Mapping the Marvellous

Itineraries of curious objects and collections.

Category: the life aquatic

Coral Décor

Bathroom in designer S.R. Gambrel’s holiday home, wallpapered with pages from Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Sarah Boardman’s natural curiosities library

Glass bell jar

Bookshelf stocked with ‘unnatural’ treasures posing as the real thing

Red precious coral

Cabinet in Hollister and Porter Hovey’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Coral-topped bookshelf in Katie Armour’s apartment

Tony Duquette’s design of Dodie Rosenkran’s Palazzo in Venice

Faux coral door handle

Coral wall hanging, imprinted with an original illustration by eighteenth-century naturalist John Ellis

Coral branch in textile designer Carolina Irving’s home

Seashell Nostalgia II

Glass and seashell souvenir of the Empress of Ireland, 1906-14 (Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool).

“Nothing looks as dead as a seashell in suburbia…”

James Hamilton-Paterson, The Great Deep: The Sea and its Thresholds, New York: Random House, 1992, p. 118.

Seashell Nostalgia I

“…la nostalgie pour le goût du cabinet, du mélange d’artificialia et de naturalia, au moment même de l’épanouissement du musée…”

Alexandre Isidore Leroy de Barde, Choix de coquillages, c. 1810 (Louvre, Paris).

“…cette récupération par l’imaginaire artistique de l’univers de la curiosité se transforma au début du XIXe siècle en une forme de mélancolie postrévolutionnaire pour une société d’Ancien Régime qui n’existait plus. Sous cet angle, il est intéressant de méditer aussi le tout premier daguerréotype qui représentait – en ligne direct avec le dessin de Leroy de Barde – des coquillages sur des étagères.”

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, Coquillages, 1839, daguerréotype (Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, inv. 8745-2).

Quoted from Anne Lafont, 1740, Un Abrégé du monde: savoirs et collections autour de Dezallier d’Argenville, exh. cat., Paris: INHA, 2012, pp. 18/21.


Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this new book by Mark Dion – ‘part exhibition catalogue, part scientific log book, and an archaeology of our fascination with the sea':

Mark Dion, Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas from the Expedition to the Aquarium (Mack, 2011).

See here, here and here for more info on the exhibition the book accompanied (still heart-broken I missed it).

Oh, and I also can’t wait for Christmas break to begin. Bring it on.

Vintage National Geographic

Megasoma beetle, 1959.

Icicles on Florida oranges, December 1977.

Starfish and sea anemones clustering in a tide pool, Olympic Peninsula, America, February 1974.

“Arab and Frenchman Have Much to Talk About. Dachshund and Shark Do Not.” 1952.

Owls nesting in cactus, 1959 (?).

Seahorse, Florida, 1959.

Minerals, 1954.

Via Voyages Extraordinaires. More at vintage national geographic scans.


How does this

and this

develop into this


Metamorphosis, you say?

Yes. But:

The larva of Luidia sarsi is a semi-transparent diaphanous sprite that feeds on algae and grows to a remarkable 4 centimetres.

Then something extraordinary happens.

Instead of changing shape to become an adult, a cluster of cells lining the larva’s internal cavity grows, like an alien invader, and out of these a starfish is born. Floating free from its other self, the adult form settles on the ocean floor, where it survives and grows by hunting down other starfish in the dark of night. Meanwhile, the larva continues its vegetarian existence, grazing the surface waters above.

From Frank Ryan’s article in the New Scientist, Metamorphosis: Evolution’s Freak Factory, via The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

How could you not agree with Roger Caillois who suggests, in his essay The Natural Fantastic, that certain phenomena testify to “the existence of an underlying imaginary that is part of the real”?

See also this article on sea squirts as ‘real chimeras’ living in the oceans.


Playful and sinister at the same time: Max Ernst covered in seaweed, photograph taken by Roland Penrose in Lambe Creek, Cornwall, 1937.

Coral Love

Something light and love-ly for a sunny Friday afternoon: heart-shaped coral island, part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland in Australia – apparently a popular location for popping the question on a seaplane. And for all of you list lovers out there, here’s a list of the 10 Most Amazing Heart-Shaped Wonders of Nature (four of them in Germany no less).

Too Precious to Wear

Coral tiara, by the Phillips Brothers, English, c. late 1800s.

“What is it about coral that makes it so ardently modern?” – Ruth Peltason

Coral rings, by Monica Rossi, Italian, c. 2005 (carved crab and octopus).

“Coral has a whole new pizzazz about it. It’s timely, gay, young, it’s not precious and it’s a becoming colour with the pale lipsticks.” -David Webb

'Coral star' brooch, by Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co., French, 1956.

'Valparaiso Idyll' bracelet, by Victoire de Castellane for Dior, French, 2009.

Support Too Precious to Wear, a SeaWeb campaign that works to create demand for coral conservation by working with the jewelry and design industries.

These earrings are fantastic (I wouldn’t mind wearing them myself):

Horn clipper ship ear pendants, by Gabriella Kiss, American, 2004 (sails made from buffalo horn).

Jewellery made from amber, coral, horn, ivory, pearls, shell, tortoiseshell, wood. But also: scarab beetles, tiger claws, stag’s teeth, bog oak, hair, feathers:

'Spring' necklace, by Jennifer Trask, American, 2005 (butterfly wings).

All images from Ruth Peltason, Jewelry from Nature: Amber, Coral, Horn, Ivory, Pearls, Shell, Tortoiseshell, Wood, Exotica, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010 .

Support Too Precious to Wear, a SeaWeb campaign that works to create demand for coral conservation by working with the jewelry and design industries. You can sign a pledge and check out a list of jewellery and fashion designers who support the Too Precious to Wear campaign by using alternative materials.

Life in the Ocean’s Jewel Boxes

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), illustration from Actinologia Britannica: A History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals, 1860.

by Pablo Neruda

You’ve asked me what the lobster is weaving there with
his golden feet?
I reply, the ocean knows this.
You say, what is the ascidia waiting for in its transparent
bell? What is it waiting for?
I tell you it is waiting for time, like you.
You ask me whom the Macrocystis alga hugs in its arms?
Study, study it, at a certain hour, in a certain sea I know.
You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal,
and I reply by describing
how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies.
You enquire about the kingfisher’s feathers,
which tremble in the pure springs of the southern tides?
Or you’ve found in the cards a new question touching on
the crystal architecture
of the sea anemone, and you’ll deal that to me now?
You want to understand the electric nature of the ocean
The armored stalactite that breaks as it walks?
The hook of the angler fish, the music stretched out
in the deep places like a thread in the water?

I want to tell you the ocean knows this, that life in its
jewel boxes
is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure,
and among the blood-colored grapes time has made the
hard and shiny, made the jellyfish full of light
and untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall
from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother-of-pearl.

I am nothing but the empty net which has gone on ahead
of human eyes, dead in those darknesses,
of fingers accustomed to the triangle, longitudes
on the timid globe of an orange.

I walked around as you do, investigating
the endless star,
and in my net, during the night, I woke up naked,
the only thing caught, a fish trapped inside the wind.

Translated by Robert Bly

Philip Henry Gosse, illustration from Actinologia Britannica: A History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals, 1860.


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