The Scallop

Last updated on March 18th, 2024 at 07:17 pm

The Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach

The Scallop sits on the beach at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk.  It is a 13 foot-ish (4 metre) high monument, by local-born artist Maggi Hambling, to the late Benjamin Britten, composer and past Aldeburgh resident, who used to take his afternoon walks along the beach.  The sculpture consists of two, broken, interlocking scallop shells.  Cut into the rim of the upright shell are the words “I hear those voices that will not be drowned” from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.  The Scallop was installed in 2003.  It is rumoured to have cost around £75,000 and was paid for by donations, largely due to the fund-raising efforts of the Chairman of Adnams plc (who brew rather fine ales).

I think this is an arresting piece of art and, during an A Bit About Britain expedition to East Anglia, the team made a point of visiting it.  On a warm September evening, The Scallop looked simply beautiful, its surfaces catching and reflecting the sunlight.  We crunched our way across the shingle toward it and it tolerantly allowed a queue of people to take its photograph.  I’d like to see The Scallop in different seasons though, especially when the North Sea is at its worst.  Maggi Hambling described it as “‘a conversation with the sea”.

“An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”

The Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach

So The Scallop is, appropriately, a piece of audio art as well as a visual one.  It has been suggested that the ear is like a shell, so the Scallop is an image of listening.  From personal experience, I can also say that you want to touch it; I did, anyway.

Just to show I’ve done my homework, and in case anyone’s bored, a scallop shell often symbolises the feminine, fertility and love.  It has been used as a symbol of the Goddess Venus, of pilgrims, pilgrimage and saints – particularly of the Camino de Santiago in Galicia and St James himself – and it often appears as a heraldic device.

The Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach

In any event, I rather liked Maggi Hambling’s Scallop and was very surprised to discover that its installation at Aldeburgh caused considerable controversy.  Some felt that it would ruin the beach, or be unsafe.  As to the latter, it is made of 10mm thick stainless steel and designed to withstand 100mph winds; it ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.  With regard to its opponents, The Daily Telegraph in 2004 reported Jacki McNeil of the Aldeburgh Gazette saying:

“There has been so little support for this thing in the town. The depth of feeling cuts right across every section of this town, from the fishermen to people like knights and peers of the realm.  It’s seen as an act of sheer arrogance to place this in the middle of one of the only bits of untouched beach in the area, and a bit of coast which is very deeply loved by local people. I’m incensed by it. Who do they think they are?”

Strong words.  Humphrey Burton, the former head of music and arts at BBC Television (so he obviously knows a thing or two), wrote in a letter to The Guardian:

“It’s hard to keep silent when one’s regular walk by the open sea has been so casually violated.  A peaceful and honourable solution ought to be found before vandalism rears its ugly head. I’ve heard talk of its being toppled, Saddam-like, at dead of night.”

It seems Mr Burton was prophetic.  The Scallop has been vandalised several times, with someone daubing imaginative and witty expressions of distaste on it, such as “It’s an old tin can” and “Move it.”  On one occasion, the vandal left an opened tin of paint behind (magnolia non-drip gloss, in case you’re interested), as well as the screwdriver used to open the tin.  Police are hunting someone who last decorated their house in the 1980s; I’d start with Mr Burton.

The Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.

The Torygraph’s retired drama critic, Charles Spencer, described The Scallop as “ugly”, “kitsch” and, without a trace of theatrical hyperbole (or accuracy), went on to refer to it as a “hideous pile of rusting scrap metal on that beautifully desolate curve of shingle.”

The Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.

Well, arguably, the point of art is to create debate.  Or is it?  And, of course, the appreciation of art is a matter of personal taste.  Sadly, the object of the art in this case, to commemorate Benjamin Britten, might have been forgotten in all the excitement.  Amusingly, Maggi Hambling actually published a book about The Scallop’s story – good for her – art on art – hopefully, profit on profit.  Curiously, the internet revealed few quotes from supporters; but there’s nothing controversial about being nice and, anyway, the sculpture’s still there, so the critics lost.

Aldeburgh Beach, looking north toward Thorpeness

But the brouhaha caught my eye, initially because in this troubled world of ours it is so clearly a trivial matter.  Our civilisation can afford the luxury of debating the perceived relative merits of baubles.  Then, having visited Aldeburgh, I got to wondering what all the fuss was about.  It is a lovely stretch of beach and the sea, depending on its mood, makes it both serene and exhilarating; but, to be fair, as decent beaches go, Aldeburgh’s is fairly unexceptional.  Moreover, if you look north past Thorpeness, you get a great view of the very fetching Sizewell B nuclear power station further up the coast.  Hmm.  Most importantly, Aldeburgh itself, great place though it is, is far from perfect.  Nothing that a selective bit of bulldozing and refurbishment wouldn’t cure, but you get my point.  A sense of proportion thereby restored, I think The Scallop actually enhances the beach and, moreover, that the good folk of Aldeburgh (population 3,000+) are lucky to have this additional crowd-puller.  Most people love it.

While we’re about it, something should be done about people leaving decaying fishing boats on an otherwise unspoilt beach. Or is it art?

Aldeburgh Beach - fisherman's art

32 thoughts on “The Scallop”

  1. I am not generally very artistic but came across an image of the scallop which I very much enjoyed seeing. I then “googled” the scallop and read this article. I agree with what you say for the most part. When I have seen sculptures in a wild or natural environment it has enhanced my visit and if nothing else has been thought provoking. And after all humans have been erecting artifacts for thousands of years. Why should we not carry on doing so. I wonder if Stonehenge caused as much discussion round camp fires when the idea to create it was mooted?

  2. Love the Scallop which I saw on Wednesday. I liked the old boats too.
    Nyit so much the High Street!!

    1. Thanks for dropping in, Judith. Yes, I think The Scallop is great. I found the High Street good in parts, and interesting – an excellent pub opposite the Moot Hall, I recall, and a really good fish ‘n’ chip shop too.

  3. I drifted in here after searching the internet for the scallop shell – long time, no see. I think it’s a greta bit of sculpture and it suits the beach well. As for spoiling the view – I think you cover the power station situation well – a real blot on the landscape. I actually rank this far higher than Another Place, which is a bit bland by comparison – far bigger in scale, but far less interesting.

  4. Sheelagh McAllister

    I would love to be near the scallop on a really windy day – there must be a musical element to it, given it is a tribute to Benjamin Britten. Thank you for bringing it to this armchair traveller’s attention.

  5. Oh believe me we’ve had a few similar situations in Perth Mike.. but I really do believe good art creates controversy and conversation, it would seem the Scallop has succeeded in both. Personally I think it’s fabulous, I’d love to come across it on my beach walk.. but I’m guessing most photographers would ☺

  6. Well, it certainly is different!
    I enjoyed reading your post, and I must say I love the picture of the boat you finished with too!

    A beautiful coastline, which I should visit,

    All the best Jan

  7. Interesting comparison with the rotting boat and the sculpture. Which should be removed? They both look quite photogenic. As to the discussion about the quality of the beach, is a bit of a joke for me as we are surrounded by some of the best beaches in the world. However, Aldeburgh beach has a certain charm in the evening sun.

  8. Blue Sky Scotland

    Although I do like it I can see both points of view. Public art is very fashionable at the moment but if that was the only unspoiled beach it would take some getting used to as an artist could just as easily put a sculpture in a really isolated spot if a vehicle track reached it. Hard to drawn a line in these matters. Also everyone has instant strong opinions about any art or architecture erected anywhere..

  9. Compare the response of the people of Crosby (NOT Formby as suggested above) who fought to keep Gormley’s Another Place when he suggested moving it elsewhere. I’ve never seen the Scallop but would love to,

  10. Hi Mike – we do seem to be getting new creations in strategic places – the Angel of the North, Verity at Ilfracombe … and I’ve come across Maggi Hamblin elsewhere recently … I gather she’s got an exhibition at the British Museum at the moment – room 90 … and as Clare mentions above the Formby sculptures which are dotted around rooftops elsewhere …

    I think it’s rather fun … but will always be controversial … I wonder if you get some sound-music played in it, or through the quote …

    Cheers Hilary

  11. Your images of the Scallop does make it look wonderful on the beach. I too would like to see it against a back ground of a stormy sea. Sarah x

  12. I am ashamed to say I haven’t visited Aldeburgh beach since the Scallop was installed there despite living just a few miles away! I remember the fuss when it was installed there and the local news used to report each time it was vandalised but I think most people are used to it now – at last! I think I’d rather see the scallop than a lot of the junk that is left on the beaches round our coastline. I don’t remember any fuss when Anthony Gormley installed his sculptures on Formby beach!

  13. You were referring the the Ramsay Scallop, I believe. I once read a children’s book by that name, but can I remember anything about it? (no) I am not sure I’d like the Scallop, but your description of the town and the beach (as unexceptionable) convince me it’s not so bad. The potato chip bag suggestion above is a little interesting. 😀

  14. I rather like it which surprises me, I don’t usually go for pieces like it and would have thought I would have sided with the people who wanted the beach unspoiled. But it just seems so right there.

  15. I would rather see a sculpture of a potato chip bag. It has more meaning to me personally. But I do like the fishing boat, and laughed at the tin can remark. We live in a wonderful world full of diverse opinions regarding art and just about everything else.

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top