Peter Coke (pronounced Cook) was born in 1913 and was a distant relative of the family which owns the Holkham Estate. He had a fine actor’s voice and became famous in the radio role of Paul Temple, the private detective in stories written by Francis Durbridge. He also wrote plays and after retirement from the stage became an antique dealer, latterly in North Norfolk. Among items for sale he occasionally found a “Sailor’s Valentine”. These are decorative arrangements of colourful shells in an octagonal wooden case made by craftsmen and women in Barbados, then purchased and brought back by sailors as gifts for their wives or girlfriends. Some needed repair and this started an interest in shell artistry which continued for the remainder of his long life. He died in 2008 aged 95.
Shell art became popular among Victorian ladies who used colourful shells from tropical waters to make into small decorative sculptures, especially of flowers. Peter Coke developed this art form to a high level of sophistication. During travels abroad he was able to collect shells himself and also relied on purchases from traders. He held a series of exhibitions in London and on moving to Sharrington Hall near Holt worked and sold from his studio there.
As he became older, but still working on his designs, he wanted a representative collection of his output to be permanently on display and sought a location for it. Fortunately the Sheringham and District Society was able to offer him some space in the former Fishing Sheds which the Society leases from the Town Council and was then in the process of restoring. He very generously donated over a hundred of his pieces to the Society on condition that they are displayed in perpetuity and the gallery was opened in 2006. Upon his death two years later a bequest brought the collection up to approximately 200 pieces.
His designs cover a wide range of shapes, sizes and colours and reflect his deep knowledge of the beauty and variety of shells from tropical waters. His work can be seen on Instagram at @petercokeshellgallery and also of course, by visiting the gallery. Opening times are given on the Sheringham and District Society’s website, sheringhamsociety.com