within a heart transfixed by an arrow, tattooed on his right forearm and an anchor tattooed on his left forearm. He was serving on armoured cruiser HMS Aboukir when she was sunk by U-9 in the North Sea on 22 September 1914. During 1917, he joined Juno and remained in her until the end of the war in 1919. He married Mabel Ada Toms and they had 10 children.