Humans have long enjoyed shells for their beauty, usefulness, and symbolism. Shells were frequently included among the natural specimens the virtuosi (amateur scientists) collected and installed in Cabinets of Curiosity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stenton's "grotesque" three-dimensional diorama box brings the Rococo to the Stenton parlor. "Rococo" comes from the French "rocaille," meaning rock and shell, such as that naturally found in caves with dripping stalactites and growing stalagmites. The grotto box is a product of feminine craft and represents a miniaturized female world of leisure, pleasure, and social refinement.
Elite 18th-century landscape gardens sometimes included grottoes. In Philadelphia, there were grottoes at Fairhill, Lemon Hill, and the Woodlands. In 1764, Elizabeth Graeme (later Mrs. Henry Hugh Ferguson) of Philadelphia visited Quaker merchant Thomas Goldney's grotto in his landscape garden at Clifton near Bristol, England, where she saw a cistern made of shells with a shell of "monstrous size" and a "Cavern that holds a Lion large as the Life...." The grotto symbolized feminine mystery and sexuality.
Image above: Anne Reckless Emlen (1720-1816) created Stenton's shellwork, shadow-box grotto, dating it 1757. A generic, five-bay gentleman's house, with pedimented central bay presides over her landscape with a grand stair descending to a pleasure ground with a mirrored pond and terraced garden. The entire composition is affixed to the sides and back of an open box that slides into the cover, a black-painted dovetailed box. The "lid" is a remarkable piece of crown glass held in place by an applied molded frame. The entire inside is encrusted with shells and coral, with moss forming the earth at the bottom of the fanciful domestic landscape. The brass loops suggest the grotto might have been hung on the wall. (We do not dare try.)
Image Captions: 1) The C-scroll, two-handled urns in the sides of the box and roses of shells are the same motifs found in quilting designs and samplers made in Philadelphia. In addition to the shells, there are dried strawflowers, mica windows with paper muntins, grain painted paper-board stairs, and woolen trees. 2) The small wooden figure is perhaps the house servant who would answer the calls at the door. 3) The lady dolls in the garden have wax heads and hands and proper silk dresses for parading at their leisure in the landscape. 4) A comparable grotto box by Quaker Mary Sandwith at Chester County Historical Society, c. 1760, includes two arched grottoes with mirrored pools and a beaded slip lion — like the one in Goldney’s Bristol grotto. 5) Shellwork, like needlework, was a taught art, and the supplies — the imported shells, porcelain animals, and wax dolls — represented luxury expenditures. They were objects of display. We moved Stenton’s grotto box from the Nursery to the parlor, where it participates in presenting Anne Emlen’s membership among Philadelphia’s social elites.