It is only when you get close enough do you realise that despite their deeply out of place appearance these ladies are more a part of Margate than any other resident, they are in fact a part of the town, they are made from it. Painstakingly crafted from shells, primarily those of the local scallops the glistening white shell ladies are the pearls of Margate.
The sculptures are the work of a locally based artist, Ann Carrington whose client list is almost as impressive as her work. Her pieces grace the collections of Elton John, Rothschild, Paul Smith and Levi Strauss. Ms. Carrington has exhibited around the globe and with the Commonwealth Fellowship for sculpture on her mantle it is unsurprising her work exudes such effortless and graceful charm.
On her official website theshelllady, Ms. Carrington states that the inspiration for her work came from the shell ornaments still sold on Margates seafront. Despite such humble beginnings the shell ladies cut impressive figures, even more so when gathered in numbers. Ms Carrington has assembled a total of twelve women, each named after a famous lady of Margate and each with her own distinctive appearance. Thankfully the ladies chosen are all famous in a historical sense rather than in a modern tabloid sense so Tracy Emin has, for now missed out on the chance to be immortalised in seashell form.
In life Baroness Orczy was the well travelled and glamorous author of 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'. Her seashell counterpart stands over six feet tall with a beehive of painted urchin shells and a heavy skirt of scallops. No doubt the Baroness would approve of her image causing such a stir among Margate's steady, if slightly diminished stream of tourists. Those without a keen interest in the town's history may struggle to recognise the names of many of the shell ladies but all have firm links with the seaside resort. From children's writer Mary Lamb to the owner of Margate's famous shell grotto, Ann Hill. Each lady is a thread in the rich tapestry of the once great town's history.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the sculptures is how effortlessly they evoke the colourful history of Margate. This effect is bolstered by clever advertising with abandoned shop fronts sporting graphics designed very much in the Victorian style. Even these graphics are cleverly thought out to both complement the ladies and to be beneficial to local business. Ms Carrington states on her website that the graphics were put in place by locally based sign writers many of whom are third generation businesses. It is wonderful to imagine that the families who long ago maintained the arcades, bathing machines and ice cream carts are now part of a project which has the same camp seaside charm that drew so many tourists to the sandy beaches in the early 1900s.
Surprisingly the ladies, despite the effort put into them and their disarming beauty are little more than advertising for a far larger project. In September 2008 a twelve foot shell lady cast in bronze will be placed at the end of Margate's old town harbour arm to become a permanent feature of the towns steely grey seascape. As Ms Carrington points out the remarkable thing about this choice of placement is the fact the dramatic seascape was once a favourite of Margate's most famous resident J. M. W. Turner, one of the most noteworthy landscape painters of the nineteenth century.
By placing the giant shell lady against one of the most important backdrops in the history of landscape painting Margate will be permanently bonding its two distinctive sides. The historical summer retreat of English high society. A place of elegance, wealth and beauty will be fused with the saucy postcard, bucket and spade image which, for many epitomises towns like Margate. The bronze shell lady will be named "Mrs Booth" after the seaside landlady with whom Turner chose to stay while in Margate. The pair fell in love and lived as Mr and Mrs Booth, with Mrs Booth acting as Turner's patron until his death.
Once the bronze is erected in this summer it will be the first conspicuous step in the slow regeneration of Margate. Planning is underway to construct a new gallery in order to kick start the local tourist economy in a similar way the Tate did for St Ives. We can only hope Mrs Booth will one day keep watch over a revitalised Margate that her presence is at least partially responsible for.
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer.