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After Shell, Susie MacMurray

A grand wooden staircase with walls covered in mussel shells with red velvet peeking out between the shells

At a glance

Artist: Susie MacMurray

Date: 2006

Materials: Mussel shells stuffed with velvet

Acquisition: Commissioned by Pallant House Gallery (2006)


Over the years, Pallant House Gallery has worked with a number of artists to produce Staircase Commissions. In 2006, Susie MacMurray was commissioned to produce a site-specific work of art in response to the historic house.

The historic house at Pallant House Gallery was built in 1712 by Henry and Elizabeth Peckham. MacMurray’s commission, After Shell, comprised 20,000 mussel shells, each filled with a small piece of velvet. The different textures of After Shell, the brittle and hard exterior of a mussel shell in contrast to the soft, supple velvet, commented on Henry and Elizabeth’s sad and loveless marriage. Each mussel shell was described by Dr Catherine Harper as a little death or a petit mort. Although each shell is individual and is part of an ambitious installation, the impression of the staircase commission from afar was heavily textured wallpaper that would not have looked out of place in a historic house of this age.

This commission was up for one year during which time Ros Barber was the poet in residence at the gallery. In response to MacMurray’s After Shell, she produced this poem.

A close up of dozens of mussel shells stuffed with red velvet.


Gone now, though the memory is here:

an absence on the wide, waxed flight of stairs,

their nudity half-panelled to the chest,

and silence measured by a hallway clock

whose habit knocks anxiety from air.


A feast of empties echoed hungry mouths

that shucked the flesh from violated shell:

the snapped shut wife prized open night on night,

the sexual feasting she could live without,

the blood red velvet intimate as hell.


You can cut yourself on a mussel: black and blue –

the oily ink of waters late at night

that swallow sailors put to sleep by drink;

a wife who dreams of how he’d slip and sink,

which knuckles struck her blurring with decay.


The wealth of love wasted between these walls

curses the air to leave the hall bewitched,

the heart’s long muscle slippered into two,

the stairs she dreaded to ascend now shadowed

by twenty thousand pairs of broken lips.


Ros Barber