La Perouse Shellwork: Indigenous Craft and the Australian Economy

In today’s blog, Collections Assistant Hannah White will be looking into the fascinating history of La Perouse shellwork –  a rare example of which we have in the collections at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery.

Our miniature La Perouse slipper is sadly not in the best of condition, but we are still able to clearly see the delicate skill of the craftsperson by whom this object was made. Whilst undertaking research for our current exhibition Hidden Histories: Untold Stories curated by Susan Stockwell, we were able to take a closer look at the histories behind these beautiful shellwork objects, including their significance to the Indigenous culture of Australia and it’s economy.

Miniature shellwork slipper from La Perouse, New South Wales (Warrington Museum and Art Gallery Collections)

Where is La Perouse?

Known as “Gooriwal”  by the Muruora-dial people of the area, the La Perouse peninsula is the northern headland of Botany Bay and is one of a few suburbs of Sydney to bear a French name, having been named after the French navigator Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de Laperouse (1741-88). De Laperouse landed on the northern shore of Botany Bay west of Bare Island on 26th January 1788, a few days after the first fleet of convicts lead by Captain Arthur Phillip.

La Perouse Camp

During the 1880s, La Perouse became a regular camp site for displaced Indigenous people from the South Coast of Australia, some of whom had been expelled from the city of Sydney and others who had travelled from further afield.

In 1895 the La Perouse camp was recognised as an ‘Aboriginal Reserve‘. The Indigenous community of La Perouse had few means of generating income, so they quickly turned to making items for sale to tourists such as shell artefacts, shields and boomerangs. They even gave demonstrations on how to throw a boomerang to visitors.

The economy of the Indigenous population of La Perouse developed into what could be described as a ‘transitional culture’ of production and skill exchange. Traditional skills were used to develop ‘non-traditional’ artefacts for tourists such as the shellwork slippers and shellwork jewellery boxes as well as boomerangs, clubs (nulla nullas) and shields. Local missionaries encouraged the Indigenous population of La Perouse to produce these artefacts as a means of control, hoping to distract them from other potentially damaging activities.

In 1902, a tramline was laid to La Perouse. The tram terminus was known as ‘The Loop’ and the area became a fashionable weekend destination for both local and overseas visitors. After 1905, the area was declared a recreation space and families would catch the tram to La Perouse for a walk along the headland and to purchase shellwork souvenirs as mementos of their trip. 

La Perouse Shellwork

Since Victorian times, decorative shell work objects have been made by Indigenous women in southeast Australia. The artform has only recently received attention from the art world, including museums and art galleries across the world. The history behind these objects tells us a little about their makers and social relations under colonial conditions.

In producing such artefacts, the Indigenous community of La Perouse were one of the first to be involved with the tourism industry at this time. As early as the 1880s, women were recorded selling shell baskets and other souvenirs at Circular Quay and Botany Bay in the Sydney area.

Although this craft is not considered a traditional Indigenous art form the artists were encouraged by European missionaries, who sought markets for them inland and overseas. The skill of producing the shellwork is often handed down from mother to daughter and families would often encourage children to learn the craft. Collecting the shells was not an easy task, often requiring multiple far reaching journeys to the shell sites such as Yarra Beach in Botany Bay and other nearby locations on the New South Wales coast.

These shellwork objects are a significant record of the way in which members of the Indigenous community of La Perouse have used art and craft activities to generate income since the late 19th century, often adapting traditional motifs or techniques for this new market. What is particularly interesting is how the shellwork produced by the Indigenous community at La Perouse reflects the Victorian shell crafts that were popular in Britain and Australia during the 19th century. Today, shell-work crafts remain popular among international visitors, but they are also increasingly in demand in museums and galleries where they are considered high art.  

View east across Sydney Cove (Circular Quay) (c. 1841) (Lithograph by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot) (Wikimedia Commons)

Contemporary Shellwork Artist: Esme Timbery

The craft of shellwork was passed on between female family members and we can see this clearly in the very well-known Timbery family. Emma (Esme) Timbery was a Mulgoa Aboriginal Australian shell worker and matriarch.

Portrait of Emma Timbery, Aboriginal shell worker (1895) (Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales Australia)

Emma was born in circa 1842 and was revered in the community often being referred to as ‘Queen of La Perouse’. Timbery’s shellwork was displayed on a regular basis and sold annually in Sydney at the Royal Easter Show. When Timbery died in 1916, she left behind a long family legacy of arts with her grandson, Joseph Timbery, noted as a boomerang maker and women in her family continuing to do shellwork including her great-granddaughter, Esme Russell, who has won awards for her craft.

Esme’s love and pride in her craft can be seen in the video below:

Between December 2015 and March 2016, Wollongong Art Gallery held an exhibition called ‘Shimmer’. The exhibition explored expanded notions of historical and contemporary shell-working traditions in Indigenous Australia and featured work by Esme Timbery.

Watch a video about the exhibition here (produced by Wollongong Council):

Susan Stockwell’s exhibition ‘Hidden Histories: Untold Storiesexploring some of the hidden histories behind the museum’s collections runs until April 2021.