Marking Valentine’s Day

A 19th century sailor’s shell valentine of typical octagonal form, the glazed case enclosing a geometric pattern of various shells within coloured card borders, width 37cm © Toovey’s 2021

Music is so evocative often reminding us of points of love in our lives and I am looking forward to Andrew Bernardi’s online Valentine’s Day concert this Sunday.

Over the centuries people have found ways to mark love on Valentine’s Day. Amongst my favourite expressions of love are Sailor’s Valentines.
Sailor’s Valentines were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Shells from the Caribbean were glued to cotton batting in intricate patterns. Contained within glazed octagonal frames they would be gifted to loved ones by the sailors when they returned home from their voyages.

At the centre of these designs you find love hearts, anchors and nautical emblems and, as you see here, flowers. It is often said that these love tokens were made by the sailors but they were actually made in the Caribbean where a cottage industry grew up, particularly in Barbados.

Amongst the best known retailers was Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown which was run by the English brothers Benjamin Hinds and George Belgrave.
The brothers organised local women to create the designs using seashells. The design of the Sailor’s Valentine you see here is centred around a central flower head made from bi-valve sunrise tellin shells. The compartmentalised design includes olive shells, cowries, limpets, moon shells and small purple sea snails.
Barbados was often the last stop before the voyage home. Sailors could be away from home for years so although they purchased their valentines rather than making them the sentiment behind these exotic examples of shell art were expressions of genuine affection.

The feast of St Valentine, celebrated on 14th February, was inaugurated by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD. The day became associated with romantic love in the 14th and 15th centuries.

These shell tokens of love are still made today but early examples like the one you see here are highly prized by collectors. This one was sold at Toovey’s for £2600.

If you haven’t got a Sailor’s Valentines up your sleeve for this coming weekend perhaps you might celebrate love by joining Andrew Bernardi who will be holding a Valentine’s Day concert in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society this coming Sunday 14th February 2021. The concert will be streamed live from Leonardslee House. Andrew will be supported by pianist, Maria Marchant, cellist, Jonathan Few and Classic FM’s John Suchet. Our musicians, museums, theatres and art galleries have all faced enormous challenges because of Covid-19 and deserve our support.

At Toovey’s we strongly believe in the value of building communities through the arts and heritage here in Sussex. They are vital to the life of our county and we are proud to be continuing our sponsorship of the Shipley Arts Festival, especially in these times.

This innovative online concert will bless you with stunning musicianship and a wonderful romantic program – a ‘virtual’ evening out! Tickets cost just £10 and can be purchased by visiting