26,000 shells have been restored at Exmouth's famous A La Ronde Shell Gallery.

Completed over twelve months and three thousand hours of painstaking work to conserve the shells at the two-hundred-year-old Shell Gallery at Al La Ronde, decorated with thousands of materials including shells, bone, moss, watercolours, feathers, paper, corals, pinecones and many more items.

They have been conserved by hand using a range of specialist methods. For the shells, bones and minerals, techniques included using soft brushes to remove dirt, and reattaching hundreds of pieces that had become loose with traditionally prepared plaster and conservation-safe adhesives. 

For the paper pieces, feathers and mosses, conservation methods included soft sponges, dry brushes, and in some cases, careful washing to remove staining. Many paper pieces were also repaired with delicate but strong Japanese tissue papers and conservation adhesives, so that they could be safely reattached to the walls in one piece.

The conservation project has enabled research into the distinctive decorative patterns found in many areas of the house and on the original furniture, as well as giving better understanding into how the Shell Gallery and Grotto Staircase were constructed and decorated. The repeating ‘chevron’, ‘roundel’ and flower-style patterns found in the Shell Gallery, Grotto Staircase, Octagon and feather frieze form a fascinating visual language which visitors can spot as they walk through the building, appearing on walls, picture frames, fireplaces and artworks. 

Directly below the Shell Gallery is the Octagon, the green chevron design in the Octagon has been hand-painted and recreated, and the pattern is believed to be from the era when the Parminter cousins lived in the house. Perhaps emulating seaweed or flame-stitched textile, it was designed to invite visitors to gaze upwards at the shellscape above. 

The walls of the Octagon have been stripped of the paint layers that had been added over its 200-year history and carefully re-painted by hand to reflect the oldest-known decorative scheme, which was confirmed with paint analysis during the conservation work. 

In the Drawing Room, two fragile feather friezes, which when combined extend to over twenty-seven metres long, have now been conserved to secure and protect them. It took 150 hours to revive the intricate feather work in circular patterns and was completed in June.

Emma Mee, National Trust Project Manager at A la Ronde said:  “We’re over the moon to have achieved this milestone to secure this truly special place. Over the next 12 months we will be sharing our research and conservation discoveries, and creating new experiences in different spaces, as part of the next stage of the project.

“We’re working closely with local partners to co-create these experiences, and will be sharing stories from the house, grounds and wider estate with new audiences, both for visitors to the house and online. We’re looking forward to working with our partners, neighbours and volunteers to tell the story of this unique and fascinating place.”

Toby Fox, Assistant Director of Operations for Devon at the Trust said: “This project is one of the most exciting in the National Trust today. We are not only completing a momentous conservation project to secure the future of the Shell Gallery, but we also have the opportunity to push boundaries, sharing these spaces with new audiences to reflect our goal of the Trust being for everyone, for ever. We’re enormously grateful for the support and funding the project has received from visitors and donors. Over the next 12 months visitors will have the opportunity to share in the story of A la Ronde as it grows and innovates.” 

The project has been made possible through grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Wolfson Foundation, and the National Trust’s central conservation fund. Donations have also been made from visitors and supporters.

Find out more at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/devon/a-la-ronde/journey-with-a-la-ronde.