James Edwards with one of his shell art mirrors at the Shapiro gallery in Woollahra. Photo: Ben Rushton
Those walking down Queen Street, Woollahra over the summer holidays may have been struck by a display of shell art and marine collectables in the Shapiro Gallery at No.162.
This is the work of James Edwards, who studied this unique artform by assisting the late Paul Bruce. It was Bruce who largely created the style of art 20 years ago, transforming it from kitsch into fine art.
The Shapiro Gallery held the last two exhibitions by Bruce, who died in 2008. The first sold out on opening night and one high-profile Sydney businessman bought four framed mirrors.
A James Edwards shell-covered box. Photo: Ben Rushton
In 2010 Shapiro re-sold two of those mirrors for $8500 each. In pre-GFC days one of his mirrors sold for a record $17,500.
Judging by the public response to the James Edwards exhibition - few could walk past the windows without stopping - the fascination with shell art continues.
The most expensive mirror had already sold for $5800 by the time I visited. Decorated mirrors are the most popular theme and not necessarily ultra expensive.
It's not just shell art - James Edwards also makes art out of bits of other marine animals. Photo: Ben Rushton
Medium-sized frames are priced at $3000 to $4000, a circular mother of pearl frame is $1500. All are one-offs, signed by the artist. He estimates that each one takes three to four weeks to complete.
Edwards also makes decorated jewellery boxes featuring natural objects such as freshwater pearls and pink coral. These are priced at about $350. He alsofeatures maritime specimens in their natural state, including antique shells, swordfish and marlin beaks on stands; turtle shells; and a whale vertebra.
These, he points out, are all sourced sustainably, according to CITES regulations. That fragment of whale skeleton, for example, was at least 80 years old when he found it in a junk shop in Tasmania. Most of the shells used - he has 20,000 stored in his studio - are sourced from licensed collectors in Queensland.
A detail of one of James Edwards shell-encrusted mirrors. Photo: Ben Rushton
Objects of natural history are still a controversial subject in some quarters but these have really taken off over the past few years, with some spectacular auction results in 2013. In October, the Desmond Adcock collection of scrimshaw and maritime art was sold through Mossgreen in Melbourne for more than $250,000. All but two lots sold, most for well above estimates. A narwhal tusk (estimates $700-$1000) sold for $4780, including buyer's premium, and a pair of antique whale eardrums, mounted on harpoon tips, sold for $1342 IBP (estimates $200-$400).
Taxidermy is also booming. In May a selection of animal-skin rugs, plus a zebra trophy head and a pair of suede armchairs decorated with stag antlers, also sold well through Mossgreen. A tiger skin rug sold for $9760 IBP (estimates $3000-$5000), the antler armchairs for $2440, and the zebra head for $1159.
Paul Sumner from Mossgreen describes this trend as a reaction against the safe, same-old approach to interior design. Exotica is now back in fashion. You can't get more exotic than a mirror decorated with shells, pearls and coral and James Edwards, a former house painter, is now a full-time artist with a full book of orders.
His latest commission is to decorate a new boutique hotel being built in Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay.
Previous commissions have ended up on the walls of luxury homes in Palm Beach, Tamarama and the Gold Coast.
Bernice Standen, based in Noosa, is another prominent Australian shell artist. Her work has been featured at the My Island Home gallery in Double Bay, Sydney.
This decorating style, sometimes referred to as beach shack chic, is usually regarded as a Sydney to Surfers phenomenon although James Edwards thinks it has universal appeal. He's planning a Melbourne exhibition of his work later this year. There are beach shacks down south, too.
If you are interested in the work of James Edwards, phone him on 0405 989 494 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.