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The most offensive shells in Britain

The morning after the unveiling, the walkers came crunching along Aldeburgh’s shingle beach towards the large steel structure. One woman peered around the edge of the new sculpture and said to her companion, “I think that’s a shell.” The other woman said, “You may be right, I think that is a shell. Who’d have thought they’d make such a fuss about a shell.”

In fact the structure was two 12-foot steel scallops, one of which was on its edge and erected like a fan; the other lay face down on the shingle to create a cavernous shelter. They had been designed by the artist Maggi Hambling to honour Benjamin Britten, who had lived and composed in Aldeburgh and established the Aldeburgh festival. Some emphatic lines from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (also set in Aldeburgh, with a libretto based on a poem by Aldeburgh’s George Crabbe) had been chiselled into the rim of the standing scallop: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”

After a while three men and a woman reached the scene. They were vigorously debunking the sculpture. One of the men was enraged: “It’s ridiculous,” he hissed. “And it’s not the place for a sculpture.” The four stood by the scallop shells, and talked about the ruined view. But they stood there, stroking the runes of the scallop and disliking it, for over half an hour. They weren’t alone: within a few months, 800 people had signed a petition to remove the shells from the shore. Paint was thrown over the sculpture in the dead of night. Disliking the scallops has ignited local politics. A counter-petition, championing the scallops, has been opened in a photocopying shop off the high street.

Thirty years ago, Aldeburgh town council turned down the offer to erect a sculpture to Benjamin Britten; they used the funds to build a birdbath instead. Some thought that this was because the days of commemorating famous sons were over. But other explanations were thought to lurk beneath the surface. The homophobia of the Aldeburgh burghers was said to have influenced the vote against Britten, and the town’s yachters and golfers were said to resent the influx of arty types.

In any case Maggi Hambling had become irritated by the town’s small-mindedness and wanted to design a sculpture that celebrated Britten. Even though scallops are nowhere to be found along the Suffolk coastline, the idea was to address the myths and the inspiration provided by the sea: the shell recalling the birth of Venus, and the scallop the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago. The sculpture was placed in a spot where Britten had taken his walks, to the north of Aldeburgh. After much wrangling, the local council granted planning permission. But the wrangling only got louder.

The lingering homophobia of the town or the disapproval of Britten’s war record may not have been uppermost. There are still arguments about whether the decision to erect the sculpture was sufficiently democratic or consultative. Some people don’t get the scallop business, and think it too surreal: it should have been a classical statue of Britten, they say.

But leading the field in the list of objections is the siting of the sculpture in an area of “outstanding natural beauty,” even if it is lined by a car park, in sight of the Sizewell B nuclear plant, and littered with rotting wooden hulls and injunctions not to park on the verge. In fact, it is chiefly an idea about nature, rather than the reality of this spot, that has persuaded so many to come out against the scallop. The furore is all to do with the age-old division of art and nature.

Before I saw it, I was one of those who thought that there was something so fragile about the retreating areas of untouched nature in this country that it would be wrong to erect an artwork in such a place. The idea of a sculpture to Wordsworth on the top of a fell in the lake district would be just as grating. For that reason I thought I might be joining the golfers and yachters in protest.

When I saw it I immediately loved it, especially the sheer bravura of the position and the echo of the waves in the face of the oncoming tide. Art and nature: both depend for their qualities on human admiration and interference.

Because nature is thought to be threatened in the modern world, nature seems to be what is left and abandoned by people. Art, meanwhile, is what is consciously chiselled, even if it is often inspired by nature.

But it dawned on me that morning that the most celebrated natural landscapes – especially in Britain – are themselves finely chiselled, and consciously preserved. If art and nature are more entwined than the English language suggests, what is it that the protesters are objecting to? That, sideways on, the shell resembles a baseball glove? My hunch is that the objectors will melt away as it becomes as familiar as the landscape.

Meanwhile, it is rumoured that a large iron whelk is soon to be erected in the outskirts of nearby Sizewell, to celebrate the life of Britten’s lover and collaborator, Peter Pears. Just for symmetry, of course.

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Bella Thomas

Bella Thomas is programme director of Axess publishing and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Sweden 

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