Oysters are a valuable cultural resource

In oyster restoration, the cultural value of oysters is often mentioned, and yet modern examples are rarely given. I recently had the pleasure of meeting (online) James Weaver, an artist based in Mersea, Essex, which is also home to the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative essexnativeoyster.com. James and his family owns and runs the Artcafé in West Mersea, where he regularly displays his sketches and paintings of the landscape and shoreline around him. James was kind enough to offer to provide us with some insight as to what oysters mean to him both personally and professionally, and to share some of his oyster artworks with us.

Oysters: An Artist’s Impression

Author: James Weaver

My earliest meeting with the native oyster was around 50 years ago at the age of 8 when my dad would take me out ‘Ebbing’ with him on the large mudflats on the south shore of our home Island of Mersea on the Essex coast, 10 miles south of the old Roman town of Colchester. Like many locals at that time we would walk for miles over these mudflats collecting oysters & spat to sell to the oyster merchants for pocket money. My dad made me some little splatchers for my feet (a type of wooden board, similar to a snow shoe that ties onto your boots) to stop me from sinking in the soft mud. From an early age I was able to distinguish the flat natives from the more round and lumpy rock oysters. I became skilled at spotting the frilled, white edge of their shell amongst the silt and shingle at low tide. In those days the native oyster greatly outnumbered the Rock or Pacific oyster in these waters and on most trips dad and I would return with our buckets full with natives of various sizes. Today as you walk along the beach you will notice the shoreline is completely littered with rock oyster shells and almost no natives can be found. It seems that they are fighting for survival here, where they were once so abundant. That’s why I think the work of groups like NORA and the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative is so very important in trying to re-establish and restore the native species in their home waters. This I feel seems especially important in a place like Mersea Island where the life of the native people and the life of the native oyster has been intertwined for thousands of years.

Much later in life when I was between jobs I found myself working with oysters again at Colchester Oyster Fishery, albeit just for a few months whilst my wife and I were setting up our new business The Artcafé. 

A few years ago, I started to view both the native and rock oyster as a potential subject for my painting and drawing from two main viewpoints. Their shape, texture and colour I find very pleasing visually, in fact their variation makes them extremely paintable in the media and techniques that I prefer to use and also what they represent in terms of cultural history, local economy and physical coastline of Mersea Island.

At first glance an oyster may seem quite dull and uniform, however when you look more closely you will find that they are extremely colourful especially when they are still wet, and range from olive greens, browns, ochres and especially in the natives a range of deep blues too. They vary a good deal in size and shape too, each one very distinct from the next. Their texture I find very pleasing to draw and paint and often I use a wax resist technique to attempt to capture this on a rough handmade paper. Often I’m out and about around the island with my sketchbook but unfortunately during this period of lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic this is not possible for me. Most days however you can find me walking along the waterfront by the oyster pits or along the beach with my dog and often will bring home some interesting shell, piece of driftwood or sea glass to draw or paint in addition to photograph’s taken along the way. 

You can find my work to view and purchase online on my website www.jamesweaverartist.co.uk I’m also a member of Island Artists, a group of 15 artists who live and work on the island of Mersea. 

The Packing Shed, Mersea Island, Essex by James Weaver. A history of the oyster packing shed can be found here:


James was born on Mersea Island and can trace at least 200 years of his ancestors there. He studied Graphic Design at Colchester School of Art from 1979 to 1983. After many years working as a freelance graphic designer his interest in painting was re-kindled when he and his family moved back to Essex from Cornwall. He then started full-time as an artist, initially painting in watercolour and more recently in pastel. He now lives on Mersea Island working from a studio just a stone’s throw from the harbour & saltmarshes.

He owns and runs the Artcafé in West Mersea with his wife Maggie and their daughter Jenny. Here he regularly exhibits his work, James’ paintings are in many collections both here and abroad. In 2005 his work was included in the Anglia T.V. series ‘Coastal Inspirations’ about artists living and working around the coast of East Anglia. In 2020 when the Earl & Countess of Wessex visited Mersea Island James was one of the artists chosen to meet and show them his work.